James Tiberius Kirk has been very good to William Shatner. The actor knows it, and is properly grateful.
"I am eternally grateful," Shatner said of the lasting legacy of playing the commander of the starship Enterprise beginning in 1966, a role that continues to pay dividends more than half a century later. "I have an incredibly full life, based on this character that I played well over 50 years ago."
That he does. At 87, the Canadian-born Shatner says he's working on two TV series, has a pair of records he hopes to make available soon and a book about aging slated for release in the fall. That's in addition to a nine-city tour, stopping at the Modell Lyric Wednesday, to host screenings of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and field questions from the audience.
It's a daunting schedule, one that pleases Shatner to no end. And he acknowledges he owes it all to a TV series few people watched when it ran on NBC from 1966 to 1969, but has since become a cultural force with few rivals, spawning six movies (not counting a reboot beginning in 2009), a like number of spinoff TV series, numerous books and even a few languages (anyone know a few words of Klingon?).
"In the intervening years, I've done a lot of stuff," Shatner said in a phone interview. "And although I was playing leading roles even prior to it, it was the 'Star Trek' push to celebrity that made all this happen."
True enough. Shatner had been a staple of American television since the mid-'50s, appearing in episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "77 Sunset Strip," "The Defenders" and, perhaps most memorably, "The Twilight Zone," where his roles included an airplane passenger desperately trying to convince everyone that a demon really was riding on the plane's wing.
Post-'Trek,' he had the title role in the cop series "T.J. Hooker," and even earned Emmys for "The Practice" and "Boston Legal."
But to most of the world, he'll always be the swaggering, irrepressible, ultra-capable Captain Kirk, staring down alien life forms of all kinds, steadily guiding the Enterprise on its mission "to boldly go where no man (later amended to 'no one') has gone before."
Shatner also understands — and this explains why "Star Trek II" is being screened for this tour, not the earlier or any of the later films — that without "The Wrath of Khan," "Star Trek" might have remained a cult of the few, without the mass appeal the franchise would come to enjoy.
"You might say that 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' was disappointing," he says of 1979's first theatrical release, a big-budget, special effects-laden effort that underwhelmed critics and audiences alike; it simply didn't have the zip or the nimble creativity of the original series. Paramount, Shatner says, had seen the film as its answer to the runaway hit 20th Century Fox had with "Star Wars." When it fell short, the studio seriously scaled back its expectations for the follow-up.
"Paramount was going to wash their hands of the whole event," Shatner says, "but they were convinced, through a variety of means, to try one more."
Good thing they were. "Wrath of Khan" dispensed with much of the jargon-heavy science that weighed down the first movie, and got more in-depth into the characters "Star Trek" fans had come to love. "They gave the job of getting another movie out to the television department," Shatner says, "and the television department thought smaller, thought plot and character, the way 'Star Trek' the series had been. And they made a movie for a quarter or a third the price of the first movie."
Perhaps most important, the filmmakers brought back an old friend, the cryogenically preserved superman Khan Noonien Singh, played with chest-thumping elan by Ricardo Montalban, to be the bad guy.
"Oh, he had a wonderful time making the film," Shatner says. "He told me many times how much he enjoyed playing the character."
And audiences clearly had a good time watching it. The movie became a massive hit, and the "Star Trek" franchise would never look back. For many, it remains unmatched in the canon.
"Maybe our desperation showed," Shatner says with a laugh, reflecting on what made "Wrath of Khan" such a success. "I think that in a desire to show everybody how good 'Star Trek' could be, the authors and the producers and everybody responsible for the creative part of the script threw everything in. Love and death and good friends dying. They just did everything they could to make it emotional and identifiable."
Oh yes, the death part. There's a death at the end of "Star Trek II," and it jolted fans the world over. Happily, as often happens in the world of fantasy and sci-fi, the death proved temporary (we won't reveal who dies, on the off-chance some readers don't know).
Shatner, for one, believes the death was never meant to be permanent. Yes, the studio was skeptical there was a future for the franchise; when filming was completed, Shatner says, the sets were destoyed, rather than stored. Which meant that they had to be rebuilt when filming began on "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock."
But killing off a major character? Shatner says he was sure that signaled the end of the franchise. He was genuinely surprised, he says, when the character was brought back for the third movie — even though, in retrospect, he found all sorts of hints that death at the end of "Wrath of Khan" was not meant to be permanent.
"I think they hoodwinked everybody, including me," he says. "I think they were playing a joke on me… At least, that's my opinion."
"William Shatner: Live on Stage," preceded by a screening of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," is set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $39-$69. modell-lyric.com.