The William Shatner Enigma

With Bill Shatner at the Hollywood Charity Horse Show.

With Bill Shatner at the Hollywood Charity Horse Show.

You’ve heard the stories. Disagreements and falling out with his fellow Star Trek actors. Edging co-stars out of the spotlight for more lines, more screen time. The need for control, for dominance. An actor who seemed to always have something to prove, even when his place in pop culture history was assured and he didn’t have to prove a thing.

But I’m curious to see who William Shatner is for myself. There have been many times I have read about someone in the media, and they’ve been completely different in person. I want to see what being around this guy is like.

I’m also interested to see if I can discern if he is – how can I put this – in on his own joke. There seem to be two Shatners out there in popular culture. The first is a dedicated actor, very sure and proud of his own craft, perhaps to the point of being easily hurt by being parodied, ridiculed and – worst of all for any actor – typecast with one iconic role. It’s not as if the years of playing T.J. Hooker onscreen created anything like the same kind of reverence that Star Trek received. If anything, it put his career in the same fondly-remembered-but-goofy basket along with Starsky, Hutch, and The Fonz.

Then there’s the other Shatner. Beginning in 1982 with his comedic cameo in Airplane II: The Sequel and cemented by the time of 1999’s Free Enterprise, he seemed content to start turning the jokes around and send himself up. The spoken word albums he earnestly made in the ‘60s were lovingly parodied. Shatner seemed to be giving the audience a wink, saying “I get what you think about me. Let’s enjoy it together.” As a result, at the age of 88, he seems more loved than ever.

 Another actor I talk to during the weekend I meet Shatner believes that the change of career path was deliberate. “Look at how much money he’s made since,” he remarks with admiration. “Those Priceline commercials alone probably made him tens of millions. He knows exactly what he is doing.”

Can these two people co-exist? The blowhard tyrant, and the twinkly-eyed self-parodist? Or are both of them media inventions, and the real person is something else?

The equestrian center in Burbank seems like a great place to find out, because this is Bill Shatner’s safe space. Every year, he rides competitively in a charity horse show that he and his wife organize, raising money for good causes. He’s not surrounded by security, or fans, or even by movie people. He’s with his family, among horse people, and firmly in his element.

To watch him ride is impressive. His horsemanship is virtually impeccable. He’s lengthening and shortening the horse’s stride, performing spinning turns, flying lead changes, and sliding stops as a team of tough judges grade him. He’s not a thin man any more, nor a young one, but his smooth movement on the horse, perfectly poised, is beautiful to watch – like a Western-style ballet. He’s not just ordering the horse around – with subtle thigh movements, soothing words, and a light touch on the reins he’s working with his horse as a perfect duo. It’s hard to believe I’m seeing someone who is over 60 – never mind nearing 90 – spinning a horse around its own axis in a blurred cloud of dust.

When he dismounts and comes over to talk in a barn next to the arena, still wearing his cowboy hat, he’s in good spirits. “I’ve been riding horses for five days non-stop getting prepared for this competition,” he explains. “Normally, I’m in three days of pain after the show, in my feet and my shoulders. I’ve been studying how old horses get good medicine and improve, and I’m thinking about taking the same drugs myself.” He’s self-deprecating, direct, and disarming.

Like most actors, he wants to talk about what he is doing next, rather than what he has done in the past. He’s been working on a show named “The UnXplained” for the History Channel, looking into – as the title suggests – unexplained mysteries. He sounds genuinely excited by it. “I love all the stuff that has mystery to me – such as the way the universe is born.” He has never watched Game of Thrones, he explains, much preferring unsolved crime shows and other programs grounded more in something real. “I’m looking at new explanations for old mysteries.” He sounds intensely curious, adding “It is even better when someone pays me to talk about it.”

He seems endlessly inquisitive. “I try to look in the eyes of people on TV when they are being interviewed,” he relates. By doing this, while intently reading their facial expressions, he attempts to tell if they are lying. He’s been working on another show too, yet to be finalized, with the Los Angeles Police Department. “They love me because of TJ Hooker,” he adds with a grin that doesn’t allow me to know if he is sending himself up or not. He wants to go into the LAPD’s history, their files that go back over a century, and look at some more mysteries, such as the unsolved Black Dahlia case. It seems that once he gets his mind on something that engages his curiosity, he’s hooked.

He’s even working on a show about the origins of blues music – along with, inevitably, recording his own blues album. Does he play any musical instruments? “Billy from ZZ Top taught me how to play a C chord on the guitar as part of this show. On another album with Ben Folds, he said to me, why don’t you play the harmonica? All I could do is blow in and blow out. So I blew in and blew out: and we never used it. So I’m learning my lesson – stick to the words.”

“I’d love to perform with Elton John. I’d love it. But he’s retiring. Shit!”

The cliché “showing no sign of slowing down” seems very apt: Shatner explains that these shows are just a small part of what he is up to. He’s sometimes doing three talks a weekend in three different cities. Around the country, theaters are playing the fan-favorite Star Trek movie The Wrath of Khan – and Shatner comes out onstage afterwards and regales the audience. “I talk for about an hour – and sometimes I even mention the movie!” He’s averaging about five hours of sleep, getting up at 5 a.m. for shoots. He’s aware that he’s working hard, at a time in life when most people are long retired. “I meet many people my age – you can tell by counting the dribbles on their napkins. But my mind is always working on a good idea. I keep hearing you shouldn’t reach beyond your grasp, but… I may have done that!”

 He’s very comfortable relating anecdotes, playing his audiences for laughs – and he’s doing that as I listen to him. As I watch him interact with people throughout the day, I observe that it’s in a very specific way. He likes to know precisely what his schedule is. If someone starts to tell him a long story, or delays him as he’s walking, it irritates him. He’s been known to be very blunt with people who assume the kindly person is his natural demeanor, not seeing that he has to be feeling it. It almost has to be arranged.

This seems to be the less appealing side of being so driven – he’s also very exacting. Behind the scenes, I hear he’s a little prone to drama when things don’t go to plan. When at an autograph signing session in prior weeks, for example, a helper was slow to pass items to him to be signed. He considered it “a disaster,” and said as much with a theatrical flourish. He’s in an ever-moving, self-imposed bubble of conventions and personal appearances, and it sounds like all the decades of dealing with people asking for just one photo, just one more signature, have worn on him. He might make fun of himself, but his time is a serious matter. He’s not going to give it away to just anyone.

It’s particularly interesting to watch him around women he does not know. He loves to charm everyone, but women get an extra twinkle from him. It feels benign, although out of step with the times. Some of it is deliberately cheesy, such as when a woman tells him her name is Candy, and he quips “Yes, but what’s your name?” But he mostly seems to want to make all women feel charmed – if there is a smooth quip he can make, a little detail about them he can remember and add into the conversation later, he’ll do it. His attention is not restricted to young women, although age and attractiveness do seem to modify the intensity of his effort to charm. He also wants to charm the lifelong fans who have been his lifeblood through the lean times, the bad 1970s movies and career lulls. Most of them seem to be women in late middle age, along with a few seniors. They observe an unspoken code. They don’t hound him, touch him, or ask him for too much. They bask in the anecdotes he throws their way and he, in turn, adores their attention. Some have traveled from the other side of the world to meet him, but they often remain silent, and simply listen. And they come back year after year. It’s a form of deep respect you don’t see much in the far more transactional modern fan experience.

In his bubble of comfort, in a pre-scheduled time with people he knows will be there, he seems to relax further. I ask him if there is one acting role in his career that he always wanted, that got away from him. It’s hard to know if it is simply the signature Shatner pause that I hear, or if he is digging deep for an answer, but he seems to give the answer more thought than I’d expected.

“I could have been – Thor! I could have been in a series of horrible movies… I don’t know. Here’s what I really feel. I’m my age. I just rode five horses this morning. I rode three horses yesterday. I rode five horses the day before. I rode four horses the day before that. I’ve got my two Dobermans, who are puppies now, and I love my two dogs…”

He diverges into a long and touching story about his love for dogs, before returning to the question.

“Any regret I would have is so – meaningless, if you will, given the life I have had. I mean, look at this. You’re smiling, I rode well – although one son-of-a-bitch beat me by half a point. That son of a bitch! Imagine feeling the passion at my age of wanting to win...”

He segues into a funny story of how, at his age, his napkin always ends up on the floor when he is eating, and he can’t work out the physics of how it happens. “I keep having to take other people’s napkins. At the end of the meal, there are five or six napkins. ‘Oh, that’s where Shatner sat!’”

By the second segue, I’m thinking I’ve lost him. But he’s sharp. Just when I think he’s forgotten my question, he circles back and it turns out he’s really been giving me context for the perfect answer.

“So, wishing I had done something else? I really can’t think of anything else. But even if I did, how – mean-spirited it would be, to think I could do better. This is the life.”

He talks about education, starting with people, although he’s soon back to talking about animals. There was an “English sensibility” at the school he attended, with students hit with canes, rulers, and large pieces of rubber. “I churned with anger and resentment, and decided to go and burn the teacher’s car. I didn’t do it, but it’s clear why I remember that.”

“It’s better to teach with love. I can’t stand horses being mistreated. It used to be called ‘breaking a horse.’ Now, slowly, with love, and adaptation, and getting used to the weight of a saddle – it takes longer. But instead of forcing the horse, make the benefit apparent to them. Teaching with love, intelligence and kindness means a lot.”

At the charity banquet that night, he works the room, stopping at every single table for photos, working the crowd to bid for auction items. He gets snappy if his auction spotters are not assisting exactly as he wishes, and I see that impatient streak again. But I’m also realizing that the questions I had before the weekend are irrelevant. He’s beyond them now. He’s lived long enough that he is now, as they say in England, a “national treasure” – the kind of actor who can say or do anything, be in great movies or lousy ones, and it doesn’t matter – people will love him.

For such a globally-known icon, the banquet is surprisingly low-key. We are minutes from Hollywood, but this is a hall next to the horse stables, where people get in line for a buffet, and country music reigns. I speculate that Shatner could have gone bigger, called in celebrity favors (Tom Bergeron is here tonight but, let’s face it, that doesn’t really count) and put on something much ritzier. But this is better. This feels comfortable, and friendly.

I’ve heard him share how he’s been choosing deserving places over the last year to give money to. And I see a pattern. He doesn’t go for big, abstract causes. He chooses individual places and things. Simple things such as buying a washing machine and dryer for an animal shelter that needs to wash bedding. Sponsoring kids with disabilities who learn motors skills by riding horses. Assisting kids with severe autism, and veterans shattered by PTSD, who can learn and rebuild quiet, safe connections to life by looking after and being around horses. I listened to him earlier in the day trying to calm a stallion as it raced, unsaddled, around an arena. Using only a patient, soothing voice, he did his best to bring the horse to a gentle stop. I see his deep connection to animals.

He starts talking about one of the kids riding this year who he has helped fund. And he reflects on how that began for him, watching a March of Dimes fundraiser on television in the 1960s. He describes a child who had no functional limbs because of the Thalidomide drug, riding a horse on television, and how it affected him deeply. And in describing it half a century later – his eyes fill with tears.

And I think – this individual little moment of personal experience, a direct contact – that is what this guy seems to be about.