Reflections Blog

William Shatner and the Art of Self-Reinvention

I was struck recently by a photo of William Shatner on the cover of USA Weekend magazine, which was enclosed in my local Sunday newspaper.  The caption beside Shatner’s photo read, “A panel of TV’s funniest stars, including William Shatner, reveals what will make you smile this season.”   William Shatner?  One of TV’s funniest stars?  When did that happen?

I first saw William Shatner in the 1958 film The Brothers Karamazov, which starred Yul Brynner, Maria Schell, Claire Bloom, Richard Basehart, Albert Salmi, and Lee J. Cobb.  If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend it highly.  Shatner played Alexi, the youngest Karamazov brother, who is a monk.  Throughout this drama of love, betrayal, crime, punishment, recklessness, loyalty, intrigue, and redemption, Shatner plays his role with the brooding intensity that befits a classically trained actor, which he was.

Born in Quebec in 1931, Shatner trained as a Shakespearian actor and performed at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  His earliest roles—in Oedipus Rex, Henry V, and Judgment at Nuremberg, for instance—required the gravity and solemnity that a dramatic actor could bring to them.  Had you put him in a cohort of young, serious, dramatic actors of his age group, his peers would have included Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, and James Dean.

He appeared to be on the same trajectory as those actors but got derailed, some observers believe, by not being selective enough about the roles he played.   He accepted numerous television roles, often just bit parts, when serious actors did not appear on television.  When he was 23, for instance, and had already had dramatic roles on the stage and screen, he played Ranger Bob on the Canadian Howdy Doody Show.  Before his career went into a fatal stall, however, he landed the role of a lifetime as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek, which ran from 1966 to 1969, followed by a series of Star Trek motion pictures. 

The worldwide fame he gained by playing Kirk, however, came at the price of type casting.  In the decades since Star Trek ended, he has had many other roles, but audiences principally thought of him as the brash, confident captain of Starfleet’s flagship.  His next big break came in 1982 when he was cast as police officer T. J. Hooker, a series that ran until 1986.  Subsequently, he hosted Rescue 911, which ran from 1989 to 1996.  He joined the final season of The Practice and then stared in Boston Legal, which ran until 2009.  In these police and legal series, he principally played it straight.

So how did he become one of television’s funniest stars?  Although comedy was never his forte, he has been doing comedy, now and then, throughout his career.  But lately it’s become his staple.  In shows like 3rd Rock from the Sun (in which he played a character named Big Giant Head) and the film Miss Congeniality, Shatner has shown great comic flair, but it’s not how he was trained and not where he’s earned his bread and butter throughout a lengthy acting career. 

As his opportunities have developed through the years, William Shatner has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent himself.  Although audiences and casting directors may have typecast him, particularly after Star Trek, he has refused to typecast himself.   His versatility and willingness to adapt to the career choices available to him is one of his hallmarks.  I still remember him as that earnest young monk in The Brothers Karamazov.  I find it difficult to think of him as a comedian, but that's my limitation, not his.  Now nearly 80 years old, he is starring in a new television series ($#*! My Dad Says) and is being hailed as one of television’s funniest stars. 

Good for you, Bill Shatner.   We should all be so capable of reinventing ourselves as we grow older. 

Copyright  ©2010 by Terry R. Bacon.  All rights reserved.

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