AAt 84, William Shatner still boldly goes where adventure awaits.
The man known to so many as Captain James T. Kirk, T.J. Hooker and Denny Crane took a captivated crowd at Middlesex Community College’s Celebrity Forum on a 50-year journey from the USS Enterprise to his upcoming cross-country charity motorcycle ride, and new NBC reality show that will send him to Asia with Henry Winkler, George Foreman and Terry Bradshaw.
The annual event, sponsored by TJX Companies, Inc., also awarded $130,000 in scholarships to students pursuing higher education.
Patrick Cook, MCC’s resident Trekkie and director of public affairs, greeted the crowded room with a Vulcan salute. He also tried to hand Shatner a Tribble, but for those savvy to “The Trouble with Tribbles,” Shatner was wise to decline.
When Shatner beamed into American living rooms as Capt. Kirk in ‘66, little did he know it would be the role that defined his career.
“It had aliens, it had heroes, it had beautiful girls in bikinis…everything I’m interested in,” Shatner said over roars of laughter.
All kidding aside, there’s no denying Star Trek broke new ground during its run from 1966 to 1969, depicting a future in which people of every ethnicity worked together. The series aired just a year after courageous civil rights activists helped usher in The Voting Rights Act. Shatner played his own part in helping to break a major interracial taboo when he shared an on-screen kiss with African American co-star, Lt. Uhura, played by the mesmerizing Nichelle Nichols.
“She was gorgeous,” Shatner gushed. “What a privilege it was to kiss those moist, luscious lips.”
Following the success of Star Trek, Shatner still struggled to find work, taking on bit roles and even living out of his truck for a time while going through a divorce. When it comes to making it big in the acting business, “it’s rarely a homerun,” he said.
His advice to aspiring actors is something he recently told his own granddaughter.
“Find a skill you can make a living at, and then you can become an actor,” he said.
Born in Montreal, Shatner is a classically trained Shakespearean actor who began his career by doing Shakespeare with the Canadian National Repertory Theater in Ottawa. Besides acting, he writes science fiction novels, has churned out some albums, is fluent in three languages and is a longtime breeder of American Quarter horses — a passion he has turned into a major philanthropic machine.
Thirty years ago, Shatner was in Los Angeles for a horse show that got cancelled. He decided to put the show on himself and at the same time, he saw a demonstration of a therapeutic horse-riding program.
A young girl, he recalled, missing all of her limbs with the exception of one leg. She held the reigns with her toes “and was smiling,” Shatner said.
He dedicated the horse show to that charity. Since 1990, the Hollywood Charity Horse Show has raised millions for children, and Shatner’s involvement in other therapeutic riding programs has helped disabled children and veterans worldwide.
Shatner said he may have put his 10,000 hours into riding horses and acting, but he’s only just discovered what he’s doing in life.
“It takes forever to learn what to do,” he said. “By the time you learn what to do, you’re dying.”
But Shatner shows no signs of slowing down. On June 23, he’ll begin a 2,400-mile trek from Chicago to Los Angeles piloting a futuristic looking three-wheeled motorcycle dragster that he helped design, and was built just for him by American Wrench.
“It’s a freak-out motorcycle with a 500-horse power engine,” he said, adding that not only did he want to ride the bike, but he also wants to film the entire journey.
The road trip doubles as a charity bike run (he will be accompanied by veterans along the way) for The American Legion to help children of fallen soldiers receive scholarships.
Then in August, he’s off to Asia to film a new alt-comedy reality show called Better Late Than Never which will place Shatner, Henry Winkler, George Foreman, Terry Bradshaw and Jeff Dye on a bucket-list type of excursion through Tokyo, Kyoto, Seoul, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Chang Mai without assistants or their usual celebrity comforts.
Shatner said he’s looking forward to experiencing the culture and cuisine.
On stage, Shatner mentioned sampling some Lowell chow.
When HOWL later inquired about where he ate, Cook said once Shatner heard Lowell had such a large Southeast Asian population, he told MCC that he would love to try some local food. The college called Blue Taleh and the restaurant sent some Pad Thai over.
“He ate that at the auditorium dinner while everyone else had their steak,” Cook said.
Rumor also has it that Shatner will revisit the role of Capt. Kirk in the third installment of J.J. Abrams Star Trek film series reboot. But Shatner, even upon prodding from Cook, remained tight-lipped about the issue.
Star Trek celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. Sadly, the show lost another family member when Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) died in February. Shatner, who is just four days younger than Nimoy, said when a 50-year relationship is broken by death, “a lot takes place.”
“All the memories that you have are split,” Shatner explained. “You have the memories in your head but when you seek validation — like remember that evening, did that take place, was I there or did I dream that — you have nobody there to validate it. So even the memory begins to dissipate.”
A memory that remains vivid is joking with Nimoy, who appeared in both the new Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.
“You know you’re old when you go back in time, and you’re still old,” Shatner told his friend.
Between ongoing commercials for Priceline.com, a slew of new projects including narrating a stop-motion children’s series called Clangers and touring for his autobiographical one-man show Shatner’s World, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor plans to keep working as long as he can.
When Cook asked what the final frontier is for Bill Shatner, Shatner pointed to a piece from his own show.
“In the one-man show I talk about death, and the audience gets very still when you talk about death,” he says. “I have the light dim because I’m talking about something, then suddenly I turn in to the audience, the light comes on and I say, DEATH! (he inserts his famous Shatner pause) is the final frontier.”