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January 23, 2018

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Q+A: Living and laughing in William Shatner’s world — and a galaxy far, far away


Arthur Mola

William Shatner in his one-man show “Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It.”

William Shatner

Star Trek Convention: William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy address a crowd of thousands Saturday, Aug. 7, 2010, during the annual Star Trek Convention at the Las Vegas Hilton. Launch slideshow »

For more than 50 years, Canadian actor William Shatner has been a familiar face on the big screen (“Star Trek”) and on small screens (“Star Trek,” “T.J. Hooker,” “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal” and slashing prices on travel bargains). He laughs at himself but takes his singing very seriously. In fact, his wonderfully wacky world began with even more serious work performing in Shakespearean plays.

Born near where Celine Dion grew up in the suburbs of Montreal, he went on to star on Broadway, television and in films including “Judgment at Nuremburg.” His resume is as long as a telephone directory, and our beloved Capt. James Tiberius Kirk, commander of the Federation Starship USS Enterprise, was often criticized for his willingness to take on any role even if they were forgettable and hurt his career.

Now age 82, but looking much younger, he’s proved all naysayers wrong because he’s still working and fesses up to becoming wealthy and comfortable with his 15-year string of Priceline commercials, which helped revolutionize the travel-booking business. An author, novelist, musician, director and TV pitchman, he has become a cultural icon around the world.

I once went horse riding with Bill, and neither of us has forgotten the episode. From Shakespeare to “Star Trek” to Priceline, it’s been an incredible ride, and on Jan. 20, he’ll step onstage in Reynolds Hall in Smith Center to reveal the secrets of his life — and maybe to life itself. Treat yourself to a ticket now because you don’t want to miss his experiences.

Welcome to the legend of Shatner’s world. I talked with him about it days ago, and it was an interview that might never have ended, as we had so much fun catching up during our candid conversation.

So do we all live in your world?

“Well, you occupy parts of it. I started this thing in Australia. I was invited there to do a one-night show, and I thought, ‘Well, if it goes really badly, nobody will know.’ It went well, and I did pretty much all of the cities in Australia, and I did Canada, then a limited performance on Broadway for a month or two. They asked me to renew it again for January, so I’m going to do a few cities in January and come to Las Vegas on Jan. 20. I am looking forward to it.”

Have you ever played in Las Vegas before — in any form?

“No, I haven’t. This is the first. I have a new album out titled ‘Ponder the Mystery.’ We’ve performed it in three venues around the Los Angeles area with the idea that if we’re good or entertaining enough that somebody in Las Vegas would book it in one of the showrooms. They’re looking at that right now.”

Might we hear you sing when you get to Smith Center?

“You will hear me sing with quotation marks around it. I did a number on the Hollywood Christmas Parade with the musicians from the group Yes, so I might be tempted to do a few dulcet tones — a few selfish ones — in Las Vegas. I hear it’s a stunning theater for sound. I’ll do a song as a closing number Brad Paisley wrote for me on a previous album.

“The show mostly, though, is a lot of visuals and a lot of me entertaining people with stories that are funny or sad or meaningful or in spite of myself. The audiences have responded in many ways in many cities, and I’ve been moved to tears at times with the affection and their enthusiasm.”

Is the show inspirational, as well?

“Yes, but you can’t predict that. The whole thrust of it is the idea of saying yes to life. It’s too easy to say no. By saying yes, you take a risk and you place yourself in a position of jeopardy, but it’s the only way to have the adventure of life. That’s the thrust of the evening.”

So having said that, that prompts me to ask — but don’t be offended — you started out doing Shakespeare, and you wind up in Priceline?

“I think it’s a natural evolution, don’t you? It’s called going from poverty to riches. The eternal search by mankind to eat.”

Actor and playwright Robert Shaw was a dear friend of mine. He once told me, “ ’Tis far better to be a journeyman in show business than to be a superstar.” How do you describe yourself?

“I’d like to think I’m a superstar who was a journeyman. Or a journeyman who became a superstar. That’s a better way of putting it.”

When you did that first Priceline commercial, did you ever think that it would take you off on such a rocket ride?

“Robin, I think I did four tiny radio commercials. I was in New Zealand shooting a film. They had pursued me in Los Angeles; they contacted me, and I said, ‘Alright, I’ll do four radio spots,’ and I did them in a studio where I was already doing another voiceover. That started the whole thing. They came back and said, ‘Let’s not do radio, let’s do television; the whole thing.’ That was more than 15 years ago, and it’s become an experience. A brand unto itself.”

“It’s such a good company. I truly mean it when I say this: It’s a great company, and I’m very happy to be working with them. Now they’ve given me a daughter who’s very popular on a top show (Kaley Cuoco of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory”). That’s very good, but too much to the consternation of my wife, but it’s all part of living in my world.”

Do you ever miss Shakespeare?

“I still do Shakespeare. We do regular readings at UCLA with such friends as Tom Hanks, his wife (Rita Wilson), with Kenneth Branaugh. We arrive in the morning, we read the play around a table, at 2 o’clock we’re on our feet trying to figure out where we would walk script in hand, and then that night 1,500 people come, and we read the play walking around. People leave the theater laughing and joyful and having a taste of Shakespeare. So I’ve been doing that for these last many years.”

You look at this checkered career — you would have to use that word to describe it — Shakespeare, Capt. Kirk, Priceline. This has to have been a remarkable journey even for you?

“Well, so it would seem. I haven’t issued any blank checks as yet or counterfeit checks in my checkered career. There has been a lot of variation, that’s for sure, some of it by impulse.”

Is the variety the thing that’s kept you going for so long?

“Well, I think to have a knack for comedy and a knack for talking to people and a knack for being foolish and playing games and a knack for the rhythmic way of speaking, I was taught those when I was with the Shakespeare company. So I have a variety of skills that I try to use.

“So, yes, it has been a checkered career. On the other hand, this year I’m designing a watch with a watchmaker, I’m designing a motorcycle with a motorcycle company, I’m directing documentaries. I’m about to make a speech when I finish talking with you about intuition and information. You know there are a variety of things that interest me, and it pays well, so I’m there.

“It keeps me young, and I’m competing on the horses a lot and doing better as a competitor on horses than ever before. Remember when we went to the stables? That was disastrous. Just riding, but I put the years in to get good. Maybe 10,000 hours! I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve gotten really good at it. I’m starting to win in very competitive classes.”

You have this delightful personality to let audiences know that you don’t take yourself seriously. You quite relish the art of poking fun at yourself?

“Well, I do. There’s a line in one of my songs in this new album I’ve got out titled ‘Ponder the Mystery’: ‘The absurdity of life has always been there for me.’ The big joke on us is we live as though we’re not going to die, until we do, and it comes as a surprise.

“There is a balance between taking things seriously that should be taken seriously, but when it comes to one’s self, you have to be light about it because we’re here for that brief moment, then gone, and it’s really to be enjoyed and delighted in.

“That really is the nature of what my one-man show is about. To take the light and the adventure of the journey of life, and I try to dramatize that with stories of what I’ve done and things that have happened to me.”

Are you a happy and contented man at this stage of life?

“Well, contented was never something that I adhered to, but I have all the faculties and facilities of joy around me, and I partake of them freely. I am still young at heart, and I know you are, as well. A good laugh is incalculable. We all have to live to laugh.”

“Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It” plays one night only at Reynolds Hall in Smith Center on Monday, Jan. 20. I’ll be there, and so should you!

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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