Sitting in the captain’s chair on any STAR TREK vehicle is an awesome responsibility for any actor; all eyes are upon you both onscreen and off, and no one is more aware of the benefits and trappings of that honor than William Shatner, the man who did it first back in the ’60s.
When I worked for ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, I had the opportunity to pick the brain of the original Captain James T. Kirk about his TREK days, on and off-set. It was a career high for me, having grown up as a huge fan of The Original Series — watching reruns on TV in the ’70s, playing with TREK Mego action figures, and running around my backyard wearing a Remco utility belt adorned with plastic phaser, tricorder, and communicator.
Our conversation was in support of Shatner’s one-on-one interview disc THE CAPTAINS CLOSE UP WITH WILLIAM SHATNER, a five-episode miniseries (and expansion of the 2011 documentary THE CAPTAINS) that rounded up all of the skippers of STAR TREK — Patrick Stewart (NEXT GENERATION), Avery Brooks (DEEP SPACE NINE), Kate Mulgrew (VOYAGER), Scott Bakula (ENTERPRISE) and Chris Pine (the current big-screen STAR TREK) — for some deep thoughts. A must for TREK fans, the miniseries impressively managed to capture some incredibly candid and sometimes painful admissions from these well-known actors. Or as Shatner put it, “the raw nerve in their soul.”
Shatner is a tough nut to crack when it comes to his personal life. He has developed an impenetrable shell over the years given the constant barrage of personal questions in relation to his public persona. But surprisingly, the actor was willing to reveal more than usual to me about his own “raw nerve” experiences. Given the context of the material he was promoting, he was willing to explore why his personal life suffered due to the sacrifices he made while working on the daily grind of a network TV show (the first TREK ran on NBC for three seasons, from 1966-69).
“I was gone a great deal of the time. … I did what I could. I needed to be on the set,” he recalled. “You’ve heard the actors you’ve interviewed over the years talk about the number of hours they have to put in on the series and how exhausting it is, and how tired they are on the weekends, and lines to learn, and publicity to do, and finally you find that your whole year is used up. What have you done? Well, you’ve fulfilled yourself, both career-wise and emotionally, and certainly you’ve made a living so you’re able to provide for your family. All of those things are asked of everybody’s life.”
Although Shatner could justify the demands of work, his marriage ultimately suffered, and he and first wife of 13 years, Gloria Rand, divorced in 1969. Now in his eighties, he observes that the paternal patterns that were set in his childrens’ upbringing have played out all over again in their adult lives.
“In my case, I have three girls, each one of them married someone with a career – certainly in two out of the three cases — and they are suffering the same deprivation that they had with their father,” he said. “But they see what has to be, in terms of getting out the house and leaving for a while to make the job work, so they’re getting an insight into what I went through when I was their husbands’ age.”
He thought for a moment, and then posited the rhetorical question, “If family abuse is cyclical because people are brought up with abuse, they become abusers. Does overachievement run culturally in the family?”
Asked if he thought that his familial sacrifice was worth the trade-off of fame and accomplishment, he replied to me with a laugh, “Oh, if your children committed murder and took down a dozen people with them all because they had a bad upbringing, I guess it wasn’t, because you were starring in a role. However, if your children are fine and everything about your career is successful as a result of the hard work you put into it, I guess it was worth it. And the truth probably lies somewhere in between. But it makes you think about what is worthwhile and what’s not worthwhile. And each one of these [TREK actors in THE CAPTAINS CLOSE-UP] had to think about that.”
“Patrick Stewart talks about his mother being buffeted about by his father; he’s never spoken about that,” Shatner told me. “Kate Mulgrew talks about the pain of letting go of her children in order to work … and being, in one case, forced to stay on the set when her child was sick. [Seeing] the pain in her face of never being able to capture that time, we all go through that. I certainly did. Aspects of family life were sacrificed in order to do the job. And every actor, every person who wishes to succeed above the norm, is subject to that kind of thing. You have to sacrifice certain aspects of your life.”
Working on the CAPTAINS project allowed Shatner to grow close with all of the actors who have headlined a TREK show (prior to DISCOVERY), and he pointed out, “There was a Comic-Con in Las Vegas, and 20,000 people were there and I was on stage with Kate, and we joked around, and I realized how much I really adore her, with her intelligence, her humor and her talent. Scott has become a buddy. Avery Brooks is one of the most colorful men I’ve ever met. Patrick Stewart and I are really good friends; I think of him as a deep friend of mine. All as a result of making THE CAPTAINS and these five CAPTAINS CLOSE UP, I became friends with them in a very short period of time because we cast aside pretentions and they went along on the ride to be as honest as they could be at that moment in time.”
Shatner concluded, poetically, “I am their peer, and I know whereof they speak, and they know that I know.”