Happy 86th Birthday, William Shatner
Photo: Naomi Harris
William Shatner turns 86 today! Here, read Ken Hegan’s interview of the actor, “Shatner Rules,” which appeared in the November 2011 issue of Zoomer.
I have met the man in person and these facts will blow your mind:
—William Shatner is now 80 years old.
—He has more energy than two 40-year-olds on a Red Bull and Viagra binge.
This MONTH alone, Bill Shatner is:
Releasing a new record and touring North America with his one-man show. The subject matter is top secret, but I’ll give you two hints: (1) Shatner is the man in the show, and (2) he’ll be reading funny excerpts from his new book entitled Shatner Rules, a new memoir and audio book that he co-wrote with a comedy writer from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Officially titled Shatner Rules: Your Key to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World At Large, this fun and inspiring book marks a major milestone for our hero Bill. Sure, he’s written-co-written three Star Trek memoirs, a series of Star Trek novels and bleak, hardboiled TekWar novels featuring ex-cop turned detective Jake Cardigan, who sounds like a guy who solves futuristic crimes while perched on a couch with his favourite pipe.
But Shatner Rules is a significant turning point in his career. Rather than writing obscure sci-fi or quipping about ancient battles with space beasts and Styrofoam boulders, Shatner is now passing on his accumulated real-life wisdom. He’s officially an octogenarian this year so his book reveals four major rules for turning 80. Shatner Rule #3, for example, says, “You’re 80. Say what’s on your mind.” So he does, and his primer teaches all of us how to be vital and engaged at any age, if you simply study his 29 rules.
I met with Bill at his production office on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. Though he’s one of the three most famous people in North America (I rank him right behind Oprah and Freddy Flintstone), his office is surprisingly modest. Shadows from the noirish window louvres fall on a foot massager on the floor, a souvenir coffee cup from The Hour With George Stroumboulopoulos and faded posters from his old films. It’s a beat-down office that you’d expect to be inhabited by an ex-cop-turned-futuristic detective. From his office window, you can see a strip mall across the street that has a Subway sandwich shop and a wig store. I’m sure these are just coincidences.
I’m here for one reason only: I want to learn how Shatner’s rules can make me a better, longer-living man. Now, I’d read somewhere that Shatner could sometimes be a wanker (his grudge-wielding Trek co-star George Takei kept saying it over and over), so my shields are up, and my defensiveness is set to stun. I mean, I don’t care if you are Canada’s most famous export, sir, life is short, and I have zero time for jerks. But within seconds of shaking his hand, I found Bill to be an avuncular, whimsical and insightful man who loves to learn from you and share while he does it. Sure, his captain’s chair sits a full two inches higher than mine (I measured before he arrived), but he’s William Shatner and why the hell not.
Now, when you do a celebrity interview, you’re supposed to describe what the person looks like. So I’ll describe him detective-style, like I’m his alter ego, Jake Cardigan: “Quietly but confidently, the great theatre-trained actor strode into the building wearing a sharp L.A. office-casual look. His jeans were snug and well fitting. His charcoal dress shirt playfully untucked. The top two buttons saucily undone as if -” – whoa, hang on, writing a celebrity interview is pretty weird.
So let’s skip to the interview itself. I ask him the toughest question I can think of: what is his top Shatner Rule? “If you’re 80, get out of bed,” he says emphatically. “Get up and get out. You don’t need to sleep. This whole thing about it affecting your health and blood pressure and nervous system, it isn’t so. If you stay in bed for three days like I did in the book, all you’re doing is wasting three of your remaining days.” [By the way: Bill’s deep, soothing voice is so hypnotic.]
Then he continues. “When you’re 40, you haven’t begun to accept age and the vague possibility that you’re going to die,” he says, looking me straight in the eye. [When Bill turned 40, he says he was depressed, divorced, his Star Trek TV series had failed and he would wake up in his own stench after sleeping the night in his pickup truck. Not a stellar time in his life.]
He’s speeding up now, warming to the topic of how there’s still time for my generation. “You’re still immortal and, although most people have had some kids and a couple of bad debts and the job isn’t as good as you thought and regret does start to creep into your life at 40, you still have possibilities. You could get out of that job. You could say to the wife and kids, ‘I’ll be back. I’m going into the jungle and when I emerge, I’ll come out a millionaire.'”
Bill shares so much pain in his book and in person, I decided to share something, too. I quietly mention that his book struck a personal chord because when my marriage fell apart last year, I slept in a borrowed car for a night or two. He nods, respecting the connection. Then he puts himself in my shoes. “You think, ‘I’ve got a home, I’ve got roots here, I’m doing well, I’m making a living writing like I’ve always wanted, my wife has a job, we’re going to have kids,’ and suddenly your whole life is taken right from under you. The roof has been taken off your house, you’re exposed to the elements and you just think, ‘What do I do? Will I ever fall in love again?’ because that unification is the meaning of life.”
Suddenly, two things occur to me:
-I want to climb up on Bill’s lap and have him tell me long stories about how I will feel better and be better.
-However, this theatre-trained actor, who’s spent 50 years in front of cameras, winning two Emmys for his funny stint on Boston Legal in which his character, Denny Crane, barely listened to anybody and talked about himself in third person – Bill is not interested in giving me a monologue because Bill Shatner is interested in dialogue.
He gently asks about how I’m doing now and says he hopes I’ve found someone new. He’s clearly on a constant quest for knowledge; throughout our talk, he said the words “meaning” and “meaningful” more than any others. No wonder he hosts a celebrity TV interview show called Raw Nerve, where he says he tries “to dig until I find the soul.” [He must be good because he’s made Rush Limbaugh and Jon Voight cry, though not at the same time.] And you can’t have a dialogue if you’re just waiting for a chance to speak. Dialogue and soul-digging is why Bill produced and directed The Captains. In this new documentary, he interviews the many Star Trek captains over the years to discover the struggles they had while being so highly scrutinized by the eager public, a.k.a. nerds.
Think of it: this documentary is yet another major project he’s completed in his EIGHTIETH YEAR! He’s not just a machine, he’s a Terminator. Here I am, talking to one of my childhood heroes, Captain James Tiberius Kirk. But I’m also getting free therapy from the Bond-esque Negotiator in the Priceline ads plus the trash-talking dad in the sadly cancelled $#*! My Dad Says sitcom, the first TV show spun off from a Twitter feed. [Side note: Twitter’s a boring website that’s like Facebook without the moving pictures of kitties playing the piano.] Not only am I talking to a giant (hyperbolically speaking – he’s 5 foot 9) who is known and celebrated around the planet, but a man fluent in both French and the made-up language called Esperanto, who has three daughters and four wives (though not at the same time; the man may be confident, but he’s not running some Hollywood harem), who sold his kidney stone for $75,000 [Shatner Rule #12: “Balls are important, but stones are money”], who breeds horses and who survived a lawsuit with his ex-wife who sued him because the horse semen she received in their divorce settlement arrived frozen instead of “freshly cooled.” This is a man who has LIVED.
As I’m thinking of What Shatner’s Career and Life All Mean, Bill is practically ordering me to seize the day. “There’s still time at 40, and you’ve still got the strength,” he says, emphatically grabbing my arm. “You could have flat abs at 40! Flat! Not flab! You can still get it up, in every which way. At 80, your chances of doing all that are lessened, and mortality has touched you, either that or you’re insane.”
And that’s exactly how he awoke in March this year, realizing he had reached his ninth decade on planet Earth. He woke up terrified of his mortality but comforted by the presence of his wife, Lisbeth. So he got up and beat back the Grim Reaper by tackling his ever-long to-do list.
“At 40, you’re not looking at the end but, at 80, you are. You can see the line – it’s like the guys at marathons, who see the end and are ahead but look behind them and start slowing down before they get to the end. So you don’t want to slow down like those cocky marathon runners who are hundreds of yards ahead of everybody else.” Which explains why Bill is moving at warp speed this year.
“You know, you should drive a curve like you drive straight. You dial in for the amount of the turn,” he says, slightly turning his imaginary steering wheel, “then you drive that turn for the length of the turn. Drive with purpose. Drive like you’re on a straight line, even if you’re on a curve.” I resolve right then and there to accept my divorce peacefully, tilt my wheel towards someone new and then floor it. Thanks, Uncle Bill!
He gives me two more rules for how to live a long, productive, creative life:
In his book, he writes, “I nearly always say ‘yes.’ ‘Yes’ means ‘opportunity.’ ‘Yes’ makes the dots in your life appear. The lines you make with those dots always lead to interesting places. ‘No’ closes doors. ‘Yes’ kicks them wide open. I seriously considered saying ‘no’ to being in Boston Legal, didn’t want to get involved in the series grind. ‘Yes’ earned me two Emmys,” he writes. “I once said ‘Yes’ to Decca Records when they approached me about doing an album in 1968. The Transformed Man earned itself many a ‘no’ from critics [his trippy, screeching take on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” has been loudly derided], but that album has led to so many wonderful things in my life, including racking up millions of YouTube hits for my rendition of Cee Lo’s ‘Fuck You.’ ”
Shatner Rule #15: “Grab life by the (golden) throat.” As he writes in Shatner Rules, saying “Fuck Yes” to new wonders and opportunities has accelerated his career – and especially during his 81st year on the planet. In addition to Bill’s new book, documentary and one-man show, he finally unleashed a new record in October,
Seeking Major Tom, on an unsuspecting world. Shatner Rule #3: “‘Busy’ is measured in units of ‘Shatner.'”
I ask him how I’ll feel when I hear his record for the first time.
“You are going to lose your fucking mind!” he laughs, which makes us both giggle at his excitement. He’s so stoked, he sounds like a 19-year-old pop singer with her first record deal. Seeking Major Tom is a concept album. Shatner sings covers of 19 outer space-themed songs such as “Space Truckin'” by Deep Purple, “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen and “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring. I cannot wait to see him act in these music videos. But this begs the question: is Bill in on the joke that his Shatner persona has become? Absolutely. He clearly distinguishes between “Bill” and his oddball “William Shatner” character. In his book, he writes, “‘Bill’ is a slightly different guy from ‘Shatner.’ Bill’s pretty laid-back, a regular guy, a lot like you. Sometimes, Shatner relaxes into Bill. Even Shatner can’t keep up the Shatner all the time.”
Fortunately, on the new record at least, Bill cranked his Shatner up to 11. He also had a lot of high-powered talent in the studio. “Some of the greatest musicians in the world and 20 of them are on my record!” Bill says. These include Peter Frampton, Johnny Winter, Bootsy Collins on bass, Ritchie Blackmore from Deep Purple, Alan Parsons, Nick Valensi from The Strokes and even Toots from Toots & the Maytals. I tell him that, sure, nerds seem to like his old space cowboy TV show but for me, his cover of the rock song “Common People” (from his 2004 album, Has Been) is the “single coolest thing you’ve ever done.”
“Ha! This takes ‘Common People’ and goes to a factor of 10,” he says, grinning. “I’m doing heavy metal. This is so out there. It’s either absurdly awesome or awesomely absurd. Your face is going to melt!” By now, he’s on his feet and laughing, his clear eyes flashing, as he rocks happily in his snug, tight-fitting jeans. That’s when it hits me: yes, by sharing his Shatner Rules, he’s given us a memoir that’s half time machine. It transports us back to the 1960s when the only colours that mattered were blue, red, or yellow (and the occasional hot green alien female for Kirk to neck with). But Shatner Rules is more than a time machine stuck in reverse. It’s also a future-thinking time capsule and a late-life mission statement for study by generations long after the man is dead.
Then again, who says Bill has to slow down for a final curtain call? Right now, he’s firmly behind the wheel of his ship, driving hard and rocketing straight through his outer space turns. And he’s following the most important Shatner Rule of all, which is “Don’t die. You’ll miss out on all the lifetime achievement awards.”
This article was originally published in the November 2011 issue with the headline “Shatner Rules.”