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William Shatner, who turned 81 in March, still seems possessed of boundless energy and bluster. (Stephane Cardinale / People Avenue / Corbis)

What William Shatner Would Put on His Gravestone

The modern-day Renaissance man, known for his work on the stage and the screen, provides insights from the Tao of Captain Kirk

smithsonian.com

Few performing artists of the past 60 years are as iconic, or as mystifying, as William Shatner. The captain of the Starship Enterprise cut a heroic figure in the 1960s, when I watched the pilot episode of “Star Trek” as a preteen. Today, the hale and engaging actor, director, documentarian, author, singer, sportsman and rapper —who turned 81 in March—still seems possessed of boundless energy and bluster.

In many of his stage and screen appearances (and certainly in his music), Shatner often appears to teeter on the edge of self-parody. Face to face, he’s a warm hearted raconteur who inhabits his affable egoism without explanation or apology. I interviewed Shatner in June, shortly after the whirlwind national tour of his one-man show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It. On July 28 his new documentary about “Star Trek” fans, “Get A Life!”, premieres on Epix.

So how long do I have you for? How fast do I have to talk?

No; it is I who have to talk fast. It’s you who have to think fast. Half an hour?

Then we better get started!

I thought we already were.

You’re almost as well-known for your singing as for your acting. Did you grow up around music?

No, there was very little music in the house, little common music. My father would come home on Saturday afternoon, after six days of work. He’d grab a bite, lie down for a couple of hours, and play the Metropolitan Opera. That was the only music in the house: The Met from New York. So I never sang, or played an instrument. It was only when I got to McGill University that I began to write and direct and act in college musicals, and to admire Al Jolson and think: "God, if only I could do that."

What qualities in a song inspire you to create an interpretation?

I turn to my conservative Canadian, simplistic, uncomplicated background in music. I like to be able to hum the song and understand the lyrics. I love the musicality of words. Think about children's fairy tales. Fairy tales are supposed to be stories of inherent fears, dramatizations of human nightmares and cares and worries. The words "Once upon a time"—don't they suggest music? Sometimes words carry their own rhythm. I love to say the words and have the music enhance the words so that it aids and abets and supplants and supports those rhythms.

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