William Shatner, known to many as Captain James T. Kirk, turned 90 on the 22nd of March this year (2021).
That is one heck of a milestone!
Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1931, he made his film debut 20 years later in Butler’s Night Off, before graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce from McGill University in 1952. Making immediate use of his degree, he become the business manager for the Mountain Playhouse in Montreal, before joining the Canadian National Repertory Theatre where he trained as a classical Shakespearean actor.
Having been well and truly bitten by the acting bug, Bill began performing in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, starting in 1954. At the same time, he was cast as Ranger Bob on The Canadian Howdy Doody Show!
In 1956, he made his debut on Broadway in Tamburlaine the Great, and then in 1958 won his first feature role in the movie the Brothers Karamazov.
After enjoying some success in a variety of roles, he auditioned for a unique little show in 1966 about a bunch of people in space… and history was made. Cast as Captain James Tiberius Kirk in the second Star Trek Pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” life forever changed for the Canadian born actor.
After three years on the struggling science fiction drama, and a stint reprising his role in an animated format, Bill struggled to find work that excited and satisfied him, worrying that his foray into the 23rd Century might have typecast him.
He lost his home and ended up living in a truck-bed camper in the San Fernando Valley, until a number of small roles turned into better paying jobs. Bill has described that period of his life as humbling. To support his family he took roles in some low-budget horror movies and guest spots on well known series when offered them – including The Six Million Dollar Man, Columbo, Kung Fu, and Mission: Impossible, and received critical acclaim for many of his appearances. He also popped up on a number of game shows and in multiple television commercials.
The 1970s were a tumultuous period for most, but for Bill, things would look up toward the end of that decade.
Throughout the 70s the popularity of Star Trek had been growing in syndication, and Captain James T. Kirk became a cultural icon alongside Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. Suddenly, Paramount Pictures realised they had something really precious in their stable of intellectual properties, so, in 1979, Bill was invited back into the world of Star Trek, and was asked to star in a major, ‘tentpole’ feature film – the often panned, but nevertheless successful, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (appearing with his wife at the time, Marcy Lafferty, who played Chief DiFalco).
In the beautiful image below, you can’t help but wonder at the emotion on Bill’s face. No doubt it’s excellent acting, but to do that, an actor draws from their own life experiences. I wonder if Bill is drawing on the rough times he experienced while trying to establish his career and keep his family safe, and how a little scifi show came along – again – to provide him with some stability and the possibility of an exciting future?
The invitation to return to Star Trek was the beginning of something wonderful.
For both William Shatner’s career, and Star Trek.
After the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Bill was cast in the title role of a new police drama series called T. J. Hooker in 1982, and that same year also appeared on cinema screens again as Admiral Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where he gave what many believe, is one of his best performances.
From there, he went on to enjoy an enviable career, which even included a stint in the director’s chair for the T.J. Hooker series, and the oft maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, where he shared the screen with one of his daughters, Melanie, who played his Yeoman in the beginning of the film (she was also in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in an uncredited role, as a jogger).
Apart from his time as the intrepid starship Captain of the USS Enterprise, one of his other more notable roles was in the quirky drama, Boston Legal, where he played the eccentric and loveable (and sometimes despicable) Denny Crane, winning a Golden Globe and two Emmy‘s for his work.
A few years prior to Boston Legal, Bill created his own science fiction property, TekWar, written by Shatner and Ron Goulart (uncredited, working as a ‘ghost writer’ from Bill’s outlines). The critics didn’t love it, but a lot of people did. TekWar spawned a series of novels, a television series, a comic book series, and a TV movie called TekLords.
Very much a product of its time, it was pretty good. I was in my early 20s when I saw it, and it had me wanting more.
Other than being created by William Shatner, the show’s other claim to fame was that it starred Stargate: SGI, Stargate: Atlantis, and Dark Matter alumni, Torri Higginson.
As you can see, Bill has had a multi-faceted career!
Some people slow down as they age, but William Shatner has continued to refine his craft with multiple television and film appearances. He will soon be seen in Senior Moment, an upcoming romantic-comedy directed by Giorgio Serafini that also stars Jean Smart and Christopher Lloyd (Kirk and Kruge together again).
As well as acting, Bill loves martial arts, has been active in raising money for charity, and has of course dedicated a lot of his life to his beloved horses, two of which featured in the film Star Trek: Generations, where he passed the feature film legacy of Star Trek off to a new generation.
Say what you will about William Shatner, and many have, including some of his co-stars, but he is a legend and an icon, and his portrayal of James T. Kirk in many ways set the standard for every starship Captain to come.
When you take Bill’s life and career as a whole, there’s something inspirational about the man.
Happy Birthday, Mr Shatner, and thank you. You’ve had an at times tumultuous relationship with fandom, but I believe it’s safe to say that it’s one of mutual appreciation now.
We wish you the very best for this, your 90th year, and may you continue to enjoy many more years of life in good health, and happiness.
Live long, and prosper.