Happy birthday to William Shatner, 92 today (3/22/23). This man is a force of nature, and has the constitution of an ox.
If I understand correctly, Bill is working harder than ever, on the theory that if he doesn’t stop, he will live indefinitely. It’s worth testing!
I wish I had a good Shatner story. The closest I came to the Captain was on the set of Free Enterprise, for my pals Robert Meyer Burnett and Mark A. Altman, in 1998—25 years ago, wow!
If you don’t know, Rob and Mark had such rich and interesting lives as young men in Hollywood (I’m kidding, but God bless their moxie) that they thought it would be a great idea to tell their own story—“Swingers for Star Trek fans,” I believe was the pitch.
They got it made (incredible!), with Shatner playing a version of himself as the guys’ mentor and guiding light.
The film quickly became, and has endured as, a cult film for geeks.
Unfortunately, it only exists as a 4:3 SD transfer (it was shot on 35mm) and I know Rob has been dying for years to oversee a proper HD restoration.
I just looked for it online and it’s only streaming on Indieflix (subscription required, sorry). I could have sworn I owned a DVD, but I just looked and couldn’t find it. Drat! I was an extra at the climactic party scene and I know I’m in at least one shot.
Here’s an hour-long making-of video from Rob Burnett on his Burnettwork YouTube channel:
So...Shatner. What I remember is, first of all, holy cow our friends were making a movie!
When I got to L.A. in late 1996, I had almost no friends my own age. I was a really lonely guy and it was pretty rough.
But I knew Mark (a few years older than me) from when he was writing Star Trek: The Next Generation coverage for Cinefantastique (I wrote a couple of music sidebars), and he very kindly invited me to meet his group of pals.
Mark was at the time running his own sci-fi magazine, Sci-Fi Universe, out of the Flynt building at La Cienega and Wilshire—yes, Larry Flynt was his publisher.
Sci-Fi Universe was a terrific magazine! In fact I still have my copies:
I even have their promotional flier (or whatever it’s called, the cover–teaser) from when they were launching:
Mark and his team truly wanted to have a CFQ-styled (but not nasty), thoughtful and entertaining magazine for sci-fi fans—and they succeeded. It wasn’t mere stenography for studio publicists (as Starlog had sadly become), but full of longform “think pieces,” critical reviews, and provocative yet informed opinions.
They even had, oh my lord, a WOMAN who worked and wrote for them, Amanda Finch, who did a funny advice column for pasty-faced shut-in geeks—like me!
In a few years, Larry Flynt got tired of it and sold it to Sovereign Media, who published it until 1999. It then crawled up and died in a barn somewhere.
But in the fall of 1996, when I was newly arrived in town, they were putting on “The Sci-Fi Universe Awards,” and I volunteered to help out.
I remember going with Mark into the parking garage of the Flynt building, where there was a guy driving a van of stuff that had to be brought over to the theater they had rented.
Mark introduced me to the driver—who turns around and practically shouts, “HOLY COW YOU’RE LUKAS KENDALL!?! I LOVE FILM SCORE MONTHLY! DUDE!!!”
And that was how I met Robert Meyer Burnett—another force of nature!
What I remember of the actual awards was at least one instance of them announcing the wrong winner and/or playing the wrong music—and also, the kids from Alien Nation (a show I loved), Sean Six and Lauren Woodland, attending grown-up, out of makeup and looking to PARTY.
Wait, this still isn’t about Shatner.
Mark had organized a Saturday morning volleyball game which became one of my few social activities. Despite being 5'8", I was one of the better volleyball players, which gives you a sense of the athletic competition level—sorry guys, but we’re not proud.
Whoa, I found a photo! Here is Mark going up against Jeff Bond (a lefty, but he always served right) at the net. Our pal, writer Steve Melching is behind Mark. I think this is from 2003:
We’d play for a couple of hours—doughy geeks amongst the hardbodies of Manhattan Beach—then go to CozyMels for a long, nerd-talk-infused lunch, and then usually the guys would stop at Toys ’R Us to buy toys on the way home.
For the record, I never collected toys as an adult; but they were like little kids, going right to the Star Wars aisle.
In case it looks like I’m poking fun at them, let me be clear: they were talented people who went on to impressive careers. And I know I’m not the easiest person to have around...so fellas, thank you. You were really good friends at a time when I badly needed them.
So when Mark and Rob made Free Enterprise, we were kept abreast of details—and when they needed extras for the climactic party, we were invited.
The thing about being an extra on a movie is—well, there’s a reason they pay you. What starts out being glamorous and exciting quickly becomes a snooze-fest.
I definitely remember the party was going to be shot on the beach, but it was that crazy L.A. El Niño winter for rain (almost as crazy as this one) and they had to use their “cover set,” indoors somewhere in mid-L.A.
So, Shatner: we were going to be extras in the party where Shatner does his “Caesar rap,” the joke being that this was Shatner’s absurd dream project, “No Tears for Caesar.”
Shatner was (and is) a legend, our hero—and his “singing” career was, at the time, still this sort of crazy nerd secret that we all found hilarious:
The idea of joining the Captain as his audience, for the newest and possibly crowning chapter of his musical escapades? Awesome!
Also, as anybody who has ever been involved with filming knows—boring!
We probably sat around for most of the evening (it was a night shoot) just waiting for the “party to start,” as it were. I’m sure Rob can tell you what the hold-up was.
But I remember the hush of Shatner arriving, and going backstage, where I think he waited around with Rob’s dad.
Eventually, he emerged, wearing this ridiculous brown outfit with a gold chain:
What can I say about the Shat? He has a giant face and big hands and was, as far as I can recall, all business. He was there to work and he gave it his all.
But man, it probably went into the wee hours of the night.
At one point when there was a lull—maybe I shouldn’t have done this—but I walked up to him and just said what a fan I was and how exciting it was to be here. I extended my hand, he shook it, without much expression—and that was it, and I walked away.
I’ve since learned he gets a bit snippy in public and will steadfastly refuse to sign autographs outside of engagements at shows.
And I understand the reason: he says if he gives one, then there’s immediately a giant line, and it becomes a Big Thing—and no matter where he cuts it off, somebody will be unhappy.
So he just says no from the start—which looks bad, if it’s a little kid or something, and people complain on Twitter and then he argues with them.
Which seems weird, but...ah, who cares.
Fortunately I did not ask for an autograph, as I’ve never cared about them.
He’s also said he’s wary of handshakes because there’s a very real danger of catching whatever cold or flu is going around, by shaking a zillion hands at conventions.
So maybe I was being a boor—apologies.
I later saw the great man do a Q&A I think for an actors’ group. A friend of mine heard about it and got us in, even though we’re not actors.
What I remember of that one was that he was either late or almost late, and made a crack about coming down Curson Avenue, because he was “Curson” (cursing) the whole way. (Sorry, that joke works better orally.)
I also remember an actor asking about his being Jewish—which was the question I was going to ask. And he said something to the effect of not being observant, but remembering the Four Questions from Passover—and he started to recite “Ma Nishtana” which I thought was awesome.
Any Jewish fan will tell you—the day you learned Captain Kirk was Jewish is like one of the proudest days of your life. It’s almost better than Sandy Koufax. The good-looking, all-American, interstellar hero—and he’s one of us?!! I mean, Spock, obviously—but Kirk, too? Awesome!
So, I digress.
On the occasion of William Shatner’s 92nd birthday, let me just say what awe I have for the hardest working Canadian in show business. He’s an icon, a legend, and, as a final point...
With the right material and direction, he’s a great actor!