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The Weekly interview: William Shatner on luck, music and the tranquility inside him

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William Shatner brings his one-man show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It, to the Smith Center on January 20.

Have you been to Las Vegas before? I’ve been in horse competitions, and I’ve been of course to the clubs and heavyweight fights, but I’ve never performed in Vegas. And I am so much looking forward to it.

Your show is a pretty comprehensive look at your life. What made you finally decide to put everything out there? Well, the idea of doing a one-man show sort of evolved. I tried it out in Australia, and it was very successful, so then I rewrote it, and we did it in Canada. I went the length of Canada, and it was successful, and then I was asked by Broadway producers to bring it to New York. And so I rewrote it and opened on Broadway and received wonderful notices. It was just a glorious moment for me. Putting the show together … I wrote a novel, and I took some of the stuff from the novel.

Performing these stories has been a process of learning how to do it. And I found that just telling, just speaking, wasn’t enough. I needed to form it as though it were an act, and so it became sort of an acting exercise, playing these different parts and suggesting to the audience’s mind where the locale was, what the feeling was, and so it’s an exercise in using the English language to evoke this reaction and this understanding of what I was talking about, and I became more fascinated on how to do it, and do it better.

It sounds like this was an immense challenge for you. It seemed too intimidating. I’ve seen some one-man shows with dancing girls and music, and I don’t have any dancing girls. So everything needs to be done by the voice, by the word, by the plasticity of my body. So it is the most challenging form of entertainment that an actor can attempt.

I was at the Pantages theater several weeks before I was going to appear there, listening to an oratorio—1,500 voices and 250 musicians, almost 2,000 people on stage entertaining about 3,500 people in the audience. Several weeks later, I was on that stage alone, entertaining 3,500 people. And the enormity and immensity of that cavern, and my attempting to do that, without trumpets and trombones. But you have to sort of make an act of faith of some kind. And imagine if you failed. I won’t mention who, but I had read when I was preparing the show, I had read about an actor who did that, and failed, was booed on stage.

You’ve been doing this show awhile now. Has anyone ever showed up at one of your performances wearing a Star Trek costume? (Laughs) I’m sure they have over the time I’ve done this. I wouldn’t know unless they come backstage. I don’t remember anybody doing that exactly.

It took 36 years for you to put out your second album, Has Been. But since then you’ve released two other albums, Seeking Major Tom and Ponder the Mystery. Why such a big gap time between the first two, and why are you more prolific lately? Interesting … I got pounded on this first album [The Transformed Man]. I was a young actor, not quite sure of what I was doing. I was asked to do an album, and so I said yes. So, I had tied literature to a song. My impulse on this record, The Transformed Man, was to link literature to which music was written, and tried to link the philosophy of the literature and the song. That was the impulse of the record. And so I needed to do both the literature and song together in order for you to understand the context. When I performed it on The Tonight Show, they said, “It’s six minutes long. You can only do three minutes. Which do you want to do?” I chose to do the song without any context. And it came as a laugh, and it was mocked for years, until I was able to do another album, in which I did the same thing, speak-sing, which was greeted with more positive results.

I was never asked to do another album. Then I was asked to do it … I had found Ben Folds, and asking Ben to do it with me was my most remarkable achievement, because it was the genius … I wrote the words, but he did the songs.

Has Been was stepping out, hoping not to be mocked. I said, “What am I gonna do, because they’re gonna mock me!” And Ben said, “Tell the truth!” And then I sat down and wrote the songs as I could, and in the same way, I was asked to do another album after Seeking Major Tom, and I chose a scenario like I would have written a screenplay or something. I made up a scenario and linked all these songs to the progression of the individual. And Billy Sherwood and his genius interwove the melodies, and suddenly we have a progressive rock album [Ponder the Mystery]. Now I’m on the cover of progressive rock magazines and extraordinary things are being said about the album.

So can we look forward to more albums? I don’t know. We performed the album with several members of the group Yes. So we performed it three times to standing ovations. We performed a song in the Hollywood Parade. We got great reaction. So we’re ready, Billy Sherwood and Tony Kaye and the other members of Circa, with whom I performed the album, are ready to go someplace and perform it. We just need to be asked. This album has to sell for them to ask me to do another album, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

I notice you end your show with the song “Real” from Has Been. Why that song? Well, it’s a particularly good song. Brad Paisley wrote it for me, and there’s a lovely touch at the end, if you will. It’s dramatic and it ends the show significantly. I use bits and pieces from Has Been throughout the show, in which I tell the audience about writing Has Been and the meaning of these songs, and I perform a little bit of it.

Speaking of real, who would you say is closest to the real William Shatner: Captain Kirk, T.J. Hooker or Denny Crane? Well, those are three decades in my life. I became more of those characters so that I wasn’t youthful captain Kirk when I played Denny Crane, but I was significantly older. And so everyone of them is me. Just from phases of my life.

Your IMDB page is impressive: Actor, author, Broadway performer, songwriter, an accomplished horseman, the list goes on. What’s given you the most satisfaction? (Long pause) You know … sometimes I use these interviews to question myself, so the pause I’m taking is examining with real validity how I feel about that question, because it’s an answer for myself as well. And my real satisfaction comes from a tranquility inside me, and I get that tranquility from the restless fear that I have of so many things. That tranquility comes in many shapes. So riding a horse, communicating with the horse—and I’m not talking about going for a ride in the park or in the woods—I practice very hard, as often as I can every week. I have a goal in mind when I get on the horse, and communicating that goal with the horse brings me that tranquility. But at the same time, when I’m performing this one man show, and it’s working, and it usually works, and the audience is with me, and I’ve been getting standing ovations at the end, and the satisfaction, the moving, the exultant emotion at the end for me brings me a great deal of satisfaction. So probably to answer your question, many things, if I can do them well, bring me satisfaction.

No matter what project you’ve tackled over the years, you’ve managed to endear yourself to generations of TV watchers and moviegoers equally. What’s your secret? (Laughs) You know, life is many episodes of great luck. The factor of luck in our lives is not played up enough, and some people might say that God … you know, some religious thing … but why should the guy who makes the point in a game thank God? In some way the person who made that victory achieved it by themselves and the aid of other people—and an element of luck. And so in my life, I’ve been very lucky. And I think that’s part of the answer.

What’s next for you? Is there anything you still want to do? Well, I’ve got a book coming out in March. I’ve got a webisode show I’ve sold. I’m finishing up a documentary that I think is going to be quite wonderful. I am trying to sell a game show that could be great fun. I’m seven hours into learning to pilot a helicopter. I’m on the road this month. I’m doing a reality show. I’m remaking my kitchen on camera in February. I’m going to make appearances in Dusseldorf and then San Francisco. So, I’m busy. I’m just trying to make the last days meaningful.

Shatner's World: We Just Live In It January 20, 7:30 p.m., $29-$150. Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall, 749-2000.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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