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


  1. What a beautiful tribute to a great thespian, screen gem, and cultural icon! I too, miss Denny and Alan's balcony bonding. ("Son of the Defender" is priceless.) These are the modern equivalent of Trek's epilogues were Kirk often mused along with Spock and/or McCoy on the recently concluded adventure, usually adding in a word of wisdom, caution, or humorous note. (My local L.A. station runs Trek on weeknights and I never miss it. It's comfort TV for the soul.) I remember well how Kirk took an unsteady back seat to characters like Picard during The Next Generation's heyday, with Shatner's series being considered a campy forerunner to the classier and more intellectual, TNG. That feeling has long since faded as TNG itself shows its age, but I never doubted TOS and Kirk's excellence for a minute, mostly due to Shatner's influence. I watch the reruns because of Kirk more than anything else. I identify with his histrionic approach to conflict, and this is perhaps what made Kirk my childhood TV hero. Every Shatner fan out there would love to be him. His career has validated him both as a serious craftsman and a unique member in the ranks of pop culture greatness. I can't wrap my mind around the fact that he has turned eighty years of age, because William Shatner is far more than a human being: He is a force of nature that sweeps you along for an unpredictable ride every time you set your eyes on the man. A heartfelt THANK YOU for this grand homage, Marc!

  2. I just watched what might be my two favorite episodes of TREK this week, "City on the Edge of Forever" and "Balance of Terror."

    I'm still amazed by how talented Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley really were even then. It shouldn't come as a shock, but you know, sometimes old things are new again.

    And personally, I'm itching for Nimoy and Shatner to reunite on BIG BANG THEORY. It would have been really funny if BBT had crossed over with #@$ MY DAD SAYS, so that feels like a missed opportunity. But oh, well...


  3. Glad you enjoyed it, Clutch. And thanks for adding your own eloquence to the mix. "His career has validated him both as a serious craftsman and a unique member in the ranks of pop culture greatness." Indeed!

    One of the things I love most about Shatner is that, at 80, HE'S STILL OUT THERE DOING IT. He's got more energy, more new projects, more enthusiasm than a man a quarter his age. Watching him, the idea of growing older doesn't seem so bad, does it?

  4. It's really too bad they canceled #@$ MY DAD SAYS just as it was finding its footing, David. If they'd been given a second season, I think the show would have really come together (especially if they'd kept Jean Marsh around).

    "City On The Edge..." is one of those episodes that never gets old. It remains exciting, touching, funny, and, in the end, heartbreaking no matter how many times I've seen it. It's also -- I think -- Shatner's finest STAR TREK performance (along with WRATH OF KHAN, of course).

  5. Almost 20 years ago, I remember being shocked that the Rolling Stones were still doing what they do in their 50s. There's nothing surprising about it now, as lots of rock figures push on well past their 50s. Now it seems that Shatner is re-defining what it means to be in one's 80s. Brilliantly. Another favorite, Larry Hagman, turns 80 this year and is returning to his best role as JR Ewing in what looks to be amazing form. Nobody has to get old anymore!

  6. Great piece, Marc. As you read my piece on Star Trek II, you know I feel that his performance there was his very best turn as Kirk, and possibly the very best work of his entire career. (I think he very nearly matches it in Star Trek III, and he's absolutely charming in Star Trek IV, both of which I'll be writing about on my blog in the coming weeks.) I've long heard wonderful things about The Andersonville Trial--even Harlan Ellison, who despises Shatner, raved about his performance in that production. I'd be interested in watching it sometime--I had no idea it was ever released on DVD. Maybe someday I'll check it out.

    I enjoyed Boston Legal, and I thought Shatner was fantastic in it and his chemistry with Spader was magical. I did think the show got a little TOO silly and preachy at times, and the constant cast changes annoyed me--they got rid of Julie Bowen and replaced her with that drab British girl?!?!?!?

    Spader, by the way, was absolutely BRILLIANT in the season finale of The Office in May, and I'm thrilled that he'll be back as a semi-regular this coming season--it's convinced me to keep watching after Steve Carell's departure. (And if you haven't seen that season finale, by all means, make it a point to do so. Spader has to be seen to be believed. I've watched it at least five times since May and I crack up from him every single time.)

  7. I think CBS made a bad call by dropping $#%! MY DAD SAYS. I suppose it was difficult for them to find a way around the show's premise, since Henry turned out to be the weakest link in the show's dynamic. When the walk-on role of the DMV guy was more memorable than anything Henry did, it was probably a good indication they needed to make some big changes sooner than later.

    But they did seem on their way to finding that in the end, and really, if you have Shatner on tap you ought to give him at least another season to bring it around.

    So when can we expect a JMD STAR TREK project for IDW?:)


  8. I'm with you on that one, Jeff! May we all keep creating, being productive and having fun for the rest of our long, happy, healthy lives!

  9. Sure BL went a little over the top at times, Glenn, and you're right about the cast changes (I think Julie Bowen left because she was having a baby and wanted time off), but, with all that, I think the show was consistently entertaining and often far more than that. (There was a period, in the early days of the Iraq war, where BL was one of the few places on network TV where you could hear someone speaking truth to power.) Watching again this past week, I was in absolute TV heaven. I was definitely up for a few more seasons. (Or at least a complete final season as opposed to the truncated one they had.)

    Not a fan of THE OFFICE at all -- I've tried, but it's never clicked. That said, with Spader added to the cast, I'll have to watch at least a few episodes. We'll see if they can reel me in.

    And anybody out there who loves STAR TREK should check out Glenn's blog, where he's been reviewing the entire series in the company of his daughter. (He talks about other things, too!)

  10. I agree with you about $#%! MY DAD SAYS, David: If they were focusing on the most interesting aspects of the show, the second season might've ended up being about Shatner, the DMV guy and Jean Marsh's character. (I liked the daughter in law, as well.) Not that the two brothers were badly played -- I think they're both very talented actors -- the writers just never found the right balance for them and the necessary chemistry with Shatner never quite materialized. Although it might have in season two.

    A TREK story for IDW? Interesting idea. Especially if it's Kirk-centric!

  11. Wait! I meant Jean SMART, not Jean MARSH!

  12. Yeah, I think all the actors involved were good. Henry worked particuarly well in the episode where he discovered his mother was the one who had an affair, and his father had been protecting him by letting him think that all along. That was the perfect balance of humor and heart. But the father/son dynamic never quite reached those heights again.

    I'd love to see you pen a Kirk-centric story! Maybe you could tell us what the REAL Kirk's been busy doing in the Nexxus. (I say he's been exploring the galaxy with Edith Keeler, and stopping by a peaceful 20th Century earth in time for dinner.)


  13. I think GENERATIONS could have been saved if Kirk had returned to the Nexus in the end, David; a dramatic choice, not unlike Captain Pike's in "The Menagerie": either die or spend eternity in the Nexus. The final scene (in my head) is older Kirk, back in the Nexus, riding up to the bridge of the Enterprise. When he emerges from the lift, he's young Kirk again, ready to set out and explore the universe.

  14. I love that ending! They should pull a George Lucas and re-edit the film.

    Then Kirk could truly go where no man has before...


  15. I'm sure if I wrote them a polite letter, David, they'd be delighted to re-edit the film! :)

  16. YES YES YES.

    The closing "balcony" scenes often contained some of the best acting I've ever seen on broadcast TV. There was an episode about a retarded man on Death Row that had a brilliant performance by Shatner.

    A great show. Thanks for the posting, JM.

  17. You're welcome!

    I was always hoping that David Kelly would set an entire episode on the balcony. Now that would have been something!

  18. I loved the way Boston Legal used comedy and eccentricities to give serious social commentaries a fresh angle. That show was an era. My cousin and I, both architects, are big fans of the show, we often to the name whispering gag and we dream of having a balcony.
    That combination of serious and silly is the reason I also loved JLI and Super Buddies (especially when the villains were eerie), which is why it's very cool to find out that you're also a BL fan.
    I'm surprised that the combination is not done more often in comics or TV. Maybe it's not that easy to find writers with talent for both things. Harry's Law is supposed to carry BL's torch, but I think it doesn't have the same kick.

  19. I, too, was disappointed in HARRY'S LAW (how could I not? Alan and Denny weren't in it!), Rafa, but I'm willing to give it another chance, especially since they've added BL's Mark Valley to the cast this season. Now if they'd just get Shatner on -- !

  20. Harry's character is pretty cool (which is why I'm also giving it another shot), but there's almost no "Shore/Crane" element, and Tommy Jefferson is not enough for me.

    Say, I know it has little to do with BL, but.. how do you like Community?

  21. Yeah, the Tommy Jefferson character seems like a poor man's Denny Crane. Just makes me miss Shatner all the more.

    I've only seen a handful of COMMUNITY episodes, but, from what I've seen it's an incredibly clever show.

  22. About a year ago, I got obsessed with the concepts of postmodernism and deconstruction in pop cult and went nuts trying to figure out what works qualify as such (I'm nutty like that). Anyway, I'm under the impression that JLI's humor through real life silliness (bureaucracy, office humor, funny things people say, etc.) is a form of deconstructivism... can that be true? If so, was that done on purpose? could it be a matter of influences?

    I think the Ghostbusters franchise did something very similar.

    I brought up Community because I wanted to read your thoughts on postmodern/deconstructive comedies, but then, I didn't figure how to make a proper transition, haha.

  23. I can see where JLI could be interpreted as a postmodern/deconstructive work, Rafa -- and maybe it is; but we didn't have anything like that in mind at the time. Yes, we consciously poked fun at conventions of the form and, on occasion, turned them inside out; but, for the most part, we just entered a world we believed in, peopled with characters we related to, and let the stories lead us. For me, in the end, it's all about engaging with the story. The interpretations come later...and, really, they're all valid.

    I find that when things get a little too postmodern -- when characters stand too far outside the story, making snarky meta-commentary -- I get turned off. The key for me is sincerity: We were totally sincere in our love for, and dedication to, the JLI and their world and we worked hard to maintain a core of true emotion beneath the "bwah-ha-ha."

  24. And what a World that was! I loved to read those humanized versions of the silver age archetypes. If, for agument's sake, we assumed that it's a form of postmodern deconstruction (at least for this argument's sake), what I find really clever is that it achieves so doing the opposite of Watchmen or DKR; going with the humor of real life. I loved the JLI stories with goofy villains but my real favorites were the ones with a very creepy and dramatic embodiment of evil (Gray Man, Starro, Despero) that contrasts with the apparently silly guys that always end up triumphing over him.

    Whether the original JLI is over or not, I find myself longing for a dose of that kind humorous reading with DC characters. It's really sad that, one way or another, most of them have been changed, derailed or killed off. My personal favorites, Ralph and Sue Dibny, have barely appeared since they became ghosts! I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes I think that tptb just hate the poor Elongated Man.

  25. Well, Rafa, just because Ralph and Sue are dead in the OLD DC continuity, doesn't mean they're dead in the NEW DCU. I, for one, would love to see them come back, alive and well.

    Re: the humor of the JLI. I've often said that, however absurd the stories sometimes were, the humor of the characters actually made them more realistic than the angst-ridden "realism" of most comics of the era. (And this observation is coming from a writer who's well known for trafficking in angst.) The League dynamic reminded me of how it was with my old Brooklyn friends, always joking and ragging on each other, no matter what situation we found ourselves in. Humor is an integral part of being human and, played right, it shines a unique light on our humanity.

  26. Well, we can only hope the Ralphster & Mrs. the Ralphster are alive triple dating the Palmers and Maxwell and Wanda. I'd certainly start loving this DCnU if that was the case. But after so many years of absence, I'd even take the ghost detectives, as long as they appear a bit more often. It might actually be fun to see them using somebody like Oberon as their medium when they don't have enough ectoplasm to appear, move stuff or possess people. I think the problem might be that nobody has figure out the right formula to use (or resurrect) them. From their only two cameos, I think editors haven't even decided whether they are apparitions to a medium, possessors, poltergeists or all of the above.

    Wow. I totally dig your theory on realism. Unlike dramas, real people joke all the time. Although, it often ends up looking lame, as it happens to the characters of the Office. When it comes to going out with buddies, the humor is more like the stuff the real Blue and Gold say.

  27. Blue and Gold are very much like my old Brooklyn buddies in tone and attitude, Rafa. One of the reasons I love those guys.

    Oberon as a medium? What a great idea! That said, I'd prefer to see Ralph and Sue alive and well.

  28. Can i just say that from where i am (the Philippines), i hardly find fellow fans of the Shat. And i too, love Boston Legal.
    I love this piece you've written on him, Mr. DeMatteis.
    And yes, HAS BEEN was brilliant. Surprisingly so. I got it on the first pressing, decided to digitize the tracks,l and voila... At least half a dozen of them have never left my ipod, and now my ipad.
    My favorites are the title track, Together, Thats Me Trying, Ideal Woman, Familar Love, It Hasnt Happened Yet, Real, and... Damn... I just realized right now that i love the entire album.

  29. I agree with everything you've said, Jasper. HAS BEEN is an album that just gets better with time. It's so incredibly honest and. at the same time, filled with humor. Terrific stuff.

    Long Live Shatner indeed!