Alternate title: Happy KirkHookerCraneMurdockBascom Day!
He’ll always be Captain James Tiberius Kirk in our hearts, but even if William Shatner was never cast in the 2nd pilot of Star Trek, he’d still be a sci-fi legend. Parts in genre shows like Space Command, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, Thriller, The Outer Limits and Man From U.N.C.L.E. all preceded the start of his 5-year mission, and many more came after in his 65-year career.
It didn’t hurt that his matinee-idol looks and melodramatic delivery lent itself equally well to medical, legal and western dramas and kept him working steadily. He performed in Incubus, speaking only in the international language Esperanto, and fought himself as twin brothers in White Comanche. He rode around in a convertible with KKK members playing an incendiary rascist in Roger Corman’s The Intruder (co-starring sci-fi writers Charles Beaumont, William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson). When aliens made Kirk give Lt. Uhura television’s most talked-about interracial kiss, even the hate-mail writers understood that “any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.” All milestones to be remembered for.
But that was the “awesome” Shatner; the hero and leading man. He didn’t become the personage we celebrate today until 47 years into his career, the year we witnessed “The Switch.”
In 1998, in a small indy film called Free Enterprise, he played a different kind of role- a simple man named “Bill”. He played, well, himself.
Not the swaggering, over the top he-man we’d grown up with, but a whimsical, warm, self-deprecating and impish muse to two wanna-be filmakers as they floundered through the jungle of Hollywood and “stared down Carousel” at the age of 30. To paraphrase Kirk, of all the roles we’d encountered, this was the most… human.
Career-redefining, and a large part of it was Shatner’s doing. Having initially refused the role, he finally conceded when Mark Altman and Robert Burnett rewrote the part with the humanizing flaws he requested. Don’t get me wrong; Shatner has always been funny, with many great comedic roles under his belt. And of course viewers even often laughed unintentionally as he seemingly overacted his way through productions; and who doesn’t have a (usually bad) Shatner impression they can pull out during dramatic moments? But this was different, as we got a semi-fictionalized glimpse into the man himself.
And the floodgates opened. Many funny, relatable, often poigniant characters followed, and audiences ate them up. His once-foundering (and some say laughable) music career reignited, replacing “The Transformed Man” with the “Has-Been” we love today, as he even parodied his singing for George Lucas at the AFI awards. 230 credits under the belt is an excellent legacy, but I’m more impressed with the 400-or-so appearances credited to “self”, proving how much we’ve really come to love the man behind the matinee.
So happy 85th, Bill, as we take the opportunity to haltingly speak/sing “Happy Birthday” (or is that “Felica Naskigtago” in Esperanto?) to you. While we’ll certainly be playing selections from your album here on Krypton Radio, know that you’ll never be a “Has Been” to us.