William Shatner on Star Trek’s 50th Birthday, Leonard Nimoy’s Shoes, and the Secret to Creativity

William Shatner Photo: Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images

William Shatner — Captain Kirk, though he’s had mixed feelings about that designation — is going to be 85 years old soon. Not terribly long after he hits that milestone, Star Trek, the franchise that made him famous, will hit a milestone of its own, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. More than half of Shatner’s long life has been defined by three years on TV in the ’60s. He’s made albums, won non-Trek Emmys, directed films, written novels, had a weird fourth or fifth life as a Priceline pitchman, become a (seemingly) ironic social media star, and is bringing his one-man show Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It to the New York area in January. Yet he remains, to the vast majority of people, Captain Kirk. With the Star Trek anniversary on its way, as well as a CBS reboot planned for 2017, we spoke with the erstwhile Enterprise captain about his legacy, his Star Wars potshots, and the mystic chords of life. 

Hi, William.
How are you? I’m going to talk to you about my show at the Bergen Performing Arts Center, right?

I’m hoping to talk about some other things, too.
Of course.

We can start with the show, though. How is touring with it going?
Well, when the public reads about a man going on tour, they imagine screaming, devoted, passionate fans, and smoke and flames, and people running for airplanes. It sounds so glamorous. But what in fact it is is the search for a hotel bed that isn’t too soft. It’ll wreck my back if it is. 

That sounds pretty grim.
Touring is all about getting to the venue, David. Now, there are different ways of getting to the venue. I got to know Joe Walsh of the Byrds, and he had some things to tell me about the subject.

You mean the Eagles, right?
The Eagles, excuse me. I knew birds were involved. I got to know Joe, and I asked him, "What’s touring like for you?" He said, "Oh, you know, it’s tough. We stay in a city for while, we get on a private plane." The Eagles probably buy the hotel they’re staying in. I was talking to a guy who tours in a diametrically opposite way that I’m touring.

Do you book with Priceline?
As a matter of fact, I do. Me and the gentleman who travels with me, his name is Lucky Dave, are touring from one end of America to the other. We’re renting cars, we’re booking rooms and buying airplane tickets all using that service. And we’re on our own, David. We’re all on our own. Our only hope, like I said, is that the mattress at the hotel we wind up at isn’t too soft, because that’ll wreck my back, and then the following day I’ll have to sit in a car and sit in a plane.

Thank you for disabusing me of the belief that being on tour is fun.
I don’t have a good time. The fun part is being onstage. The rest of it is anxiety-producing. Will the plane leave on time? Will you make your connections? Will the car break down? Will the snow turn into drifts? 

Would you say you’re a neurotic traveler?
No, but I’ve begun to get the shakes. And I don’t mean Arabs, either.

Okay. Oh, wait. I just got it. You were punning on sheiks.
Stay with me, David. Recently I was in Italy, and these border guards probe your anus with their fingers. They get into your luggage and they take things apart, and people are looking at you while they do it. I mean, I’m all for the guards looking for people who are going to do mayhem, but that isn’t me. Why would a small tube of suntan lotion ... anyway, traveling is anxiety-producing. I’m paranoid.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Star Trek’s TV debut. How have your feelings about the franchise changed over the years? It seems like there’s still a degree of ambivalence on your part.
What do you mean?

Well, you did three Star Trek documentaries over the last little while: The Captains, Get a Life!, and Chaos on the Bridge. That suggests to me that you’re still trying to understand what Star Trek means.
You’ve seen those? Good for you.

Am I wrong, or does the fact that you’ve recently made three documentaries about Star Trek not indicate that you’re still in the process of figuring out what the show means to you?
There’s also a practical consideration. Star Trek is what people are expecting from me. I’m able to sell a documentary about that subject, as opposed to a documentary about how to do an interview.

You have a better chance of selling that documentary than I do. Is Star Trek’s impact on your life — for better or worse — something you think about much?
Not really. Maybe you’re seeing something in those films that I’m not seeing or feeling. Look, Star Trek was, in many instances, a wonderfully written show that at its best had provocative themes. Science fiction itself is a thought-provoking subject matter, since it deals with the unknown and the mysteries of life and death. That subject matter, since I’ve been thrust into it 50 years ago, has become interesting to me. I write about it. I think about it. I read about it.

What’s a piece of science you’ve come across lately that was particularly interesting to you?
I’m writing a novel with a writer named Jeff Rovin that will be out next year called Zero-G, and I suggested we use something in it that I had read about. I read that microbial life dries up and seems to be dead and then, with the addition of water thousands of years later, can come back to life. That’s astonishing. Thousands of years! These are scientific concepts so mysterious that they beggar our imagination. I saw a photograph yesterday of a black hole absorbing a star, and it burped energy back out! A black hole cosmic-burped dust out the other way! What is more intriguing than that? Perhaps a good pasta.

Is it frustrating that Star Trek is what people still want from you? Does that pigeonholing make it hard to pursue these other interests you're talking about?
Well, yes. It’s hard. I’ve got some wonderful scripts that I’d love to make into films, but it’s difficult to get financing. But everybody has difficulty getting financing. The best thing to do is to play the cards you have and try and adjust the game so that it’s along the lines that are interesting to you. With those documentaries you mentioned, I was able to suitably satisfy my curiosity as well as interest a network that wanted to show them.

Can you tell me about one of those scripts you just mentioned?
I don’t know if I should.

Come on.
One is a horror film. I’m afraid to tell you the one-line idea, it’s such a good idea, but it involves the concept that death doesn’t necessarily mean a white light shining down on you as you float towards your mother while she calls, "Come, come." Other things might be involved, too.

How much of your post–Star Trek public persona is meant to be a self-parody? Or meant to suggest that you’re in on some sort of jokey, ironic appreciation of “William Shatner”?
I don’t know how to deal with that suggestion. What’s the joke? Is the joke dramatization? Is the joke this purported way I have of talking, which you may have noticed is not my way of talking? What’s the joke, David? Is the joke my saying to you that there is mystery out there about life and death and science, and that’s what interests me? Is that a joke? Not to me, but if you want to characterize it as a joke — Captain Kirk asks a question about the mystery of life — that’s up to you. But I don’t think of it that way.

So you don’t intentionally play with your persona?
Every so often, if someone wants to play with the persona, I’ll go along with it if it makes for a good interview. But I don’t want to profess naïveté to some interviewer by saying, "What’s the joke?" Are you laughing at me? What are you laughing at?

On Twitter, it sure seems like you’re playing into the idea of “William Shatner” as a self-absorbed declaimer. Like when you tweeted about how much better Star Trek is than Star Wars. There was some self-parody there, right?
That was tongue-in-cheek, yes. That was a joke.

Is Star Trek better than Star Wars?
They’re both entertaining. You go in the theater and you’re satisfied when you leave it. That’s the common denominator between them.

What is William Shatner’s legacy?
You know, I’m having a great time doing what I can do, that’s it. I’ve got two books coming out. The one I told you about, and a nonfiction book about Leonard Nimoy called Leonard. It’s about Leonard’s and my friendship, but in the process, I delineate his life. It’s sort of a biography of Leonard, but from my point of view. And it’s a bit of a dissertation on male friendship. Then I’ve got a new mini-series coming on NBC, which is called Better Late Than Never, in which Terry Bradshaw, George Foreman, Henry Winkler, and myself spend a month in Japan, Thailand, Korea, and … someplace else in Asia.

Can you share a Leonard Nimoy story that you’ve never shared before?
No. But I will tell you a story that I evoked out of him that I don’t think anybody else has. It will be uniquely yours, David.

Hit me.
Leonard’s grandfather was a leatherworker, and when he would come home to Boston, this is after he’d become a successful actor, he’d visit his grandfather. And every time they would talk and they were sitting close to each other, his grandfather would reach into Leonard’s shoes to feel the leather. Being a leatherworker, working with leather, Leonard’s grandfather would know whether the shoes needed repair or not, and that’s how he’d know how well his grandson was doing. That’s a lovely story, isn’t it.

Yes, it is. What’s your opinion on Star Trek coming back to network TV in 2017?
It’s a good thing, of course. This summer I drove a motorcycle that I helped design 2,400 miles. I’ve gathered a company together to make what I’m calling a cinematic graphic novel.

What does that mean?
I also helped design a watch! These are all new ideas and new concepts I'm talking about. It isn’t Shakespeare, although I’m going to be doing Shakespeare soon. I’m being creative at a higher rate, and more intensely than ever.

What’s the trick?
Opportunity, David.

You don’t get tired? You’re 84 years old.
I don’t know whether I’m going to be correct in this statement, but I might as well say it anyway: Everything boils down to certain principles, whether it’s designing a motorcycle or a watch or playing a role. It boils down to making choices that play a creative chord deep inside you. You hear that chord, and you make your decisions not necessarily based on knowledge but instead based on a feeling of rightness. It’s not unlike a salesman who says, “I don’t care if I’m selling a refrigerator or a beach ball. The whole point is the art of the sell, of seeing what your need is, and making you understand that such a need can only be filled by your buying a beach ball.” Do you follow me?

If you’re tuned in to the feeling — I’m being specific about my life now — if you’re tuned in to the feeling, the correctness of it, you can say, "This feels good," or "This feels bad," and your decisions will at least be accurate for you. Do you follow what I just said? It's important.

The secret to creativity and energy is to understand intuition?
That’s absolutely dead-on! Exactly! The chords that are played musically inside you, you have to learn to recognize them. I have to go now. Do you know where I’m going to perform? January 21 at the Bergen Performing Arts in New Jersey, and January 22 in Westbury, New York. Get those dates right. Double-check them online.

But how do you learn how to recognize the secret chords?
I don’t know, David. The world works against curiosity and wonder. I must leave you now. I'm sorry. Take care, man.

*A version of this article appears in the December 28, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.