A guy who used to be on this show I watched as a kid turned 90 Monday. You may have heard of him: William Shatner. The Canadian-born actor played this cool, always-in-control character on a science fiction series called Star Trek. His name was James Tiberius Kirk, he was born in Riverside, Iowa, in 2233 — exactly 302 years after Shatner — and he was the captain of a Starfleet Command starship, the USS Enterprise.
I couldn’t tell you the first time I watched Star Trek, which arrived on NBC in 1966 when I was 5 years old and lasted three seasons and 79 episodes. It’s possible my brother Isaac and I watched it during the first couple of seasons, but my first real memories are from the third and final season in 1968-69. I thought Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty and the other main crew members were awesome — and that was in a third season that was easily the series’ weakest.
But it was when Star Trek went into syndication soon after the network canceled it that I became a diehard Trekkie and really started worshiping Shatner, Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (McCoy), James Doohan (Scotty), George Takei (Sulu) and the rest of the cast. From 1969 to ’71 before we moved north from Houston to the Conroe area, Isaac and I would come home and watch it after school with Dad, who loved sci-fi and Star Trek.
The next few years, I began collecting Star Trek books and other memorabilia including blueprints of the Enterprise. The more fandom of the series grew after its cancellation, the more merchandise was produced for people like me. I was into building plastic models as a kid, and I remember looking for the Star Trek versions at the model shop every time we went to Sharpstown mall.
I ended up building the Enterprise, the Klingon Battle Cruiser, the Romulan Bird of Prey, the Galileo Seven shuttlecraft, along with models of Kirk, Spock, a phaser, tricorder and communicator. I had every last one. I hung the Enterprise from the ceiling over my bed. I had the Enterprise’s serial number, NCC-1701, embedded on my brain. I’d bring my Star Trek books to school at Washington Junior High, where my fellow Trekkie, Brian Perlmutter, and I would compare what we had and talk about the rerun episode that aired the previous day after school.
At home, Isaac and I watched not only the regular series on the TV in our upstairs study room, but the animated one that aired on NBC in 1973-74, usually on the TV in the den. He and I also had this crazy thing we did: We’d act out our own Star Trek fight scenarios, wrestling on our beds and the floor, one of us being Capt. Kirk and the other an alien adversary, even tongue-singing the music that always seemed to accompany every one of those kinds of man-on-man struggles on the show.
By the time I started at Conroe High as a 13-year-old in 1974, I met a nice kid who’d just moved to town named Mark Stevens — and it turned out he was a Trekkie too. And when the first Star Trek movie came out in early December 1979, I was in my first semester at Texas A&M, where Mark had already been a student for a year. He, his girlfriend, our mutual friend Beverly whom I was dating, and I went to see the movie at Manor East Mall in Bryan and, of course, Mark and I thought it was great. Then when I went home for Christmas, Dad and I saw it together, and after we left the theater, he said, “That’s what a science fiction movie should be.”
In the nearly 55 years since Star Trek made its debut in 1966, William Shatner has become a cultural icon. Simply put, he’s everywhere, although it hasn’t always been that way. While he’s never been viewed as a top-rung actor, he’s parlayed his fame from the original Star Trek series and the seven Trek movies in which he appeared into a dizzying array of projects as an actor, author, commercial pitch man (Priceline.com and others), producer, director, screenwriter, singer and more.
Some have questioned Shatner’s talents and say he gets jobs because of who he is, not what he’s capable of. He’s become somewhat of a caricature in his later years, someone who seems determined to stay eternally young and have his hand in every possible opportunity to stay in the limelight. But you’ve got to give him credit for continuing to perform and enjoy life, and for all he’s been able to accomplish into his 10th decade.
In recent years, Shatner has done documentaries, one-man Broadway shows, and appeared in the NBC reality miniseries Better Late Than Never, traveling to far-off lands with Henry Winkler, Terry Bradshaw and George Foreman. And after recording a few music and spoken-word albums over the years that had little or no success, he gave it another shot, recording a country music album in 2018 and a blues album that hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart last fall.
Some might find it hard to believe, but after graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 1952, Shatner trained as a classical Shakespearean actor with the Canadian National Repertory Theatre in Ottawa. He then performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Statford, Ontario, playing a number of roles, and was even an understudy to the great Christopher Plummer. Shatner made his Broadway debut in a Shakespeare production in 1956.
Before Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek and Shatner landed the role of Capt. Kirk, he had a number of TV roles, including Kraft Theater, Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, Thriller, Route 66, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Twelve O’Clock High. He also had a feature role in a 1958 movie that starred Yul Brynner, The Brothers Karamazov; Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg; and a 1962 Roger Corman film, The Intruder, in which Shatner plays a racist who tries to incite violence by whites against blacks in a Southern town after desegregation has been ordered at the local high school.
One of Shatner’s most memorable TV roles before Star Trek came in one of two Twilight Zone episodes in which he appeared: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet in the final season of the series in 1963. Shatner plays a husband and father who’s just left a mental hospital where he spent six months recovering from a nervous breakdown. He and his wife are flying home and Shatner, whose breakdown had occurred on a flight, sees a gremlin on the wing trying to sabotage the plane. He tries to convince the flight crew and his wife of what he’s seeing, but the monster disappears every time he tries to show them. For those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the episode, but it’s entertaining and one of Shatner’s finer moments.
If you took a poll, I think most people would go with Spock as the best character on the original Star Trek. There have been so many great ones since the dawn of television, but his character is one of the most remarkable, unique, best-acted in the medium’s history, thanks to Leonard Nimoy’s perfect playing of the part.
But the character of Capt. Kirk, despite what many have seen as Shatner’s tendency to overact, has to be seen as one of television’s more notable roles as well. The show’s numerous talented writers gave him some great lines, and he made the most of them. His dramatic pauses when speechifying or philosophizing could be a bit much, but that was just the Shatner way. That style must’ve come through in other roles he’s played — T.J. Hooker, Boston Legal, The Practice, none of which I watched. But he did get six Emmy nominations for the latter two and win two awards.
It’s fun to wonder what another actor might have done with the Kirk role — say, Martin Milner, Robert Wagner, Robert Conrad, Robert Culp, Bill Bixby, James Garner, even Jack Lord, who reportedly was the first choice to play Kirk. Shatner played the role with passion and moxie, and it was clear from every line and scene how serious he was about pouring himself into Kirk.
I was texting with my oldest brother Crys the other day about Star Trek. In the nearly 16 years we’ve known each other since I found my 3 birth siblings, I don’t remember us talking about the original series or about how obsessed I was with it growing up. So I was shocked to get this first response from Crys, who’s 17 years older than me and was working at WSAZ-TV, the NBC station in our hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, when Star Trek first aired.
“Star Trek was on when I was at the TV station and I watched it religiously,” he said. “Since I worked the evening shift, I never missed it and was constantly ‘fascinated’ by Spock.”
I knew Crys and I had a lot in common, but a mutual love of Star Trek? How had we missed that in all the ground we’ve covered since 2005?
I’ve always felt Shatner has a lot of braggadocio in him — I think that’s why he was good in the role. Kirk had a strong personality and also milked his masculinity for all it was worth.
“James Tiberius Kirk was named after one of Rome’s greatest generals, but he couldn’t have been more different from his namesake, who never really wanted to be Emperor,” Crys says. “Kirk, on the other hand, relished the Captaincy and never missed the chance to pull rank. James The Great would have been a more apt name.”
Gene Roddenberry clearly wanted his captain to be a take-charge guy. And when Kirk came back for Star Trek: The Motion Picture — directed by the great Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) — and took command from Commander Will Decker (Stephen Collins), that persona was still in place.
Another trait of Shatner/Kirk’s, love it or leave it, was that he was a womanizer. I was surprised to read in my research for this post that he kissed only 19 women/aliens — I would’ve guessed at least 25. That includes the history-making scene in which he kissed Lt. Uhura, played by groundbreaking actress Nichelle Nichols, in the third-season episode Plato’s Stepchildren. It was long referred to as the first on-screen interracial kiss, but it turns out there were others, including Conrad on The Wild Wild West and Culp on I Spy.
Here are some of Shatner’s best lines as Kirk, with the episode or movie they’re from:
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (after Spock’s death): “Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most … human.”
Mudd’s Women: “You either believe in yourself or you don’t.”
A Taste of Armageddon: “Death. Destruction. Disease. Horror. That’s what war is all about. That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided.”
Return to Tomorrow: “They used to say that if man was meant to fly, he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to.”
Elaan of Troyius: “The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.”
Obsession: “Intuition, however illogical, Mr. Spock, is recognized as a command prerogative.”
A Taste of Armageddon: “Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on.”
Space Seed: “If I can have honesty, it’s easier to overlook mistakes.”
Mirror, Mirror: “Conquest is easy. Control is not.”
I, Mudd: “What is a man but that lofty spirit, that sense of enterprise, that devotion for something that cannot be sensed, cannot be realized but only dreamed, the highest reality?”
Balance of Terror: “Leave bigotry in your quarters; there’s no room for it on the bridge.”
Charlie X: “Hang on tight and survive. Everybody does.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: “KHAAAAAAN!”
City on the Edge of Forever: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
And just for fun, here are my favorite 15 episodes from the original Star Trek:
Where No Man Has Gone Before
Balance of Terror
The Galileo Seven
City on the Edge of Forever
The Doomsday Machine
The Deadly Years
The Trouble with Tribbles
A Piece of the Action
The Tholian Web
All Our Yesterdays
The Savage Curtain
Regardless of what you think of his acting, singing, writing or other talents, he’s a pretty amazing guy. And he made a pretty damn good starship captain, too.
Live long and prosper, Bill Shatner.