91-year-old iconic actor William Shatner says 'I don’t have long to live'

"My time is limited, so that’s very much a factor. I’ve got grandchildren. This documentary is a way of reaching out after I die."

Joshua Young North Carolina

91-year-old William Shatner sat down with Variety to talk about a new documentary featuring the actor titled You Can Call Me Bill, and said part of the reason he wanted to do the film was that he felt he did not have long to live and wanted to make something for his grandchildren.

"I don’t have long to live, Shatner said. "Whether I keel over as I’m speaking to you or 10 years from now, my time is limited, so that’s very much a factor. I’ve got grandchildren. This documentary is a way of reaching out after I die."

Shatner, who was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1931, started acting as a child and continued through college. After success in the Canadian theater scene he received his first Broadway role in 1956 in Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe and then as the Duke of Gloucester in Henry V, where he doubled up as star Christopher Plummer's understudy. In a 2011 interview, Plummer said of his friend Shatner that he was an "extraordinary fellow" and remarked how he knew he was "going to be a star." 

"He didn't do what I did at all," Plummer said, remarking on Shatner's creative choice to distinguish himself from Plummer.

In his interview with Variety, Shatner said when he makes his creative choices "I’m trying to discover something I’ve never said before or to find a way to say something I’ve said before in a different way, so I can explore that truth further."

Shatner steadily worked his way from Broadway to film and television in the late 50s and early 60s and made memorable appearances in popular television shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Big Valley.

Roger Corman offered Shatner his first role as a leading man in 1962's The Intruder, a film maligned at the time but which has gone on to cult acclaim, especially for its unflinching portrayal of racism in the South. Shatner portrays an outsider who intrudes on a small southern town to foment outrage as the town faces a ruling that would end school segregation. The film was written by Charles Beaumont, one of the writers for the television show The Twilight Zone, and the two men became friends.

Shatner appeared in two classic episodes of The Twilight Zone, including Nick of Time in 1960, where he grows obsessed with a diner fortune telling machine. His role in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, a 1963 episode written by sci-fi author Richard Matheson and directed by a nascent Richard Donner, is now considered iconic. In the episode, Shatner plays a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who sees a Gremlin on the side of his airplane causing destruction. His "there's something on the wing" line delivery served as a prelude to his archetypal acting style that would flourish in his most famous role.

Shatner also appeared in a pilot for a show about Alexander the Great that never went to season where he starred alongside future Batman, Adam West.

In 1966 Shatner was cast in the second pilot for Star Trek, a show groundbreaking both for its storytelling and its historic relevance. The show featured the first interracial kiss on television in the episode "Plato's Stepchildren," where Shatner's Kirk kissed Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, in a moment that made history.

Shatner's performance is so iconic it's spawned decades of impressions, which Shatner has reviewed and poked fun at, and some have offered theories that his acting style was a hybrid of his theater training and the fact that often scripts in Star Trek were fastly re-written and Shatner's trademark staccato delivery was him working to remember newly written lines.

Shatner, along with an exemplary cast, shot Star Trek into a popular culture monolith.

After the show's third season ended its initial run in 1969, Shatner continued working in smaller roles in the 1970s. In 1978, Shatner's likeness was used as the face mask for the killer Michael Myers in John Carpenter's Halloween.

According to the New York Times, Shatner said of his acting, "I never thought of myself as a great actor, like Olivier. I was a working actor. I entertained people and always tried to be terrific at whatever it was."

In 1979 the Star Trek franchise was revitalized with the Robert Wise directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture. While the film was a financial hit, it did not solidify the permanent return of Trek, that occurred with its sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Shatner lobbied his success in the franchise to incorporate the plight of Humpback Whales, which were being hunted into extinction at the time, into the subject matter of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and he directed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Shatner also created several albums that featured an unusual spoken-word style of performing popular tunes, such as his rendition of Elton John's Rocket Man. Shatner also celebrated a successful writing career and created the Tek series of Sci-Fi books which were popular entries in the growing cyberpunk genre in the 90s.

Shatner's performances in the Star Trek films helped propel the franchise to a success it still savors today and encapsulated his role in history as the originator of one of the most memorable on-screen characters ever conceived.

Shatner, who told Variety that he did not "have a favorite role" and said "I just try to have a good time on set," continued acting in the 80s through the 2020s outside of his Trek appearances in other memorable roles, such as the action cop drama T.J. Hooker in the 80s and the court procedural Boston Legal from the 2000s.

Speaking of his iconic career, which has not featured the actor as a documentarian subject, the actor told variety "I have a grandson named Sebastian, who is 3 months old and already he’s got a mischievous smile. He’s already a little bit of a comic. His mother and father are lovely people. You look into his eyes, and you can see the aspects of what he will be like." 

"So with the time I have left, I like to look at all my grandchildren and try to extract what I can out of my impressions," the actor said.

Outside of acting, Shatner's personal life has seen great fortune and tragedy, such as in 1999 the actor's wife died in a swimming accident.

More recently the actor went to space on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin New Shepard rocket.


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