William Shatner has audiences leaping to their feet and cheering. These are not aging Trekkers at the latest “Star Trek” convention, but theater-goers at New York’s Music Box Theater responding to his one-person show, “Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It ...” The octogenarian actor’s latest project has him recounting stories from his professional and personal life, remembering as far back as his childhood in Montreal, Quebec, the son of Jewish immigrant parents.
“There was a large Jewish community in Montreal,” Shatner told me during our phone interview. “But I grew up in the part of town that didn’t have that many Jews, especially at that time, so there was a great deal of feeling of being an outsider. The local shul that we went to was near enough to the house and the public school that I went to, and anti-Semitism had a triangular effect there through the house, the school and the shul.”
Shatner talked about the role his Jewish heritage played in his life, but as with many topics, he found it difficult to suppress his chronic sense of humor: “Judaism was a very large part of my life. I was born Jewish, and the circumcision hurt like hell,” he joked. “It was an original hurt that I never overcame. I was bar mitzvahed and went to shul, every week, with my parents and my uncle, so there was no question about what I was going to do every Saturday morning,” he said. “We kept a somewhat conveniently kosher home, but all in all it was as much cultural as it was religious.”
He described his mother, Anne, as “a nice lady who kept a decent home and made a good wife for my father. If that was a typical Jewish mother, then she was typical.”
In his show, Shatner includes some Jewish-mother jokes. There are also stories about his father, Joseph, who ran a small clothing business on Montreal’s St. Lawrence Street. Shatner recounts his father’s ambition for him to follow in the family business, and his surprise to find his son had a far different calling. “He couldn’t believe it,” Shatner said. “Being an actor was as foreign to him as the far side of the moon.”
As a teenager, Shatner had the opportunity to explore his ambition in its most primal form while working as a counselor at a B’nai B’rith camp in southern Quebec. “I loved to tell stories around the campfire,” Shatner said. “The original storytellers in mankind’s history where around the campfire. And the storyteller, the shaman, would stand in the firelight and the rest of the tribe would listen, whether it was a story or a law or word from God, and that was the original drama.
“I often felt that there was nothing more chilling, more horror striking, than sitting around a campfire telling a ghost story that might be just out of reach of the campfire light. And that kind of feeling is what I seek to evoke in this one-man show.” One of the stories in the show that Shatner called, “a good, fun story that has a great deal of entertainment to it” revolves around a road trip he took from Vancouver to Chicago with a rabbi and his wife and the race to get them to their destination in time for Friday night services.
“Shatner’s World” brings the Canadian actor full circle, back to his roots in live theater. In his 20s, Shatner performed at the Shakespearean Stratford Festival of Canada, playing a wide range of roles, and was once an understudy for Christopher Plummer. He later moved on to the Broadway stage, where he performed in Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine, The Great,” Richard Mason’s “The World of Suzie Wong” and, finally, a 1961 production of “A Shot in the Dark,” with Julie Harris and Walter Matthau. By the late 1950s, Shatner began appearing in a variety of films, including “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The ambitious actor also found steady work in both live and filmed television dramas, among them “Studio One,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Twilight Zone.” In 1966, Shatner won the role that would catapult him to pop-culture icon status — Capt. James T. Kirk on the sci-fi series “Star Trek.” He would go on to work in several other series, most notably “T.J. Hooker” and as egomaniac Denny Crane in David E. Kelly’s genre-mashing lawyer show “Boston Legal. “
Few actors’ careers can match the diversity of Shatner’s. Over the years, he has worked in a multitude of mediums that include his infamous musical recordings, authoring sci-fi novels and comic books, hosting talk shows and doing TV commercials. When asked if there was any creative area left that he would like to work in, he replies dryly, “Sky writing. I hear it’s quite a breeze.”
“This one-man show has preoccupied me for months, if not years,” he added. “And I have struggled to perfect it. Dreamed about it, had nightmares about it, had great fear about it and struggled with it for the longest time. And only when I heard that the reviews, especially The New York Times, loved it, and the audience rose and cheered, did I, fighting back blubbery tears, acknowledge that maybe the work that I had done was accepted in the manner that I hoped it would be.”
Shatner’s future plans include everything from making documentaries to developing an app and hosting a game show, and he displays no sign of retiring. He explains his need to keep moving forward as a “fear of failure, fear that I’m not good enough, that I’ve got to do more.”
“Shatner’s World” ends its Broadway run on March 4, then hits the road for a 14- city tour, beginning with a performance on March 10 at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.
“My expectation is that when I do this tour, that audiences will like it as much as the New York audiences do here,” he said. “This is my baby — this thing is me, and if you like it, then you like what I’ve done.”
For tickets to “Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It…”visit BroadwayLA.org or call (800) 982-2787. Tickets may also be purchased in person at the Pantages box office and all Ticketmaster outlets.
CAP: William Shatner brings his one-man show, “Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It ...,” to the Pantages Theatre on March 10.