Sunday, April 15, 2012

William Shatner at Playhouse Square, Cleveland, Ohio

The guy in a Cleveland Indians jacket standing a foot or so away from the curb on Playhouse Square seemed like he might have tickets to Saturday evening's events, so my companion shouted out to him from our car. "Do you have tickets?" He sure did. "What for?" The answer we wanted to hear was also the one we expected. "Shatner!"

William Shatner's one man show came to Cleveland, Ohio and I considered getting some cheap tickets, the 10 dollar back row leftovers that are usually available at the last minute. When that was not an option, I considered spending as much as $30. "I've got two tickets for the tenth row," the man said. "You can have them for 100 bucks." That was too much, and when we talked him down to 80, he had a deal. There's only one Captain Kirk, after all, at least to those of us who grew up on the original Star Trek that aired on NBC from 1966-69, and there wasn't anything else to do, anyway.

For two hours, Shatner strode across the State Theater’s stage, reminiscing about his most unusual career. A Shakespearean trained stage actor, he got his first break as an understudy for Christopher Plummer in a production of Henry V staged in their native Canada. Plenty of stage work followed, and also film roles in The Brothers Karamazov and Judgment at Nuremberg, but it was in television that he flourished. Among dozens of guest shots, at least one would become a classic: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the Twilight Zone episode in which Shatner's nervous passenger spots a gremlin on the wing of an airplane. He didn't achieve stardom until Star Trek, a series that struggled through its three season run, but became a cult phenomenon in the next decade, inspiring a series of big-screen movies beginning in 1979, and, later, several successful spin-offs.

But that was still in the future. After Star Trek's cancellation in 1969, Shatner admits he was broke, owing as much to the end of those Desilu paychecks as to a divorce. He was living in a camper and doing dinner theater for the money. He remembered watching the moon landing on a four-inch black and white TV set while lying outside, his eyes taking in the stars above when not glued to the TV. One of Shatner's most memorable stories relate to this rather dismal period. One day, there was a knock on the door of his camper. "Are you Captain Kirk," the little boy in the doorway asked. "Yes, I am," a game Shatner replied. "Is this your spaceship?" the boy inquired. Shatner invited the kid in, showed him the shower where he "beamed up," and the dials on the stove he used to guide his spacecraft.

Even the most charitable fan would have to agree that if not for Star Trek, this very talented actor might not have had much of a career to build a one man show around. Before Star Trek: The Motion Picture revived his career, Shatner was most frequently cast in TV movies (Go Ask Alice being among the better ones) and kept busy in guest shots of popular shows like Columbo and Hawaii Five-O. In 1975, he bombed in a series of his own called Barbary Coast, while the best he was offered for the big screen was grade Z shit like 1977's Kingdom of the Spiders.

Captain Kirk cast a long shadow, but thanks to David E. Kelley, creator of The Practice and its spinoff, Boston Legal, Shatner may be as well-known for his role as Denny Crane, the pompous attorney for which he won an Emmy. The mere mention of the name brought the loudest cheers of the night, so Shatner may not go to his grave, as he admits he once feared he might, known only as Captain Kirk.

But Kirk and Crane probably take a backseat to the even more intriguing character known as William Shatner. Following Star Trek's cancellation, the man was becoming a bit of a joke, owing as much to several bad toupees, a general air of pomposity (comparing T.J. Hooker, his TV cop, to Hamlet), and the "singing" career highlighted by side-splitting versions of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Everyone seemed to be in on the joke except him, but then, in a classic example of reinvention, Shatner embraced his image as a pretentious boob and emerged triumphant. The "singing" career was revived thanks to Ben Folds who produced Shatner's Has Been album, and now, of course, there's this highly entertaining one man show. Shatner closed the show by encouraging the audience to say "yes," as he has done so many times in his life. His life and career demonstrate the advantages of taking risks.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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