For many years, one quiver in the bow of many a stand-up comic was his William Shatner impression. As Star Trek grew its cult following during its syndicated run in the 1970s, so too did the awareness of the acting choices of its star in his portrayal of Starfleet officer, Captain James Tiberius Kirk.
In the early 90s’, among some people in the Trek fandom, there was a sense of impatience with the original cast. Some of these people wanted the original cast movies to come to an end so that the torch could be passed properly to the Next Generation. Remember that for a while, there were Star Trek properties taking place in two different time periods separated by 70 years of continuity for us to fill in. Some people thought the TOS cast had gotten too old to be in the movies and there, again among these people, a preference for Picard and an almost embarrassed acceptance of Kirk.
“He was a ham,” they would say.
“He chewed the scenery,” they would also say.
“He couldn’t act,” they would say.
“Bollocks!” I would respond.
Well, no, I didn’t say much but I have been forming an argument that William Shatner, in his role as Captain Kirk, was actually a very good actor for the simple reason that he was acting a kind of character that did not yet exist.
After graduating McGill University in 1952 with a degree in commerce, Shatner went into acting where he would appear in a few films, television shows, Broadway, and Shakespeare before landing on Star Trek.
Prior to Star Trek, he worked constantly and was known as a guy who showed up on time and knew his lines. If the talent and ability weren’t there, the work wouldn’t have come.
He was the second person cast in the lead of the new space adventure show after a first pilot starring Jeffery Hunter failed to catch on. While it’s impossible to say how Captain Pike would have evolved as a character if the show was picked up with Hunter in the lead, in the pilot, he plays the role in the traditional American naval captain vein. This is natural given that he was the captain of a ship with a clear military-style command structure.
But that’s not what Starfleet is.
So when you’re the captain of a ship in an organization like that, and organization that doesn’t exist, how *are* you supposed to act?
For Shatner, the choice was to make him an enthusiastic, humanist, explorer who got a thrill in each new discovery. In doing so, he made some, yes, interesting acting choices, like the trademark pauses and the way he’d appear to chew a word before uttering it.
(I read a book once that mentioned a review of his performance of Henry V in the Stratford Festival in which he, as a understudy, had to fill in for Christopher Plummer. Not having learned his lines, a stagehand had to prompt him which led to a lot of pauses between words. The celebrated novelist and a founder of the festival Robertson Davies hailed this exciting new style of acting. So maybe it stuck, But, of course, I can’t find a source for this.)
But here he was, playing a character for whom there was no real world counterpart, and experiencing things for which there was no real world comparison to draw on.
Your body is split into two distinct persons, one good, the other evil. What are the rules for acting that?
There are none, so you do this:
I think it comes down to a simple question: Do you buy it? Beyond the cheap sets and crude (by today’s standards) special effects, do you accept that William Shatner is effectively convincing you that he has been split into two people? Or has an evil alternate universe doppleganger? Or is a skilled diplomat? Or tactician? Or lover?
I think, when you take it all within the context of the show, it works. I do buy his reactions to everything. I don’t think he really hits a false note, even when the script calls him to do outlandish things.
In the movies, there is a shift and more of a maturation in his role. He’s middle aged now and has been working with his shipmates for more than twenty years. They’re all friends now and his acting reflects that in some of the lighter, more humourous moments throughout the seven movies in which he appears. But the ensuing years have also added a little more gravitas to the role.
I’ve often wondered if Star Trek would have lasted as long as it did if someone else had been cast in the role. Besides Jeffery Hunter, other leads for the show included Lloyd Bridges and Jack Lord.
While I think Bridges could have done something interesting with the role, I think Shatner’s acting choices were a way for the audience to buy into the show which was unlike anything on TV. He played it jolly, as Roddenberry noted in his notes to the new producers going into the show’s third season. I think it’s the enthusiasm he conveys at the joy of exploration.
Had someone else sat in the captain’s chair, I don’t know that the show would have lasted as long as it did.
“In Defense of William Shatner’s Acting” ©shatnerian, originally posted on 24 October 2015