Sunday, September 25, 2011


When I was at the Baltimore Comic Con last month, I was touched by the number of people who—despite the fact that it’s been five years since the last new Abadazad material was published—expressed their sadness and dismay over the demise of the series and their hope that, some day, some way, it can return. (Needless to say, I share their sentiments!)  So for all the loyal Zaddites out there, here’s a special gift:  something that sheds some light on the story’s roots and at least hints at where it was headed.  Consider it my "thank you" to all the people who have taken Kate Jameson and her friends into their hearts.

What you’ll find below is my original Abadazad proposal:  the one I sent to CrossGen Comics back in 2003.  The one that fired up editor Ian Feller and publisher Mark Alessi and lured the legendary Mike Ploog back into the comic book field.  (And thank goodness for that:  I can’t imagine Abadazad without our collaboration and friendship.  You're a good man, Mr. Ploog!)

Keep in mind that, by the time we actually started working on the comics, and the Hyperion book series that followed, a number of the ideas presented here were jettisoned:  most notably the scene of Kate sampling from her mother’s liquor cabinet.  (Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.)  This proposal was primarily a structure to hang the story on, a way to communicate, in a condensed form, how I saw the characters and what I hoped to do with the series.  If, as we hope, Abadazad does indeed return, the story will no doubt head in directions not hinted at below.

And, for the record:  Abadazad is © copyright 2011 Disney Enterprises, Inc. 


An Outline
J. M. De Matteis

Once upon a time:

Twelve year old KATIE JAMESON takes her six year old brother, MATT, to a street fair in Brooklyn.  It’s instantly clear—in both the tender way Katie watches over her brother and the light in Matt’s eyes when he looks at his sister—that these two are joined by a profound bond of love.  Their father left years ago, their mother works two jobs...and these two have become partners in survival; seasoned soldiers in the Divorce Wars, who hold tight to each other as the bullets whiz over their heads.

Matt’s on a kiddie ride, Katie watching delightedly as he sails in circles in a mini-boat:  Matt sails around, happy...slips out of sight behind the center pole...sails back into view, happy...out of sight...sails back, happy...out of sight...and then the boat comes around again—

—and the boy is gone.  And he is nowhere to be found.  That day ...or any day thereafter.

Five years later:

FRANCES JAMESON, Katie and Matt’s mother, is a heavy drinker, who has never gotten over the loss of her son:  She still puts up posters in the neighborhood.  She’s got a closet filled with milk cartons with her son’s face on it.

Katie, now a surly teenager whose taste runs to black nails, gothic clothing, and Death Metal, has had enough of her mother’s clinging to the past.  Her oft-repeated—and shockingly heartless—advice to her mother:  “It’s been five years.  He’s dead.  Get over it.”  Frances is at a loss as to how to handle Kate.  (Which the girl now prefers to the more juvenile—or so she sees it—Katie.)  She keeps insisting that her daughter go to a therapist.  “I’d rather jump out a window,” Kate swears, “than go see some stupid shrink.”

But Kate’s cold cynicism masks a teenager in despair.  Riddled with guilt, wondering what she could have done to save her brother.

Frances finds relief (and a kind of sweet pain) in retreating into the Tales of Abadazad:  a series of children’s books—part Oz/part  Narnia/part Doctor Seuss— that she and Matt would read all the time.  Written, between l900 and l920, by Franklin O. Barrie, the twelve Abadazad books chronicled the adventures of a little Missouri girl named Martha, who journeyed, with the help of an Enchanted Blue Globe, into the fairyland of Abadazad.

(No, these books don’t really exist.  They’re my creation.)

Matt’s room, left untouched since his disappearance, is a virtual shrine to the series —with Abadazad dolls, plastic figures, games, cups, posters, calendars.  Thus the room itself becomes a kind of time-portal connecting Frances to her lost child.  To the joy and innocence they shared.

Kate tells her mother that keeping the room untouched is sick:  “Throw that junk out and get on with your life.  Abadazad’s just a load of mindless crap.  There’s no such thing as ‘happily ever after,’ Mother.  Haven’t you figured that out by now?”  But that doesn’t stop Kate from slipping into Matt’s room in the middle of the night, remembering hours spent under the covers with a flashlight, journeying to Abadazad with her brother.  To lock herself away in that room is one of the few joys—however bittersweet —of Kate’s wounded young life.

Meanwhile, the woman in the apartment upstairs, an old African American woman in her seventies named MARTHA, corrals Kate for tea.  Kate has always avoided the old woman (something about her gives Kate the creeps) but Martha’s invitation comes at a moment when Kate is feeling extremely lost and vulnerable—and she accepts.

Over tea, Kate notes a variety of Abadazad collectibles in Martha’s apartment.  Martha, with conspiratorial glee, tells Kate that they’re not collectibles...they’re the Real Thing.  “Straight from Queen Ija’s palace in Inconceivable.”  “Excuse me?” says Kate.  Martha, in fact, claims that she is the little girl from the books; that she related her adventures to the man her father worked for, Franklin O. Barrie, who then wrote up the tales, changing Martha from a little black girl to a little white girl because “let’s face it, no one in l900 would’ve bought it otherwise.”  According to the books, Martha—who was six years old in l900—should be over a hundred by now.  She’s not older, she insists, because Abadazad exists outside of time.  You don’t age while you’re there.  Eventually, Martha claims, the pull of adulthood, of life in the Real World, drew her away from Abadazad.  “But Queen Ija and the Two-Fold Witch told me that when my time came, I’d be with them again.  Reborn—a girl again!—in Abadazad.  And, oh,” says Martha, tears streaming down her cheeks, “how my heart longs for that day.”  

Kate is heading for the door, sure that she’s dealing with a certifiable lunatic, when Martha lurches after her, waving a bony finger in her face.  “Your brother,” the old woman insists, “is alive.  He’s been kidnapped by the Lanky Man.”   (One of the main villains of the Abadazad tales.)  “He’s found a way to cross over into our world...he’s been stealing children...pure-hearted children like your Matt...and heaven only knows what old Lanks intends to do with them!”  Martha says she only recently became aware of the Lanky Man’s excursions into The Real World —“If I was younger, I would’ve sniffed him out sooner!”—but she’s helpless to stop him.  “I’m too old,” she admits.  “But, you -- !  With my help you could cross-over to Abadazad, tell Queen Ija what’s happened.  She’ll help you find your brother and stop Lanky from -- “

Kate, cutting Martha off, thanks her for the information—and bolts.  This woman, she thinks, is totally bent.

Several days later, Martha passes away.

And leaves Kate the Blue Globe.  Martha’s note informs Kate that this is indeed the magical device that—according to the books—can transport a person into Abadazad.  Kate, of course, doesn’t take the thing to be real; just another reflection of the poor old woman’s lunacy.  And yet, something about that globe seems...strange.  Seductive.  Magical.  Kate, feeling like a fool for believing in the Globe for even a split second, stuffs the thing in the closet and forgets it.

Until one night—after a fight with her mother which ends with Frances, drunk and weeping, stumbling into bed—the Globe begins to glow...the light seeping out of the closet, flooding the apartment...drawing Kate to it.  And there, in the depths of the Globe, she sees her brother...and then she sees THE LANKY MAN (ten-foot long pipe-cleaner legs, eight bony arms, a top hat that rises into forever, and a nose so pointy you could sew with it), laughing at her.  She freaks, drops the Globe, it bounces away, then ricochets out the window into the alley below:  Shatters.

Kate decides to follow her mother’s lead.  Angry at Frances and herself and desperately trying to deny what she’s seen in the Blue Globe, she opens the liquor cabinet and attempts to get drunk.  Despite her look of Gothic Terror, Kate’s a pretty straight kid, not into drink or drugs:  One sip and she’s sick to her stomach.  In her disgust and confusion, she trips on a lamp-cord...topples out the window.

But she doesn’t fall.

Because the Blue Globe has re-formed itself...risen up out of the alley.  It bathes her in its blue light, holding her there, in mid-air, then sails through her bedroom window, carrying her safely inside.

Kate is awestruck.  Then, all at once, she remembers the words from the book, the magic words that, if one’s heart is pure enough, true enough, will get you into Abadazad:  She speaks the words.  And she’s sucked into the globe.  Into Abadazad!

In Abadazad, Kate meets Little Martha—who, after her death, was indeed reborn as a child in this magical land.  Martha takes Kate up the Living Staircase to Inconceivable—the airborne capital city of Abadazad—where she meets the miraculous, whimsical characters she’s read about for so many years, including:

MR. GLOOM:  part man, part dark and thunderous rain-cloud.  A powerful and intimidating figure, like a wild-eyed Old Testament prophet.  Everywhere he looks, everything he sees, is Gloom and Doom and End Of The World.  (His sentiments punctuated with thunder and lightning.)  Yet for all his gloomy talk, his actions are brave and idealistic.  He never gives up hope.
MARY ANNETTE:  A full-size, walking, talking marionette, long ago abandoned by the puppeteer that created her.  Though many assume she’s a brainless toy, Mary is shrewd and tough and cynical (far more cynical than she was ever portrayed in any of the books Kate read);  smarter than almost everyone in Abadazad.  But, despite her cynical exterior, in her heart, the puppet’s deepest longing is to be reunited with her mysterious, and long-missing, creator.

PROFESSOR HEADSTRONG:  An over-sized, bodiless head that rides in a clockwork cart.  He’s all logic and intellect; professorial pomposity and arrogance.  Or so he claims.  But he’s really such a sentimental sap that the littlest thing makes him weep like a baby.

QUEEN IJA:  An ageless beauty—like some sublime Hindu goddess—with  blue skin, silver hair, and a third eye, whose feet literally never touch the ground.  Whose winged throne floats and shimmers -- and who speaks, like all true oracles, in unfathomable riddles that ultimately contain the seeds of redemption.  Ija is the youngest daughter of THE FLOATING WARLOCK, Creator of Abadazad, who died, centuries before, during the Great War with the evil kingdom of Horrozad.  (Being dead, of course, hasn’t stopped him from making appearances in Abadazad -- where Floating Warlock sightings are as provocative, and as hotly debated, as UFO sightings are in our world.)

Kate isn’t sure if this is dream, delusion, or reality.  All she knows is that she’s delighted to be there.  And that the company of these odd, whimsical, innocent beings restores her faith and hope.  (Professor Headstrong theorizes that -- from Kate’s perspective, at least -- Abadazad exists on another plane, a dimension of mind and imagination, where thought possesses life and substance.  “What’s dreamed in your world, takes form here.  Of course,” he goes on, “from our perspective, we dreamed you.”)

But the dream is rudely interrupted when The Lanky Man—aware of Kate’s arrival in Abadazad, and sensing that she is a threat to his power—sends his allies, the explosively nasty Rocket-Heads, to attack Inconceivable.  The Rocket-Head army is repelled, but Kate, feeling responsible, sets off—accompanied by Martha, Mr. Gloom, Mary Annette, and Professor Headstrong—to find the Lanky Man and rescue Matt.

Amazing adventures follow (including an encounter with the Lanky Man’s scaled servant, THE BURPING DRAGON, and a glimpse of the Floating Warlock himself, sailing blithely past the moon) and the little group makes amazing progress as they wind their way through Abadazad toward The Wretchedly Awful City (a kind of Victorian nightmare, the industrial revolution gone mad) where The Lanky Man rules over a populace of enslaved, exploited children.

But the Lanky Man—who comes to Kate one night looking like her twin, claiming to be her unconscious mind given form—convinces Kate that all this is a delusion.  At the moment her belief and trust dissolve, so do her friends, so does Abadazad...and Kate finds herself back in the Real World, on the very night she left, feeling desperate, alone.  And uncertain about her own sanity.  She picks up The Blue Globe, speaks the magic words -- and nothing happens.  (Because she no longer has the conviction.)  She curls up on the floor -- and cries herself to sleep.

Kate  awakens in the morning to find her mother collecting the empty booze bottles and throwing them away.  Collecting all the Abadazad memorabilia, too, and packing it in trash bags (inadvertently stuffing an old creased school-portrait of Matt in one of the bags, as well).  She’s decided, she tells the amazed Kate, to take her advice.  She’s called her job and offered her resignation.  It’s time, she says to Kate, to put the past behind them.  They’re going to move:  out of this apartment, out of this city.

She takes the trash bags filled with Abadazad memorabilia—including the Blue Globe, Kate’s passport back to Abadazad—outside...just as the trash collectors arrive to take the garbage away.

But as the bags of trash are hauled toward the truck, one of them opens...and the photo of Matt flutters out, landing at Kate’s feet.  Kate kneels there, holding the picture in her hand, staring at that beautiful, innocent face...realizing that no matter what, she can’t give up on her brother.  Let the whole world call her insane, she cannot close her heart to the possibility that Magic Is Real.  That Abadazad Exists.

“Wait!” she roars, as the garbage truck starts up.  She leaps for it, rummaging, like a lunatic, through the bags, until she finds that precious Blue Globe.  Till she cradles it in her arms:  the Embodiment of Hope (however illogical).  The Doorway to Dreams (however absurd).

She looks over at the trash collectors—and sees, to her fear and amazement, that they’re Rocket-Heads...sent to our world to steal the Blue Globe and prevent Kate’s return to Abadazad.  They scramble toward Kate...

...but, with her faith and hope restored, she says the words...

...and flashes through the Globe...back to Abadazad.

Her companions, she discovers, have been caught by the Lanky Man; so she goes on alone to meet the Enemy...who’s got dozens of children working in a wild Dr. Seuss-like factory, constructing a Rube Goldberg-meets-Jack Kirby device with which he intends to invade and conquer the Real World.

The Lanky Man, we learn, has had his fill of making mischief in Abadazad, of being thwarted by Queen Ija and her allies.  So he’s decided to conquer a world without magic:  the so-called Real World.  The Earth.  But so far he’s only been able to manifest in the Real World for short times; and then, only because of children, like Matt, whose faith in the reality of Abadazad is so strong that he can tap into it, use it as a bridge.

Which is why he’s been kidnapping these children, plugging them in, like human batteries, to his World-Crossing Machine, using their belief to create the permanent bridge between Abadazad and Earth.  Once there, he and his minions will use their dark magic to take over the Real World.  And the machine is almost done.  The day of invasion is almost here.  

Aided by the Burping Dragon (who, we discover, loathes his master and has fallen head over heels in love with Kate), Kate finds Matt, plugged into the machine, unblinking, unseeing.  Beyond her reach (for the moment, at least).  She frees her Wonderful City friends—as well as Lanky Man’s most ferociously-guarded prisoner:  THE TWOFOLD WITCH (a two-headed enchantress—she may, or may not, be the wife of the Floating Warlock and mother of Queen Ija—who has been locked in Lanky Man’s dungeons for thirty years)...

...and ultimately faces Lanky Man himself:  Things don’t look good for Kate when Old Lanks traps her in The Bottle of Sorrows (in which she nearly drowns—quite literally—in her own liquified misery).  But she overcomes the wretchedness, the pain, the cynicism that has encrusted her heart, bursts free of the bottle—and defeats the Lanky Man, destroying his World-Crossing Device and freeing the children.

Freeing Matt.

Kate and her brother embrace—there’s a wave of blue light...

And Kate finds herself back in her apartment, without Matt, facing a very worried Frances.  Kate tells her mother everything.  “Oh, sweetheart,” a profoundly-moved Frances says, “don’t you see?  Your mind created this fantasy to free you of your guilt.  You felt powerless to save Matt, to help him...and so you constructed this fantasy to work it all out.”  “No, Mother,” Kate angrily protests, “you don’t understand.  It really happened!  And Matt, I saw him, he—”  “Come on,” Frances says, pulling her daughter toward the door, insisting that she go with her —right now!—to see a therapist.

Then they hear something in the other room.  They open the door --  and two dozen children come racing out, whooping, screaming, happy.  UNAGED.

Including Matt.

Frances’s jaw hits the floor.  She weeps, laughs uncontrollably.  Embraces her beloved son.

The Twofold Witch performs a spell.  The kids slowly begin to change...becoming the age they’re supposed to be in the Real World.

Martha and the Twofold Witch say they’ll get the other kids back to the homes they’ve been away from for so long.  The Witch asks Kate, Matt, and Frances to please keep the existence of Abadazad a secret.  They agree.  (Well, Kate and Matt agree.  Frances can barely grunt, she’s so stunned.)  “But come visit once in a while,” Martha says.  “You need it, you know—to keep you young.”

And off they go.  The Lost Kids swept off across the city, across the country, across the world, to be returned to their families.  We glimpse one of those families, grim and gloomy, sitting at dinner.  Then, to their astonishment, the window opens, by itself, and their long-missing daughter flies in, accompanied by Martha and the Two-Fold Witch:  Astonishment fades, replaced by recognition.  Gloom becomes radiant joy.

But there’s no joy greater than Kate’s—as she and Frances and eleven year old Matt begin their new life together.  And Kate knows—to the bottom of her heart, she knows!—that they’ll all live...

...happily ever after.

But must this be the end of the Tales of Abadazad?  No.  Because there are many more stories to tell.  From the starting point of Kate’s journey to save her brother, Abadazad can branch out in two clear directions.  First we have the past:  the twelve original Abadazad books (which, of course, have yet to be written!) created by “Franklin O. Barrie,” detailing Little Martha’s adventures.  And then we have the future:  The continuing exploits of Kate and Matt as they return to Abadazad, again and again, for new adventures.

This first story can be the launching pad for two independent series of tales.  And the magic of Abadazad can go on and on and on, stretching out, like the Living Staircase, as far as Imagination will allow.

Hope you enjoyed this glimpse into Abadazad's beginnings.  With Queen Ija's blessings, I'd like to share more hidden Zaddian treasures with you all in the future.  Time (that elusive illusion) will tell.

© copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Friday night at 6 pm (5 Central), the last of my Batman: The Brave and the Bold episodes airs on Cartoon Network.  This is the final season of B & B and, as I've said here several times before, it was an absolute pleasure writing for the show and working with producers James Tucker and Michael Jelenic.  James, Michael and their incredible creative team managed to inject a much-needed note of fun into the Batman mythos, but always remained respectful of Bats and the innumerable DCU characters that popped up on the series.  (It's important to remember that, no matter what it says in the writing credits, when it comes to television, it's always a team effort.)

I enjoyed every story I wrote for B & B, but my three favorites are "The Eyes of Despero," "Hail the Tornado Tyrant" and this week's "Time Out for Vengeance"—which features the animated DCU version of the Giffen-DeMatteis Justice League.  It's the second time I've had a chance to write the JLI for Brave and the Bold and, despite the fact that Keith G, Kevin Maguire and I said a fond, and definite, farewell to the comic book incarnation of the team with last month's Justice League Retroactive, I'd jump at the chance to write the animated League again.  (I think it would make a great series:  Warner Bros., are you listening?) 

For now, though, this is goodbye to J'onn, Beetle, Booster, Fire, Ice and the rest.  I hope you enjoy "Time Out for Vengeance":  it really is a good one.  In fact, through the magic of YouTube, you can watch the first part of the episode—which should then lead you to part two—here.  That's right, you don't have to wait till Friday for this one.  (Hey, it's already been on iTunes for months!)  Enjoy one last "bwah-ha-ha" on me.     

Thursday, September 15, 2011


My Brave and the Bold episode "Scorn of the Star Sapphire," which features Batman teamed with Green Lantern, was scheduled to air back in May—but, for reasons that remain mysterious, the show was yanked at the last minute and B & B vanished from the airwaves for months.  The good news is that it's back—and the GL episode airs tomorrow night at 6 pm on Cartoon Network.  (I've embedded a teaser clip below.)  It's a fun episode, and if you're a Hal Jordan fan I suspect you'll enjoy it, but the one I'm really looking forward to is next week's, which once again teams Batman with the Justice League International—as they go on a time-hopping mission with Rip Hunter.  I think it's one of the very best of all the episodes I've written for the show.   Be sure to let me know what you think.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Having enjoyed my recent Masterclass experiences at the Ottawa Writer's Festival and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, I've put together a weekend workshop that I'm very excited about.  The first class will be in the fall and the official announcement is below.  Hope to see you there!

writing for comic books, graphic novels and animation
with J.M. DeMatteis

 Friday November 4th, 7 pm to 9 pm
              Saturday November 5th, 10 am to 5 pm (90 minute break for lunch)
              Sunday November 6th, 9 am to 1 pm
Martin Aaron Office Complex in Kingston, New York
              (two hours north of New York City)
Join master storyteller J.M. DeMatteis for a weekend exploring the realms of imagination, from the metaphysical to the practical.  We’ll ponder the big questions...

~ Where do ideas come from?
~ What part does will play in the creative process? 
~ Is the best writing actually an act of channeling?
~ Do we create the story or does the story create us?

...and tackle the day-to-day realities of a career writing superhero sagas, fantasy epics and animation:

~ What’s the difference between “Marvel style” and “full script”?
~ What’s the value of editors?
~ Are agents necessary?
~ How do you handle rejection without jumping out the nearest window?

Come prepared to listen—as JMD shares stories and insights gleaned from more than thirty years writing comics, television, film and novels—but be prepared to work:  you’ll pitch ideas, dialogue artwork and help create a story from the ground up.

Bring all your questions, too:  this won’t be a brief, two hour seminar.  You’ll have an entire weekend, in an intimate setting, to explore your own creativity with J.M. DeMatteis as your guide.

Cost $415.00
Class size is limited.  To guarantee your place, register now.

To register and for more more information about lodging and transportation:

Saturday, September 3, 2011


I’m a huge fan of the original Star Trek (back in the 70’s, in those twilight years between the end of the show and the beginning of the film series, it seemed that just about everybody my age was).  In 1976—at the height of Trekmania—I attended a New York Star Trek convention (I’ve only been to two in my life and by the second one I’d had quite enough).  The entire cast was appearing at the con and the auditorium was packed to the point of discomfort.  Each actor came out to screams and applause and no one received a bigger ovation than the Captain himself, William Shatner (I was surprised at that:  I always thought the Trek fans were more devoted to Nimoy and Spock).

Shatner seemed a little on edge at first; but, as the questions flew back and forth, he loosened up.  Considerably.  Sat himself down in a mock-up of Kirk’s command chair, stretched out a bit—and began a one-man show.  Make no mistake about it, this was a real show:  a performance of note.

The other cast members had done their bit (Leonard Nimoy read poetry, Nichelle Nichols complained about having to say “hailing frequencies open” so many damn times), and quite nicely, but Shatner went beyond that, launching into a tale of his Shakespearean days in Canada, when, as an understudy for Christopher Plummer, he unexpectedly had to play the lead in Henry V.  Bounding back and forth across the stage, he acted out the part of Young Shatner, assumed the roles of his fellow actors, and brought the story to a rousing climax.

It was a lovely moment and one that transformed a fun but—let’s be honest— fundamentally kitschy experience into something approaching art.  That was when I realized that there was more to Shatner than the guy with the phaser and the velour shirt.

All this comes to mind because my wife, daughter and I have spent a good part of the week gobbling down DVD episodes of one of my all-time favorite television series, David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal.  (My wife bought me the entire set for my last birthday.)  There were many reasons to enjoy BL during its five year run—not the least the brilliant writing by Kelley and his staff—but I think everyone who watched the show agreed that the two primary reasons were James Spader and, yes, William Shatner.  The rest of the cast was amazing—Mark Valley, Julie Bowen, Christian Clemenson and, especially, Candice Bergen and Renee Aubjerjonois—but the relationship between Spader’s Alan Shore and Shatner’s Denny Crane was the heart and soul of the series:  without them, Boston Legal might have popped like a soap bubble.

Here were two characters—and two actors—as different as one could possibly imagine:  Shatner’s Crane was an ageing courtroom legend, a proud Republican, given to sexual recklessness and Alzheimer’s-induced buffoonery, while Spader’s Shore was an unabashed liberal, a brilliant, unconventional lawyer with a deeply troubled, one might even say twisted, soul.  Together they created one of the most memorable male friendships, and one of the most memorable acting teams, in television history:  the Kirk and Spock of the New Millennium.  Each week’s final scene—which featured Alan and Denny on the balcony of Crane, Poole & Schmidt sharing cigars, drinks and the weird passions of their souls—brought a transcendent shine to even the weaker episodes. 

One of Boston Legal’s hallmarks was its ability to shift from fourth-wall-breaking comedy to gripping drama.  A perfect example of the latter was an episode called “Son of the Defender”:  Kelley used footage from a fifty year old gem from the days of live television—a Studio One legal drama called “The Defender,” which starred veteran actor Ralph Bellamy and a twenty-six year old  Shatner—as a backdrop for a powerful exploration of the Denny Crane character.  The result—which concluded with perhaps the most poignant Shore-Crane balcony scene ever—was a magical hour of television.  By aligning the youthful Shatner of l957 with the septuagenerian of 2007, “Son of the Defender” wove a story that was as much a testament to the performer as it was to the character he played.  Shatner, who won two Emmys and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Crane, gave a performance that was profoundly moving:  Crane’s comic shell was stripped away and Shatner once again reminded me (as he did that day in 1976) that he’s not just a pop culture artifact, but an actor.  When he puts his mind to it—as he clearly did on BL—he’s one of our best.

William Shatner’s career has fascinated, befuddled and delighted me for years:  He began (as noted) on the Shakespearean stage, then moved on to award winning roles on Broadway, live television and in film.  His screen debut was in MGM’s adaptation of The Brothers Karamozov—my favorite novel—and  the role of the saintly Alexei was light years removed from Captain Kirk; but then so were most of the pre-Trek roles Shatner played (none moreso than Roger Corman’s The Intruder, a 1962 film about segregation that was so incendiary it was barely released.  Shatner played the lead, a charismatic racist agitator, with horrifying brilliance).  In the sixties, you could find Shatner on television constantly, giving memorable performances on The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, the Defenders (spun off from the Studio One play), The Fugitive, Dr. Kildare (he turned down the title role that made Richard Chamberlain's career), The Outer Limits and so many more. Then came his life-altering stint aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise:

The paradox of Star Trek is that it made Shatner a star and, simultaneously, torpedoed his career.  He was forever branded with the dreaded Science-Fiction Stamp.  He wasn’t perceived as a serious actor any more:  The world viewed him as a grandiose, outer-space ham.  And he could be a ham, chewing through scenery with manic intensity—but that was, and remains, part of his charm.  Shatner doesn’t just play a role, he attacks it (and, yes, sometimes rips it to unrecognizable shreds):  pouring all of his energy and enthusiasm into every word.  His portrayal of Kirk remains a TV classic.  At his best, he gave the character a perfect balance of inter-galactic melodrama and down-to-earth humanity.  But it did seem that the worse the scripts got, the more wildly exaggerated Shatner’s performances became, almost as if he was trying to compensate for the weak material.  This was most evident in Trek’s third season when it sometimes seemed as if the man had completely taken leave of his senses.

The seventies saw Shatner teeter-tottering between art (George C. Scott’s PBS production of The Andersonville Trial), camp (appearing in low-budget dreck like The Devil’s Rain and Impulse) and every conceivable permutation in between.  Despite the myth—much of it perpetuated by Shatner himself—that he couldn’t get a job after Trek’s cancellation, one look at the Internet Movie Database makes it clear that he was working constantly, doing guest-shots on established series and appearing in endless movies-of-the-week.  Had Star Trek not come back, he might have quietly transitioned into character roles and stumbled into a kind of Denny Crane-ish revival decades earlier.
  But the show was resurrected and Shatner was Captain Kirk again, starring in a series of successful films, giving performances that (Star Trek: The Motion Picture aside) were always interesting and, on occasion (The Wrath of Khan), truly exceptional.  But the movies also completed the typecasting cycle:  He became Kirk Forever.  Oh, sure, he played Aaron Spelling robo-cop T.J. Hooker for a few years and hosted Rescue 911; but, to most people, Shatner was, and always would be, the Captain of the Enterprise:  an indelible part of our pop culture.  No longer an actor, he became an icon.  Worse, he became a celebrity.  He played along, but you got the feeling, watching him, that he wasn’t entirely comfortable in that role.  Perhaps that’s why Shatner seemed the happiest spoofing himself—most memorably on Saturday Night Live and in the indie movie, Free Enterprise.  Those performances seemed to free his inner comedian.  When he was nominated for his first Emmy, it wasn’t for a dramatic role:  it was for playing The Big Giant Head on Third Rock From The Sun.

David E. Kelley, in creating Denny Crane—a character whose wild contradictions mirrored those of the actor who played him—gave Shatner back his gravitas.  Maybe Crane didn’t bury Captain Kirk, but he certainly nudged the old space dog into the wings.  At a time when many of his peers were in the Old Actors Home or, worse, Forest Lawn, the man was doing the finest work of his career.

As much as I love Trek and Kirk, for me Denny Crane will always be the defining performance of William Shatner's career—and the character I love above all others he’s portrayed.  Since Boston Legal’s cancellation, Shatner has been true to form, which means he’s been all over the map:  starring in a short-lived sit-com, hosting several talk shows, writing another book (the soon-to-be-released Shatner Rules), recording another album (I don’t know how Seeking Major Tom will turn out, but Shatner's 2004 album Has Been was brilliant—and, no, I don’t mean that ironically), directing two documentaries and touring in a one-man show:  quite a list of achievements for an eighty year old man.  I’m still waiting for a part that will rival Denny Crane, giving Shatner a character, and a script, that will once again raise his game. 

It was recently announced that Shatner will be guest-starring on USA’s Psych in the fall, but I’m hoping for a guest shot on 30 Rock:  William Shatner vs. Alec Baldwin, there’s a match-up I’d love to see.  Or how about a return to Broadway?  Shatner recently took part in a Shakespeare performance in L.A.—with a cast that included Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hanks and Martin Short:  he played Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s great fool (and great wise man), the forerunner, in many ways, of Denny Crane.  I’d pay good money to see that on the stage.  

Till then, at least, there are all those Boston Legal DVDs.  It doesn’t get much better than cigars and scotch on the balcony of Crane, Poole and Schmidt.

©copyright 2011  J.M. DeMatteis