William Shatner: 10 Facts About the TV Icon
If they made an all-star team of actors from television’s first 75 years, William Shatner would be its captain. From his humble beginnings in live TV, to unforgettable roles on The Twilight Zone, to his career-defining performance as Captain James T. Kirk, to his current role as nerd culture’s elder statesman, Shatner has been an icon for more than 50 Earth years.
But, while he’s beloved for his unapologetically over-the-top acting style, Shatner is arguably most famous for portraying himself. Starting with regular appearances on 1970s game shows like Match Game, Tattletales, and Hollywood Squares, and continuing with his frequent talk show bookings and regular gigs and a narrator and host, the post-Star Trek “Bill Shatner” is arguably as famous a character as Jim Kirk is!
In recent years, Shatner has been the king of the primetime guest stars (The Big Bang Theory, Hot In Cleveland), written books like Live Long And…What I Learned Along the Way (2018), directed and hosted documentaries like The Captains (2011), appeared on Broadway and a national tour in the one-man show Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It, starred in animated films like Batman Vs. Two-Face (opposite Adam West), managed a horse farm in Kentucky, and so much more. In short, he’s the busiest 90 year old in show biz.
“I don’t want people to know (the real) me, I want them to believe my version,” Shatner once said. And most of us have done just that for our entire lives. Here are some fun facts about one of the most unforgettable figures in American pop culture history!
1. He got his start in Canada as a child performer.
Shatner was born March 22, 1931 in Montreal, Quebec to a tailor and an elocution teacher, which may explain his trademark “Shatnerian” acting technique! At age eight, Bill attended acting classes held in a basement. As a child he performed on CBC Radio (Canadian Broadcasting Company) and would go on to serve as a CBC broadcaster while majoring in Commerce at Montreal’s McGill University. “I didn’t do anything spectacular or special (in college) and I don’t know how all of this career and success came about,” he told the Guardian.
2. “Kirk” and “Scotty” went to space 12 years before Star Trek!
Bill graduated in 1952 and made his TV debut in 1954, but there’s some debate about his first appearance. Shatner played Ranger Bob on the Canadian version of Howdy Doody in late 1954, but many sources credit his first TV appearance to a CBC sci-fi show called Space Command. That now-lost children’s adventure series starred James Doohan — who would go on to play chief engineer Scotty on Star Trek a dozen years later! In addition to Space Command, Bill and Doohan also appeared together in a 1960 teleplay called “The Well” on the drama series General Motors Presents (a.k.a. Encounter).
3. He co-starred with Steve McQueen on TV.
After making his Broadway play debut in 1956, Shatner began appearing on the anthology shows that were a highlight of TV’s Golden Age. A February 25, 1957 episode of Studio One entitled “The Defender” featured Bill as an attorney defending an angry young man – 26-year-old Steve McQueen in one of his earliest major roles! Nearly 50 years after it aired, an episode of Boston Legal brilliantly repurposed footage from “The Defender” to depict Shatner’s character Denny Crane as a young man.
4. He starred in two Twilight Zone episodes — including one of the best!
In 1960, Shatner was cast in The Twilight Zone episode “Nick Of Time” about a devilish fortune telling machine. But his indelible mark on the Zone came three years later when he starred in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” as an airplane passenger who sees a monster on the wing. “This is gonna be awful,” Shatner remembered thinking, about one of the show’s best-loved episodes!
5. He starred in a TV show before Star Trek.
In 1965, Shatner starred as an assistant D.A. in For The People, a legal drama series created and directed by Stuart Rosenberg (director of Cool Hand Luke). Jessica Walters played his wife and Howard da Silva was his boss in this series, which bore a resemblance to “The Defender” (which had already become a weekly series with Robert Reed in Shatner’s original role). Sadly for Shatner — but happily for Star Trek fans — For The People was cancelled after 13 episodes, opening up his schedule for a certain “five-year mission.”
6. “Kirk” and “Spock” were best friends in real life.
In his book Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, Shatner wrote that Leonard Nimoy was his “closest friend in the world.” But that was not always the case. The two actors were wary of each other in the show’s early days, especially when fan mail favored Nimoy’s logical Vulcan over Shatner’s quick-to-throw-a-punch captain by a wide margin. Bill says the true friendship began after the show ended. “(Fan) conventions brought members of the cast together regularly and marked the real beginning of my friendship with Leonard,” he wrote. Bill has said one of his few regrets is that he and Nimoy were not as close in Nimoy’s final days.
7. Barbary Coast was a comeback.
In the fall of 1975, Shatner returned to primetime on Barbary Coast, his first starring role in a series since StarTrek. He played Jeff Cable, a master-of-disguise secret agent in 1880s San Francisco with Doug McClure as his casino-owner partner. Shatner and McClure had worked together previously on one episode of Checkmate (in 1961) and two of The Virginian (1965 and 1969). Sadly, this comedic mashup of the spy and Western genres from creator Douglas Heyes (Maverick) only aired for a single season, but it remains a fan favorite — and can be seen weekends on getTV!
8. He became a director on T.J. Hooker.
Shatner finally made a successful return to series TV in 1982 with T.J. Hooker from producer Aaron Spelling. He also directed ten episodes of the cop drama co-starring Heather Locklear, Adrian Zmed and James Darren. But his highest profile directorial assignment came in 1989 when he was assigned the fifth feature film with the original Star Trek cast. Bill directed (and wrote the story for) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), which had the best opening gross of any Trek film to-date.
9. He won two Emmys for playing the same character on two different shows.
Shatner may be most famous for roles a generation or two ago, but all of his seven Emmy nominations have come in the last 20 years. His first win was for the introduction of his character Denny Crane in the final season of David E. Kelley’s The Practice, and his second win was for the first season of the spinoff Boston Legal. “Many actors do not want to be laughed at,” Kelley said at the Paley Center for Media in 2006. “Bill just immediately embraced it.” And Shatner told the T.V. Academy in 2010 that his collaboration with Kelley is “maybe the most satisfying thing I’ve done.”
10. He’s a singer. Sort of.
Shatner’s 1968 debut album The Transformed Man is a truly unforgettable pop culture oddity, with spoken word renditions of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But, more recent releases like Has Been (produced by Ben Folds) and his first-ever Country album Why Not Me? (produced with Jeff Cook of the band Alabama) have received more critical acclaim. And Bill even graced the stage of the Grand Ole’ Opry in 2019. “I’ve admired Country for the longest time,” he told Rolling Stone. “Because Country music generally tells a story, the lyrics lend itself to what I do.”
11. Bonus! He’s an unlikely social media star — with no plans to retire!
While many people half his age have trouble keeping up with the latest technology, William Shatner dominates social media. His status as an “influencer” has helped keep Bill relevant for a generation that wasn’t even born when he was playing his most famous characters! And he has no plans to stop. “I don’t understand the concept of retirement,” Bill Shatner once said. “I’ll lie down and die. That will be my break.”
For airdates and times, visit the Barbary Coast show page.