When William Shatner's name scrolled across the screen at the New York premiere of "Star Trek Generations," a round of cheers was immediately followed by a groundswell of boos -- the only emotion displayed during the title sequence by an audience of journalists, filmmakers and Trekkies.
British actor Malcolm McDowell, whose villain causes the demise of Mr. Shatner's Captain Kirk, collared Mr. Shatner the next morning and gleefully noted how fascinating it was "that 50 percent of the audience love you, and the other 50 percent
are so bloody tired of you after 30 years they just want to see you die."
As he munched on a breakfast of New York bagels moments later, Mr. Shatner seemed troubled by that reaction, and by Mr. McDowell's kidding. When asked why so many people react negatively to him (including his "Star Trek" co-stars George Takei and Nichelle Nichols, who have called him an egomaniac), the 63-year-old actor said, "I think some people just don't get my sense of humor."
Clearly, Mr. Shatner has developed the reputation of being a self-centered cutup.
For years, he said, he fought "Star Trek" and can remember telling an early convention of Trekkies to "get a life." He said he often feels the series made him a freak -- and to demonstrate, he tells a strange story: He was stranded on a country road, trying to hitchhike to civilization when a car slowed down and an elderly woman made an obscene gesture as she yelled, "Beam me up, Scotty!"
Somewhere along the line, however, this Shakespeare-trained Canadian actor gave in, wholeheartedly embracing the role fate had handed him. He did the conventions, he did the "Star Trek" movies, he used Kirk as a springboard to success both as $$TC writer ("Star Trek" novels and a series of futuristic detective novels) and as an actor in other TV series ("T.J. Hooker," "Rescue 911").
And he has developed a bemused, comedic, somewhat commanding style of dealing with his celebrity, a style he honed in hundreds of talk-show and convention appearances.
"It all became a great game. Finding myself in front of these conventions, the only thing I could do was tell funny stories. . . . I guess that puts some people off -- or they interpret it as being shallow and egotistical."
Now that "Star Trek" is over for him, Mr. Shatner said he is happy to step out of the limelight. He said he has nothing but good feelings about the show.
And if half the audience is tired of Shatner/Kirk, the others clearly love him and will miss him. Again and again, reporters tell him that his first appearance in "Generations" -- when Kirk returns to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise for the last time -- is the emotional high point of the entire "Star Trek" series, and one of the best scenes Mr. Shatner has ever done as an actor.
Was art imitating life in that scene? What were his real feelings in that extraordinary moment?
"Well, actually I wasn't feeling much of anything. The scene was carefully orchestrated for that particular effect on the audience. Once you've done a scene like that as many as 10 times, it loses its emotional hold on you -- and you're just acting."
But only a few moments later, Mr. Shatner went back and corrected himself. "You know, come to think of it, I believe I was thinking of how much fun I had had on that bridge over the years. And I was very conscious of Leonard (Nimoy) and DeForest (Kelley) not being there -- those great friends I have enjoyed so much.
"Yeah, maybe there was something a little extra in that scene."