The larger-than-life Emmy award-winning actor, director, singer, and amateur astronaut William Shatner celebrates his 91st birthday today, March 22.
Shatner's most notable portrayal is of the legendary Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek series, films, video games, and cameo appearances that followed. It has left an indelible mark on popular culture that will last far into the future. Shatner has long passed an age where most performers would be settling into retirement, but there are few celebrities with as much energy as Shatner, who is also known for playing paintball and World of Warcraft.
Earlier this month, I attended a screening of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, and after the showing, Shatner came out to share some stories and answer a few pre-screened questions. He was funny and full of energy. Often telling two amazing stories at once, he'd start one story, then tell a tangential account to offer the proper context or irony before capping them both off with a satisfying ending. Towards the conclusion of his talk, he spoke a bit about his space Flight aboard Jeff Bezo's Blue Origins and how the flight itself reminded him of how fragile this planet really is.
It's fitting that Shatner's actual spaceflight allowed him a glimpse of our world that so few have seen before. It should be the lens to allow us to focus on the life and career of the man who allowed everyone a chance to see our world from a unique perspective. Since beaming down to alien worlds with not-so-alien problems over fifty years ago on television, Kirk became one of the greatest leaders in all of popular fiction. Kirk was not afraid to take chances, break rules, or rely on gut intuition to formulate that next, all-important move. But he also had a quality that all great leaders should have: he had the ability to listen. In one ear, he'd listen to the advice of his logical first officer Mr. Spock, and in the other, he'd be reminded not to lose sight of emotional, empathy, or even basic common sense from his friend, Dr. Leonard McCoy. Even with the advice of both of his dear friends, it was always Kirk that had to take charge and see the ship through each crisis as it came up. As a leader, he was also not afraid to put people in their place: I'm reminded of a fantastic episode of the original Star Trek, called "Balance of Terror." In that episode, Kirk must contend with his equal, the captain of an experimental ship of war of the Romulan race. When the crew learns that the Romulans may be related to the Vulcans, the race of Spock, a crewmember named Stiles vocalizes his mistrust for Spock, believing that he could be a Romulan spy. "Leave any bigotry in your quarters," Kirk says to Stiles. "There's no place for it on the bridge." Shatner delivers this order in a soft, almost matter-of-fact voice, yet it still rings true today.
Perhaps Shatner's greatest performance as the iconic captain is in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the film, Kirk has to deal with reaching middle age and not being as sharp as he used to. An old enemy from the past reappeared and showed him that there is indeed such a thing as a "no-win scenario." Though the character is brought down a peg during the film, Shatner's performance in it is understated and excellent, as Kirk is given more depth than ever before.
Shatner had conquered the Twilight Zone and the Star Trek Galaxy before turning out some of his best work on TV later on. No, we are not talking TJ Hooker or Rescue 911. However, he was fantastic in those shows. He has been nominated for seven Emmys. Shatner has won two for his performances as Danny Crane in Boston Legal and the Practice. We all know there are more stories Shatner can tell about his life and adventures than there are planets in the Federation, but it seems that, at 91, he has no plans to stop. He has slipped into the role of a cultural icon, and his very name is an entertainment industry in and of itself.