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O.C. beams up William Shatner

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When William Shatner opened on Broadway last February, he wasn't nearly as confident as his show's title indicated.

The actor's one-man show sported the cheeky moniker, "Shatner's World: We Just Live In It." But a nasty elemental force had invaded that world as curtain time approached. It wasn't a simple case of stage nerves or wariness about the critics — it was an acute misery right around the midsection.

"I opened on Broadway with a stomach flu," Shatner, 81, said by phone last month. "How's that for a starter? So it was the challenge of doing a one-man show on Broadway and the absolute possibility of being laughed off the stage, which is the actor's nightmare, and then the night before opening I got the stomach flu. You don't want leave the bathroom for very long. A three-yard radius is as far as you want to go, and I had to go onstage.

"I thought of it as an adventure, and it was."

Turning adventures, dignified or otherwise, into breezy anecdotes has long been a part of Shatner's persona; few actors have proven so game at being self-effacing. When this reporter asked how to address him — heeding the fact that, per the show's title, it is Shatner's world and the rest of us live in it — the actor responded that "Bill" was fine.

The man who played Captain Kirk may be famous for many things, but taking himself too seriously isn't among them. In his 2008 autobiography, "Up Till Now," Shatner kids repeatedly about his penchant for saying "yes" to countless projects, about his history of taking physical risks, and being at the mercy of the Hollywood system. Playing himself once on "Saturday Night Live," he famously urged a convention of hardcore Trekkies to "get a life."

So when "Shatner's World" stops at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts next week, it's not unreasonable to guess that the stomach-flu story will crop up somewhere, at least as an aside. In Shatner's show, as well as his book, few topics are off limits, and he admits to improvising sometimes.

But on top of the kidding and the more reflective moments, Shatner hopes the show will have an inspirational message to the audience — namely, that those in attendance will learn to embrace a three-letter word he's embraced throughout his career.

"Even if terrible things happen to you, you still have to say 'yes' to life," he said.

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A new final frontier

Think of Shatner as the anti-Daniel Day-Lewis.

Unlike the "Lincoln" star, who sometimes holds out for years between movie roles, Shatner isn't known for taking a methodical approach to his career. Over the last half-century, he's starred on Broadway, in movies and on TV, recorded music (his 1968 album "The Transformed Man," which includes melodramatic readings of Beatles and Bob Dylan lyrics, has attained cult status), made the game-show rounds and penned sci-fi novels, among other endeavors.

Still, when Shatner got an invitation several years ago from an Australian production company to create "Kirk, Crane & Beyond" — an autobiographical show whose title refers to "Star Trek's" Kirk as well as Denny Crane, the pompous attorney on "Boston Legal" — he had a new challenge as a performer: to shed characters and make himself the lead. The show featured no one on stage but Shatner and a moderator who asked him questions.

"I had never done this sort of thing, but I thought, 'It's an interesting adventure, and if I fail miserably, Orange County won't hear about it because it's in Australia,'" Shatner joked.

The original show, which toured Australia and Canada, proved successful enough that Shatner decided to create a new version for the U.S. In "Shatner's World," he dispensed with the moderator and created a (mostly) scripted program, interspersing his recollections with video and audio clips that play onstage throughout.

Once the actor got used to the one-man form, he found it invigorating.

"The challenge was, could I keep your attention for 90 minutes, 100 minutes?" Shatner said. "Can I keep you as vitally interested when I walk on stage as when I walk off stage? I've established now that I can, and do. And that's where the challenge lay for me.

"Now it's not a challenge as to whether it will work. It's how I can make it come alive for these people on this night."

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'I try to live in the moment'

For Shatner devotees, the Segerstrom date may be a coveted night. "Shatner's World" has only three California stops on the current leg of its tour, with the others in Santa Barbara on Jan. 18 and San Luis Obispo on Jan. 19. (The show hit the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles in March.)

Segerstrom Center President Terry Dwyer, an avowed fan of "Boston Legal" and "T.J. Hooker," the police drama in which Shatner starred in the 1980s, said he was excited when the actor's management approached him about a gig.

"What's great is he has the range of talent and that kind of accessible energy that causes audiences to fall in love with him and feel connected to him, whatever he's doing on stage or screen," Dwyer said. "He has that charisma that not every performer has."

Asked if he counted himself a Trekkie, Dwyer sighed, "Aren't we all."

A one-man show may be a new project for Shatner, but Broadway isn't. Before network executives offered him a role that seemed minor in the mid-'60s — the captain on a pilot for a space-travel show — he spent years starring onstage. In between, he played dramatic roles in films, most notably the Oscar-winning post-World-War-II drama "Judgment at Nuremberg," where he played a U.S. Army captain.

Shatner is quick to note that a show-business career is heavy on happenstance; even after the initial run of "Star Trek" ended, he found himself scraping for work. Years before that, he fought to pay the bills by doing live Shakespeare and TV bit parts.

If edgy dramas and "Henry V" had turned out to be Shatner's career path, would he have taken those over Kirk and T.J. Hooker? Shatner dismissed the question.

"I don't think in those terms," he said. "I think of the role, how much fun is it to play. Both of those roles were demanding in their own way. I don't live in the past or in regret. I try to live in the moment. And again, that's the message of my one-man show."

michael.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

If You Go

What: "Shatner's World: We Just Live In It"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 17

Cost: $45 to $250

Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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