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William Shatner on UFOs, Leonard Nimoy, and T.J. Hooker's Politics

Photo: Getty Images


William Shatner — where to begin? Sure, he gave life to such iconic TV characters as Captain Kirk and T.J. Hooker, but he’s also spent as much of his life doing Shakespeare on the legitimate stage as he has shilling for Priceline and appearing on game shows — not to mention his side career as an idiosyncratic crooner of American classics. This week he publishes his endearing autobiography, Up Till Now. Shatner spoke with Vulture about the book, his UFO sighting, and being propositioned by a gorilla.

Hi, Mr. Shatner.
Jesse, how old are you?

I’m 29. Um, why?
The voice! It’s a great voice.

Well, thanks! And thank you for talking to us.
Thank you for having your voice.

In the intro to your book you talk about being propositioned by a gorilla. Did that really happen?
Yes, it really happened. Everything I said really happened. I was doing publicity for an environmental cause, and they thought it would get some press if I visited with Koko, the well-known gorilla. If you’ve ever seen a mountain gorilla in a cage in a zoo, you see how absolutely disconcerting they can be. I was thoroughly intimidated by the size, the beetle brow, and the look in her eyes. But I’m a hero, you see, so I couldn’t afford to show the fear. I chose what some people refer to as the English method, by showing courage and then hoping that I would feel it. The way I was able to show it was to keep repeating ‘I love you.’

And it worked?
And it worked. I came closer to her, and she looked very benign. And then she reached for me and did a thorough examination.

Later you confess to having lied about seeing UFOs when you crashed your motorcycle in the desert.
Well, that’s true, but I tell the truth in the book. I tell the truth that I lied. I wonder what the philosophical implications are of that. I think that I do lie sometimes, but only to save feelings or my own skin.

Or to tell a good story?
Or to tell a good story. Maybe.

You also talk at length about your troubled relationship with Leonard Nimoy and the rest of the Star Trek cast. How would you characterize that dynamic?
Well, I’m not sure what the rest of the cast were fussing about, and I didn’t know about it until long after the show. But as for Leonard and I, I probably was a little too full of myself and thought maybe I should be getting some of his good publicity. I may have been jealous, or envious, or both. But then time took care of all that. Now Leonard and I are like brothers.

What was it like when you found out they were all so mad at you?
I was astonished. I was like, ‘You’ve been carrying this around all these years?’ It was sad, because it’s like finding out your friend really doesn’t like you. You think, ‘Why don’t you like me?’ It was an ‘Oh!’ moment. Actually it was more like “Ah.” Like, ‘Aahhhhhh, that hurts.’

But you and Leonard are like brothers now?
Oh yeah, Leonard is my best buddy. We have so much in common. For example, this interview, and any other interview, is part entertainment, part experience, part bullshit. Leonard and I both know the role that we’re playing whenever there’s something going on that we need to attend or that we’re doing. It works on several different levels. But when you’re aware of those levels, it becomes amusing.

A colleague referred to you as the master of self-irony.
Is that like pressing your own shirt? No, I get the idea. But I think if you say “I’m the master of self-irony,” you’re no longer it.

J.J. Abrams has a Star Trek prequel in the works. Any thoughts?
Well, I know nothing about the movie. I was not invited to participate in any fashion. It’s been very secretive, and I’m not privy to any material whatsoever. I probably know less than you do.

But do you feel any attachment to it?
Well, I do, but it’s like when the girl says, ‘I no longer love you and I’m gone,’ for the spurned lover to hang on and say, ‘Well, I’ll call you tomorrow.’ Leonard is in it, and he taunts me about it.

Was he conflicted?
Yes, he was conflicted about whether to taunt me or not. And then the conflict resolved itself pro-taunting. I feel like taunt-o now.

So what candidates would your big characters be supporting in the upcoming election?
T.J. Hooker would support McCain, and so would Denny Crane, but he would think McCain was a left-winger. Captain Kirk wouldn’t recognize any of the three.

What about you?
Me? Probably Barack Obama.

You think he’s going to pull it off?
Well, the papers are full of the potential of [Hillary] backing down. You can see the sadness in Bill Clinton’s face. In one photograph, with him standing behind her, I looked at his face and thought, She’s going to get out, and he knows it. That was my reading.

In the book you also talk a lot about “Shatnerian delivery”. Can you explain?
I don’t really understand what it means, except when someone’s doing an impersonation and I turn to the person beside me and say, ‘Does that sound like me?’ And they guiltily nod ‘yes.’ Apparently it’s rhythmic. If somebody does me, I’m now aware they think they’re doing me. I’m aware of the tip-offs.

Your voice is really soothing in real life.
Are you going to sleep? Maybe it’s the subject matter. —Jesse Ellison