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William Shatner on showing horses, his upcoming Christmas album and chasing opportunity

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Illustration by Blair Gauntt

Editor’s note: This article was published in Little Village issue 250 as a preview of William Shatner’s Sept. 28 show at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, which was cancelled on Monday, Sept. 17, after the magazine went to print. The Paramount has not announced the reason behind the cancellation.

It was 52 years ago this month that a scrappy, upstart little sci-fi program premiered on NBC. In the captain’s chair of the NCC-1701, also known as the USS Enterprise, sat a Canadian, classically trained Shakespearean actor with only a few films, a couple of Broadway credits and a handful of one-off television spots to his name stateside. He was well-reviewed but hardly a household name.

Now, in 2018, William Shatner is one of the most recognized figures in science fiction for his role as Star Trek’s Captain James Tiberius Kirk. His locked-in place in television history includes iconic moments such as the first interracial kiss on television, with Star Trek co-star Nichelle Nichols, and gags that have evolved into memes about his speech patterns (Even. Kids. Know. The. Kirk. Way. Of. Speaking.)

Despite a level of success that might have typecast other actors, Shatner continued to broaden and expand his range after Trek. His roles as the eponymous lead on T.J. Hooker and as the irascible and unforgettable Denny Crane on The Practice and Boston Legal introduced him to an audience that would never have found him in science fiction.

He also has a wide and varied career beyond acting, including as a director, a novelist and a spoken-word performer. It’s no accident that numerous articles have referred to him as a Renaissance man — one of his horses (yes, he shows horses, too) is even called Renaissance Man’s Medici. But he’s not done yet. Shatner is moving past the Renaissance into his own Age of Discovery, and at 87, he is still continually discovering.

His horses, in fact, are the perfect example.

“I came to [horses] later in life, when I’d made enough money so I could afford them,” Shatner told Little Village with a self-aware laugh in a recent phone call.

But, he says, he’s “not just kidding around” — and he’s got the wins to show for it. Last month, at the World Championship Horse Show at the Kentucky State Fair, he competed in four different driving competitions with two horses. He placed fifth with Renaissance Man’s Medici in Amateur Gentleman’s Fine Harness. And he and Track Star took first place a driving class — roadster, one of the fastest and most dangerous — and were the reserve world champions (he’s won the championship in the past). Shortly after our call, he told me, he was headed to Las Vegas for a reining competition.

“I’ve spent quite a few years trying to get good at it; I’ve gotten quite good at it. I have every expectation that I could possibly be way up there if luck and my skills don’t leave me,” said Shatner, who since 1990 has helmed the Hollywood Charity Horse Show. “The horses are very worthy of it … I am very seriously breeding, training, selling, buying, riding horses.”

For all his humor, that seriousness carries over into everything Shatner takes on. Project after project, effort after effort, all done at 110 percent. (A single-episode turn on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic last year led to a tweet proclaiming himself a brony.) And he’s full of hustle.

“I’ve got all kinds of projects that I would like to do, that I’m actively trying to sell to people who can put it on the air or publish it or print it, and also have the money to finance it,” Shatner said. “I’m actively, every week, going someplace to sell something. I’ve got a number of animated feature ideas that I’m actively trying to sell. So if any of these things were to go, it would be a lovely thing for me.”

This year, in addition to a new memoir, Live Long And . . .: What I Learned Along the Way, which came out early this month, he’s also dropped his first country album — a collaboration with founding member of Alabama Jeff Cook. And in October, he breaks more new ground with his first Christmas album, Shatner Claus.

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“Christmas is a wonderful holiday,” said Shatner, who is Jewish. “It’s a celebration.”

He was drawn to the project, he said, because he was offered the opportunity — a common thread throughout his career. Shatner has a well-earned reputation for taking full advantage of every chance that comes his way.

“I thought I wanted to do something a little bit different, or do things a little bit differently, to put an adverb on it, and so I took traditional Christmas songs, and I bent them a little,” he said. “Not unrecognizably so, and in some cases very recognizably so — but different.”

The album features collaborations with a wide array of artists, from Brad Paisley and Judy Collins to Iggy Pop and Ian Anderson.

“Because what I’m doing is, I guess, unique — given that I can’t sing. But given that I have a feeling for the poetry and the rhythm of it, and the meaning of it, and the words — the beauty of the English language — and loving the melodic line … musicians who understand what I’m trying to do, when I’ve asked them, have flocked to join me,” Shatner said.

Given that fellow noted spoken word performer Henry Rollins joins him on Shatner Claus as well, his bold statement rings true. Shatner is not shy about self-promotion, but what might come across as brash or presumptuous in a less storied performer reads here instead as a well-earned self-assuredness. And he can be self-effacing, too, when the moment calls for it.

“I’m being asked to do a blues album, and I’m getting set to try and do something in the blues genre that I won’t wreck,” he quipped of his next new path of discovery.

On Friday, Sept. 28, Shatner heads to the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids to revisit the world of Kirk with a showing of The Wrath of Khan followed by storytelling and a Q&A session, both covering a wide range of his Trek and non-Trek work.

“There’s a kind of unique way of bringing film and live theater together, and it’s a delightful time,” he said, adding what is clearly the motivation behind all of his endeavors: “It’s a delight to do.”

When she was little, Genevieve Trainor always put her Spock action figure in Uhura’s dress. That lifelong identification with Nimoy is likely behind her whimsical fantasies of becoming Shatner’s BFF. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 250.


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