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Michael Merschel: Michael Merschel edits books coverage for The Dallas Morning News.
With Up Till Now, William Shatner has written a genuinely entertaining book -- a rarity, I think, in the celebrity autobiography genre. But I thought my interview (appearing now in GuideLive) with him was going to end before it began when I suggested this. Here's the transcript of our opening remarks (I turned my recorder on right after he said, "Let's get this done.")
Humble Books Editor: Tell me a little bit about the process of writing this book. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did but I ...
William Shatner (interjecting): Why don't you tell me about that. What were your expectations?
HBE (only slightly off-guard): My expectations would have been ... in my experience, a lot of celebrity biographies are not very funny and not very revealing.
HBE: I don't know. I'm here to ask you.
Things got better from there, as he talked about the writing process, his charity work and even answered one very gratuitous Star Trek-related question. But he makes an interviewer work for his 17 minutes.
I asked him where his ability to tell a story -- he has tons of them -- comes from.
"I don't know," he replied. "I know what you're saying. And I don't know where it comes from. One place, one wellspring, is certainly the enjoyment of a good laugh and the appreciation of somebody making me laugh. ... I think of standup comics as being geniuses. No matter how bad."
That love of a laugh plays into how, in recent years, he's become known for being able to poke fun at himself.
"I don't think there is in our little incidental lives ... very much you need to be so serious that it is death-defying. Much of what we do is incidental and needs to be treated in more lighthearted fashion so you can make the really serious decisions of life and death and good and evil."
In the spirit of the book, I gave him a chance to plug his favorite charity. (Stories in the book are often interrupted by a pitch for one product or another he's associated with.)
"Well, the only thing I keep plugging of late is trying to help other people. So there are a variety of charities that I am trying to help, actually ... so go to the Web site, williamshatner.com."
I did not want the interview to focus on Star Trek -- many others have gone there before -- but I did need to ask him about his relationship with his castmates, because I knew you, dear readers, would be curious. After explaining, "I was urged to put it in," he had a memorable -- to me -- way of making his feelings clear.
Shatner: You're how old, Michael?
Shatner: So when you were ... well, we've run out of years. But even, say, half the time between the time of the Star Trek and me, 20 years ago, somebody in a ... somebody didn't like you at school. University of Dallas was it?
HBE (not recalling discussing his alma mater up to this point): University of Kansas.
Shatner: Kansas. They didn't like you in Kansas. ( He sneers, as if talking about someone behind his back.) Jesus, Michael is an idiot. (Stops sneering.) Twenty years later, he's still on it. Don't you think there's something a little crazy about that person? (Sneering again, staring at interviewer.) "We didn't like Michael in school because, you know, he held his pen up to his lip... "
HBE: (Laughs nervously as he realizes he his holding pen up to the corner of his mouth in his "thoughtful newspaper reporter" pose.)
Shatner: "... and it was unsanitary...:
HBE: (More laughter. Wonders what to do with pen.)
HBE: (scribbles thoughtfully in notebook, makes note to find a new affectation when he wants to appear thoughtful.)
My final question, worked in right at the buzzer, was an attempt to play off one of his best TV moments: the Saturday Night Live skit where the Trekkies ask him an obscure bit of trivia and he replies, "GET A LIFE."
I was hoping he might tell me, "GET A LIFE," so I would have a solid ending for my story.
So I asked him, " In that episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk goes to the safe in his quarters -- what was the combination?"
He quickly replied, "Three to the left. Four to the right. And then it explodes."
End of interview.
We said our good-byes, I expressed my thanks, and I hung back about 10 feet behind him as he walked off the convention hall. Anyone who has doubts as to William Shatner's star power should have heard the chorus of gasps as he walked past the cubicles of booksellers and publishers, who can spy celebrities regularly at the Expo and often seem nonplussed by them.
Not this time.
"Shatner!" they said to one another. "Did you see him? That was William Shatner! William Shatner!"
And if you're read this far ... get his book. He's a tough interview. But a real character, and a fun read. And worth your time.
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