Book Review 35: Up Till Now

There were many times in my career that I'd taken roles I shouldn't have in terms of creating a long-term career -- but it was a paying job and hanging over me always was my father's plea that I not become a hanger-on.

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Up Till Now is William Shatner's latest autobiography. If you want to get to know Shatner, and gain some insight why he is the way he is, read this book

Unlike Star Trek Memories and Star Trek Movie Memories, this is not a Star Trek book. There is little behind the scenes stuff here. If you want the Star Trek stories, go read those books. Shatner doesn’t avoid Star Trek here. But he puts it in the broader context of his life -- how he got to Star Trek and where it took him.

In addition to the broader themes in the book, Shatner includes especially poignant stories. If you read nothing else in the book, read the chapters about Nerine Shatner's death and about Boston Legal.

When Shatner talks about his third wife's death, his pain and confusion are palpable. He talks about her alcoholism, his struggle to understand it, the help he got from Leonard Nimoy and other friends, and the challenges of being married to an alcoholic. Shatner was in over his head, and trying to help the best he could. Despite stints in rehab, Nerine could not stay dry. Eventually, she died in the couple's swimming pool while Shatner was away. He wrote a song/poem about finding her body and recorded it on his 2004 album "Has Been" and her death appears to still haunt him on his new talk show, "Shatner's Raw Nerve." The stories he tells in the book illustrate how profoundly Nerine's death affected him.

Shatner closes the book with a discussion of his current show, Boston Legal. This discussion goes well beyond a plug for the show. Shatner goes into detailed discussions about the nature of writing and acting. But he reserves the most important parts of the text for a discussion of the relationship between his character and James Spader's character. Shatner loves this relationship and loves how the show that highlights it. Shatner discusses Boston Legal with a sincerity and a passion he just doesn't bring to most of the other shows he talks about. Rescue 911 comes close, but it's still not the same.

I think what surprised everyone was the was the intensity of the relationship that developed between Denny Crane and Alan Shore. Their friendship has been called the best love affair on television.

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Beyond that, there are several key themes in this book.

  • Shatner's relationship with his father
  • Shatner's desire to make a buck
  • Shatner's difficulty relating to people
  • Shatner's pleasant surprise at how things have turned out.

After college in Canada, Shatner decided he wanted to be an actor. His parents did not try to stand in his way, though they weren't pleased. His father simply asked that Shatner not be a "hanger-on." By that he meant he didn't want Shatner to become a beggar -- an unemployed actor always asking for hand outs. He wanted Shatner to work and earn.

That command from his father is why Shatner managed his career the way he did. When Shatner would have an opportunity to work, he would almost always say "yes" so as not to become a hanger-on. He always worried about saving money and finding the next job.

This theme repeats itself throughout the book. Everything he does is about not being a hanger-on.

Some of these movies were so awful, I wouldn't even sell them in my online store, WilliamShatner.com.

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Often, Shatner will take a break form the text to plug something, or try to sell something. He often reminds the reader they can purchase the movie he just talked about, or some type of memorabilia at his website.

The bits are sometimes jarring, like an awkward plug in the middle of an interview on the Conan O'Brien show. But they're not unwelcome. These occasional commercials simply reinforce the pervasive Shatner-ness of the text.

I need to pause here. I've just had an interesting idea. One of the projects I've been working on for quite some time is called Gonzo Ballet. In February 2007, the Milwaukee Ballet created an original ballet set to the music of my CD, Has Been, although they named the ballet Common People. Gonzo Ballet is a documentary about the making of the ballet Common People. But getting it done has been a long laborious process that had numerous and unexpected complications. So while there have been numerous documentaries made about the making of a movie or an album, or in this case a ballet, I don't believe anyone has done a documentary about the making of a documentary about the making of something. And why not?

Think about that while I go put on my makeup for the next chapter.

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Once he began his acting career, Shatner plunged into the work. Unlike Leonard Nimoy, who focused on developing his craft and the art of it, Shatner focused almost exclusively on getting the next job. He developed the skills that let him do that, and learned to quickly memorize his lines in a way that many other actors do not. His way of dealing with the intense life of an actor, and with his fear of being a hanger-on was to always look for the next job.

And so I had demonstrated two of the most important lessons which have made all the difference in my life: you can't win the jackpot if you're not in the game. And sometimes you just have to be lucky. Life is chaotic, chance plays a central role in everyone's life. Nobody knows how any decision you make is going to turn out. My career strategy had become just say yes to almost anything.

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As a result, his approach to acting is very mechanical. He memorizes the lines and goes for it.

One of the reasons the [Kirk/Spock] relationship worked is that Leonard's acting style and mine were as opposite as Kirk and Spock. As Leonard explained, "Bill has always been a very externalized actor, he just opens his arms completely to the audience. By the time this show began, I'd been a working actor for seventeen years, I'd been teaching acting for five years, and my style was much more internalized, each action I took and every word I spoke seemed considered, thought out."

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I like to ad-lib. Not with the words-- especially not with the words on Boston Legal because of the quality of our writers. Generally there is nothing an actor can do that will benefit those words, except say them exactly as they are written. I have noticed that when I do change a word or two, it does make a difference; the lines are so beautifully crafted that if I say "we" instead of "I" I might change the rhythm. Maybe the joke is not quite as sharp or the timing is slightly off, so I learn the exact words and I say them exactly as they have been written. So my improvisation is in the emotion; in the way I recite the lines. Once I have the lines down I'll experiment with variations. That's the way I examine a role, I hear all the possibilities, and within each one is a slightly different meaning. For me, that's the fun of acting. The words aren't ad-libbed, the intent is. The way a person says something that reveals not only the true meaning of their words, but the essence of their character.

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While Shatner may like the script and enjoy the acting, but, as many people have observed, he has some challenges relating to people. Nichellel Nichols, James Doohan, and Grace Lee Whitney have certainly discussed this in their memoirs. The celebrity news spats between Shatner and George Takei support this.In this book, Shatner tells his own stories that illustrate how he sometimes doesn't think the way others do. While breaking into the business, Shatner led a lonely life.

For most of my first year in Toronto, I was desperately homesick, it was only when I was working that I could forget how lonely I was. I was younger and less experienced than most of the people I was working with, so I wasn't part of that group. I had some acquaintances, but no real friends.

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For Shatner they way to deal with his challenges was always to throw himself further into the work. TV was a comforting place for him. The studio was where he belonged, and the camera was his best friends.

And when the red light came on it was as if they were alive. Watching you, moving after you. If I had to make an entrance in the middle of a scene I would stand right next to the camera, feeling its warmth, feeling it purr. I loved that camera, you could pet it, savor it, but it never frightened me.

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Shatner shares a lot of stories showing how he looks at things differently from most people. It's not exactly self deprecating. It's more like he's not afraid to look like an idiot in this book. Early on, he tells the story about his foray into stand up comedy.

I was asked to perform at a comedy club in Los Angeles and I said, "I've got a great idea. I'm going to go in there like Shatner thinks he's Captain Kirk, and I'm going to go in there like Captain Kirk thinks he's funny."

The owner of the club looked at me seriously, "Bill, that's not funny," he said.

Now really, who's going to know what's funny? The actor who has spent several years performing light comedies in Canada, or the owner of a comedy club that features stand-up performers every night? I said, "Let me explain this to you. It will be very funny because they will get that I'm Captain Kirk who thinks he's funny, but he's not funny, which is why he will be funny."

The audience laughed like a room full of Vulcans. Oh my, it was just awful. The problem I discovered was that the audience did not grasp the intricate sophistication of my act. Rather than understanding that I was playing Captain Kirk who thought he was funny, but wasn't funny they watched me perform and instead decided, "Wow. Shatner's awful."

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Despite these challenges, Shatner approaches everything with enthusiasm. He brings that enthusiasm to his new TV show Raw Nerve, his role on Boston Legal, his Priceline commercials, and even the air in his tires.

My daughters find it amusing when I get really enthusiastic about something. When I insist that they share it with me, or try it themselves. Oh, it's just Dad being Dad again. But when they try it, they discover that maybe I did know something. Let me give you another example. When you leave Café Firenze, there's a gas station several blocks away on the right. I mean, it looks like a normal service center, but in this place they have an air pump that contains the finest tire air I've ever encountered. It's really amazing. Until finding this place I had always believed that all tire air was the same, but for some reason when you put this air in your tires the car rides more smoothly. I don't understand it, what could it be? How could they have improved air? They can't, can't be done, it's just air, but you have to try it. I mean you must. It's truly superior air.

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Shatner is enthusiastic about more than just the air. He's enthusiastic about the way his life has gone. Unlike some of the cast who see Star Trek as a mixed blessing, Shatner looks back on it as a great boon. Sure it made finding acting jobs in the early 70s more challenging, but he wouldn't change a thing. He talks about the whole thread that has gone through his life. His decision to always say "Yes" to acting opportunities may have made it more difficult to be a "serious" actor, but has taken him on an incredible trip.

Star Trek was the most wonderful that ever happened to me. I look back upon it as the miracle that changed my life. In fact, it has changed your life, too. All the extraordinary opportunities I've been given since that time can be traced directly to the series. So if I hadn't done Star Trek, none of the things that followed would have happened, therefore you wouldn't be reading this book. To fill the time you're spending reading it, you would have had to find other things to do. And your life would be different.

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You might think Shatner would regret his often mocked concept album, "The Transformed Man," but he doesn't. That 1968 album was responsible for his mid-90s career renaissance.

When you turn down and opportunity to work, you're also turning down an experience, maybe even an adventure, and a universe of possibilities. The Transformed Man led to Priceline.com. Saying yes to possibilities has been the core of my career.

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The Priceline commercials eventually led to his role on Boston Legal. And his role on Boston Legal ultimately led to recording his awesome 2004 album, "Has Been."

I loved the thought that David E. Kelly had decided to write the character for me after seeing me doing a Priceline.com commercial. Remember, one of the primary reasons I was hired to do those commercials was because a copywriter remembered -- and lived -- my 1968 album, The Transformed Man. And now, probably because of the attention I was getting from playing Denny Crane, after thirty-five years I was asked to record a second album. My career had made a full, singing circle.

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Shatner continues to work well past the point at which most people retire. And he is having a great time doing it. "Up Till Now" is a great look at who William Shatner is, and how he got to where he is today. The picture of Shatner emerges not just from the stories he tells but in how he tells them.

If you mainly want to learn more about Star Trek, there are better books to read, including some by Shatner. But if you want to learn more about William Shatner, this is the book to read.

I'll leave you with this thought:

So should anyone ask you where great ideas come from, you now know the answer: great ideas come from William Shatner's refrigerator.

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Tomorrow: Beam Me Up, Scotty, by James Doohan


Ann Reilly said...

well..I like Shatner an fhis new show "Raw Nerve" is great. I like how when a guest is talking about something, he may offer something equally revealing about himself like he did wiht Kelsy Grammar who was speaking on his father so Shatner shared on his strange relationship with his own mother! He also asked rather direct personal questions that appear unscripted. Good stuff!


Paul Eilers said...

It is interesting to me how a very successful actor like William Shatner is still heavily influenced by his father.

Just goes to show how these people are simple human and vulnerable, just like the rest of us.

Tink said...

Shatner is not my favourite Star Trek actor, but this book sounds interesting enough! Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

I just love this! Thanks for this extensive review. I may try to find this book in the library and give it a read. I know that I really liked every piece I heard from the "Has Been" album, because they seemed to give some insight into who the real man was. It sounds like his book continues that in a different form.