Besides a fine cigar and a single-malt Scotch, William Shatner has other passions that keep him busy.
By Russ Case
By the time you’ve finished reading this, chances are William Shatner is close to finalizing a new television series, putting the finishing touches on a new book and ironing out the next tour dates for his one-man show, Shatner’s World.
Saying the man is busy is an understatement of epic proportions, but because Shatner’s love of a fine cigar and taste for a vintage spirit were why we were chatting in the first place, let’s start there.
“I started smoking,” William Shatner said, “like many people who smoke as kids, because I saw my father doing it. It was smart to smoke cigarettes in those days. I remember a movie with a French actor who had two cigarettes in his mouth. He lit both of them with the same match and hands one to his lady love, and they smoldered together. So eventually there I was, with a cigarette in my mouth.”
Cigarette smoking continued into adulthood. “It was nationally acceptable after movie stars made smoking romantic. And with cigarettes dangling from artists’ lips as they painted or while writing poetry, the whole act of smoking became mystical and romantic.
“Eventually, I gave up smoking cigarettes because my kids wouldn’t let me kiss them. That was the end of my cigarette smoking, and I acquired a taste for cigars. I learned there were good cigars and bad cigars, and the bad ones don’t taste good and are harsh. In regard to all the acquired tastes, whether cigars, cheese, wine or other alcohol, I’m into the full-bodied taste. I don’t know why you would go mild if you’re into the taste. Don’t you want as much taste as possible? If you want something mild, you only acquire half of it.”
Cigar-smoking etiquette is of paramount importance to Shatner. “The cigar smoker has to be aware of the effect his cigar smoke is having on other people. I feel that absolutely. Cigar etiquette is very important, not just for the people around you but for yourself.”
I asked him to describe his perfect cigar experience. “My perfect cigar experience,” he said, “would be me sitting in a chair outside—we live on a hill that overlooks a large area—with a great glass of single malt and a cigar, looking over the view with the sun setting.”
He does not profess to have any favorite cigar brands, but appreciates the artistry. “I knew some of the Cubans had gone over to Central America, and that some of the guys who were making them in Cuba were making them there, so the great Cuban cigars were being made in a legally acquirable place. I’m Canadian, so I’d go up to Canada and someone would hand me a box of Cuban cigars which I was able to bring across on occasion.
“Someone once gave me a box of 100 Churchills, a large box of great, fabulous cigars. I didn’t have a large-enough humidor, but there was a cigar store in my neighborhood where I rented a humidor locker, and I put the cigars in there.” Then came a “big emotional explosion” in Shatner’s life—likely the drowning death of his wife, Nerine, in 1999—that led to his forgetting about his stash of Churchills.
“A year later I was driving past the store and thought, Oh my god, I’ve got 100 cigars in there! So I go in, and the guy who rented me the humidor said, ‘Oh, you’re back. Well, the cigars you brought in—did you freeze them?’
“I said no, I had never heard of freezing cigars. He said, ‘Well, the bugs came out and I had to destroy all the cigars.’ I don’t know if because I wasn’t around for a year he stole my cigars or if that actually happened.” I suggested that the cigar merchant was being truthful and told Shatner how as a precautionary measure against the tobacco beetle, some people may freeze their cigars for a short period prior to placing them into their humidors. “What?” he exclaimed. “The secrets of the universe have just been delivered!”
Talk turned to spirits, beginning with tales of youthful experimentation. “I was the guy who never drank,” Shatner said, “except at cast parties where the casts were getting paid so little, we couldn’t afford name alcohol. We had a friend who was a chemist, and he would bring wood alcohol that we mixed with grapefruit juice. I was the tasting board used to determine when the alcohol and grapefruit juice were at the right proportions. When I fell down, everyone knew it was good.”
A fine single-malt Scotch is Shatner’s preference these days. “A great, 30-year-old single malt is the smoothest, most beautiful thing I’ve ever tasted,” he said, “though it’s an acquired taste and the mystery of that is profound.”
I was curious if any happy hours ever took place on the bridge of the Enterprise after a hard day’s shooting on Star Trek. “I never saw that,” Shatner replied, “though there may have been drinking on the set because every so often a stagehand would be found sleeping—but maybe that was because of the script.”
William Shatner’s television career is legendary, spanning more than 50 years and including such diverse fare as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Columbo, Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man, Mork and Mindy, TekWar (based on his popular books) and $#*! My Dad Says to name just a handful.
One of his most memorable TV roles was Bob Wilson, the airline passenger who was memorably terrorized by a wing-tampering gremlin in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” a classic Twilight Zone episode written by the late Richard Matheson. I asked Shatner if he got to know the legendary writer or Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling very well.
“No, I wish I had,” he said. “They were churning out half-hour shows every several days. I was in the one, and then two. I knew many of the guys who were with that group from live television—writers, producers and directors—so they were known factors to me and I to them when I did Twilight Zone. It was good, nobody expected it to be any more than what it was, and when it went off the air it was off the air. Who knew that it would continue to be so popular?”
“And now people get to watch you in ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ during the Twilight Zone marathon every New Year’s Eve,” I said.
“I know,” Shatner laughed, “isn’t that wild?”
Of course, William Shatner’s TV roles are not limited to being a guest star. He starred in Star Trek, of course, and in the 1980s, as the title cop in T. J. Hooker, he battled the criminal element alongside Heather Locklear for four seasons. He also hosted Rescue 911, which featured reenactments of emergency situations, for seven seasons until 1994.
Then along came Denny Crane and a new wave of accolades. Shatner’s cigar-smoking, Scotch-quaffing, self-aggrandizing attorney debuted on The Practice in 2004, leading to the actor’s first Emmy win that same year. He went on to star in the spinoff series Boston Legal until 2008, winning his second Emmy in 2005.
Speaking during a 2006 panel discussion, show creator David. E. Kelly talks of his first meeting with Shatner, who he had in mind for Crane from the get-go: “Some icons, let’s face it, have very little sense of humor about themselves. So we talked about the role, and I explained that this is a character who not only will we be inviting the audience to laugh with, but many times, at. Surprisingly, many actors do not want to be that, they do not want to be laughed at. Bill just immediately embraced it.”
The audience laughed.
“Lots of practice, David,” Shatner responded—the audience laughed louder.
Shatner has, of course, appeared on countless programs as himself. One standout remains when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 1986. Appearing in a skit that took place at a Star Trek convention, he famously advised his Trek fans to, “Get a life!” The line later became the title of a popular book by Shatner, as well as a 2012 documentary based upon it.
One of William Shatner’s favorite television experiences was hosting his own interview show, Shatner’s Raw Nerve, originally airing on The Biography Channel from 2008 until 2011 (episodes can currently be seen on Amazon Instant Video). His diverse roster of interview subjects included Jimmy Kimmel, Kelsey Grammer, Trek castmates Leonary Nimoy and Walter Koenig, Jon Voight, Weird Al Yankovic, Jason Alexander, Larry Flynt and Carl Reiner, among others.
Radio personality Rush Limbaugh was a guest on a 2009 episode, and I asked Shatner if he shared a cigar with Limbaugh, who is well known for his love of good cigars. “Absolutely! I had a great time with him, he was terrific. He’s gone on to say it was one of his greatest interviews.”
In a similar vein to Raw Nerve, Shatner currently hosts an interview show called Brown Bag Wine Tasting at ora.tv. To quote the ora website: “Join William Shatner as he tastes wine with friends to get their not-so-expert takes on pinots, chards, cabs—and life.”
Although Denny Crane brought Shatner his Emmys, his stint as Captain James Tiberius Kirk cemented his place in entertainment history. Yet despite the enduring popularity of Star Trek, the show ran for only three seasons, from 1966 through 1969. Why was it this show that led to Shatner/Kirk becoming a cultural icon?
“I made a documentary (the previously mentioned Get a Life) on that very question,” Shatner responded, “and the answer I came up with is that there’s an element of mythology involved. People look for answers to the unknown, such as why we’re here, UFOs, life on other planets, time travel—and science fiction applies itself to that. Maybe there are answers in this imaginative approach. I think that’s the reason for science fiction’s popularity and Star Trek’s in particular.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Shatner originating Kirk. “They made a pilot with an actor named Jeffrey Hunter and it didn’t sell. I was doing some good work in television and movies at the time, so Gene Roddenberry called and asked me to be the captain. That’s how that worked.”
Years after Star Trek ceased production, and in the wake of the unprecedented popularity of Star Wars in 1977, Paramount wanted in on the science fiction phenom, and Star Trek seemed like a natural to bring back. It was that rare instance where a television show makes the transition to the big screen with fantastic results.
“It was remarkable,” Shatner remembers, “and there was an element of unreality about it, coming back to it after many years. Not to mention getting in shape for it!” He went on to portray Kirk in seven feature films, beginning with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 on through Star Trek: Generations in 1994, with Shatner himself directing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier in 1989. (And we may not have seen the last of Shatner as Captain Kirk quite yet; there have been reports that he may appear in the much-anticipated third movie in J. J. Abrams Star Trek reboot, with a possible release date in 2016.)
Was the man who was both Kirk and the Big Giant Head on 3rd Rock From the Sun (a role that led to Shatner’s first Emmy nomination, in 1999) a fan of science fiction himself as a kid? “Not as a youngster, but I had read a great deal of science fiction prior to Star Trek, so when some of the authors who wrote the stories came on the set, I was a big fan.”
“City on the Edge of Forever” remains Shatner’s favorite Trek episode, and he was thrilled to meet science fiction icon Harlan Ellison, who wrote it.
William Shatner still enjoys science fiction movies and television. “With the act of a pen and electronics, they’re able to design grand, soaring, imaginative vistas,” he stated, “so the great epic movies of today are all science fiction. I just watched the new Godzilla on a large screen I have at my home—it was unbelievable!”
Besides a fine cigar and an exemplary single-malt Scotch, William Shatner has plenty of other passions that keep him busy. Here are a few of the many.
Shatner’s World. His popular one-man show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live In It, debuted at The Music Box Theatre on Broadway in February 2012, and Shatner has since taken it on the road for more than 100 performances so far. Asked what audiences can expect, he responded, “I commune with the audience, and we laugh and cry. We understand each other and have a very special evening in the theater. It lasts for almost two hours, at the end of which, at every single performance, the audience stands up and cheers. It’s very gratifying to me, and I hope it is for the audience, as well.” For upcoming tour dates and other information, visit shatnersworld.com.
Horses. William Shatner is a well-known equestrian, and he has been for years. “I’ve got some world championships that I’ve won, I ride constantly, and I’ve put in my 10,000 hours in three disciplines. I’ve done my share of winning because I’ve put in the hours to acquire a certain proficiency,” he said.
He works with the American Saddlebred, Standardbred and American Quarter Horse. Asked what drew him to these three breeds, he responds, “The Saddlebred was a Civil War horse that went into battle, and it has great beauty, great animation and great courage. With the Standardbred, there’s something so beautiful about a horse that trots fast, and the Quarter Horse is America’s horse.”
There’s also the Priceline.com Hollywood Charity Horse Show sponsored by Wells Fargo, an annual horse show started by Shatner decades ago to raise money for children. “We’re celebrating our 25th year this year,” he said. “We have a five-day horse show—one of the largest of its kind in the United States—and on the Saturday night of that week we have a party with name entertainment. Over the years we’ve raised several million dollars for children and veterans.” This year’s party at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center will be held on Saturday, April 25. Visit horseshow.org for further details.
Writing books. William Shatner is a prolific author with many books to his credit. He’s written nonfiction, such as Star Trek Memories and his autobiography, Up Till Now, as well as novels, including many that take place in the Star Trek universe and his popular TekWar series of science fiction novels.
His newest book, Catch Me Up, addresses a timely problem for many people these days. According to Shatner: “People over 50 who have lost their jobs have more difficulty regaining a job at their previous salary level. I’m saying if you’re having difficulty, try getting acquainted with social media. Advertise your skills and maybe you can go into business for yourself or be a consultant, and here’s how to do it—let me help you catch up to what social media can do and how you can use it.”
Practicing what he preaches in the book, Shatner used a Kickstarter campaign to raise $60,503 to publish Catch Me Up—$10, 503 over the $50,000 goal. Visit catchmeup.com for more information.
And Then There’s the Landjet
Shatner is over the moon about the RIVET, a joint venture between himself and the Chicago-based motorcycle designers and builders at American Wrench. The RIVET is described on the rivetmotors.com website thusly: “RIVET is a type of vehicle we call ‘Landjet.’ Designed from the ground up as a three-wheeled vehicle, with its exposed cockpit and command center, seating fit only for a captain and the harmonious roar of its brute V8, piloting RIVET gives you the feeling of flying on the open road.”
“It’s going to be a monster,” Shatner said. After I told him I had been to the website to check out the RIVET, he asked with obvious pride, “Did you love it?” I told him it looks like an awesome vehicle.
“It’s going to be so awesome!” Shatner replied with unrestrained glee. “We’re going to drive it and others like it from Chicago to L.A. this summer, stopping for charity along the way.
“Magic happened,” he said when asked how the project came about. “I was signing autographs in Chicago, and a guy comes up to me and says, ‘I’m with American Wrench, and we want to design you a motorcycle.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m there.’ American Wrench would make the bike and I would provide ideas and be the producer. We’ve been working on this bike for a couple of years now.”
I commented on a video I watched on the website, in which some of the American Wrench guys talked about possibly installing a flamethrower on the RIVET that Shatner could use to light his cigars. Shatner felt that would be overkill, but I begged him to reconsider.
“I think a 500-horsepower lighter is over the top!” he laughed. “We’ve got these mad men in Chicago—I’m usually the maddest one of all, and yet I’m the restraining influence here!”
“So you’re saying if you’re the restraining influence, something has definitely gone awry?”
“Don’t say rye, say Scotch!”
“What’s the sticker on the RIVET?” I asked him.
“Ahhh,” said William Shatner. “Higher than a good cigar, that’s for sure!”
Russ Case is the editor of Cigar & Spirits magazine (Cigar&Spirits.com).