Poor William's Almanac

Poor William Shatner.

There’s talent and there’s celebrity. Talent is a subjective call: one man’s ham is another man’s Hamlet. Celebrity largely amounts to staying in the cross hairs of media. What happens if your notoriety has inertia? You did a show 40 years ago and it’s still popular. Then you’re a superstar, a superstar who has to either keep dancing or live like us schmoes. Even if your new work is good—even better than that stuff from the 1960s—you get rear-ended by the dump truck that keeps rolling. To personify this phenomenon: William Shatner.

The icon of pop-culture outshines the man, William Shatner. There's a split between the public persona and the person. Do you want to shoot the breeze with Bill? Well that’s all swell, but who the Hell are you? Because Captain Kirk was beamed into our living room on a frequent basis, it seems like he’s a part of the family— on par with the brother-in-law we see a couple a times a year—heck, Bill is there for us all of the time. Do our relatives listen? Well, they listen a little more often than Bill does, I guess. But they don’t fight Klingons and Khan Noonan Singh, so I think grappling trumps dialogue.

We are hardwired to see real looking things as real. When the first filmed train pulled into station on the silver screen, the audience shrieked with horror. Some of them were scared of the grainy over-wound black and white locomotive. We are not well equipped to handle media. Captain Kirk’s adventures are a performance caught on film 40 years ago. It ceased to be real an instant after the film was exposed. But when we see it, we experience it and our brain has an easy job of suspending disbelief.

This week, we were able to attend the CAEAA Awards for animation and video game excellence. I was ready to blow off the event when my contact said; “You’re going to give up an evening with Capt. Kirk?” It’s equivalent to saying, “You’re going drop you’re daughter in the volcano?”

At the awards show: there was media, some of the nominees and there was William Shatner. A slough of major media was there to cover the event. They were there for Bill. How do I know? We were all trained on the red carpet. Shatner walked by. The camera crews came to life. I looked to my wife and said, “That was William Shatner.” I looked back and the huge band of media over my shoulder evaporated. I swear, the image should have included tumbleweeds.

The attendees milled about the pre-show reception. The reporters stood ready to spring on Shatner and get an interview on every topic: Capt. Kirk, Star Trek, Matt Damon as Capt. Kirk, etc. (well, not, et cetera—that’s all that mattered to them). When Shatner showed up, a more portable reporter grabbed him. The bumblebees began their dance. Every reporter glommed onto him. They asked about every topic possible (translation: Star Trek). It was these moments that showed off the real William Shatner. I was one of these bumblebees hovering nearby. I heard interview questions. They were all the same. They were about that show from the 1960s. Shatner took the question and made a brief attempt to get away from the topic. When he knew he was trapped, he answered the question with an amazing aplomb. Then, he did the same with the same question from a different reporter.

William Shatner lives in the shadow of perpetual jet-lag. He works long hours on a top-20 TV show. He has a horse stable in Kentucky. He does events like this award show. He does voice work. He did an album. On top of al this, the man is almost 75 years old. Under the pressure cooker of crowds, the nuclear glare of the lights and inane questions, he holds his own.

In an era where Lindsey Lohan can party until she gets canned; and Paris whizzes through late night LA liquored up; Shatner shows you how it should be done. Were I in his shoes, I would do my show; play with my horses; and keep a low profile. He can’t keep a low profile. He’s…. Captain Kirk! The inertia of his celebrity will never let him live that down, so he rides the wave. Maybe this is all because of the 1970s. Hollywood makes a blood sport of using actors to fill a niche, then tossing them like so much set-design. After three years of having his shirt torn and puckering up to alien go-go girls, Hollywood tossed the Montreal kid from The Brothers Karamazov. When stars get to this point they either spiral into self-destruction; or they retreat to huckster used cars and play dinner theatres. Shatner seemed like he was on a path to Hamlet to the tinkle of dinner cutlery.

But something happened. Since the inception of TV, TV viewership has been fragmenting. While production costs climb, incomes flatten. Producers could never re-coup their per episode costs. They take a loss on the first run and hope to make a profit in reruns. Star Trek was a cash cow. What was a ratings dud in prime time became a darling of syndication. The crew of the Enterprise became recognizable worldwide. After Star Wars erupted in 1977, every studio wanted their own piece of this big sci-fi pie: Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers came out on the heels of Lucas’ smash hit. Paramount dusted off Star Trek. To bring back Star Trek, they had to bring back Shatner and his crew. A Hollywood has-been was re-ignited.

The best things that can happen to an actor is to become famous. The worst thing to happen is to lose all that. What I saw behind Shatner’s diplomacy and grace was a glimmer of gratefulness. I am grateful for his comeback; that he’s decided to ride the wave these long years; and continue to entertain us.

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