Tuesday, March 22, 2016


It's William Shatner’s eighty-fifth birthday (how is that possible?  The man has more energy than I do!).  If you want to know why I love the guy, read this.  For today, in celebration of an actor whose performances have brought so much joy into my life, I thought I’d do a run down of my ten favorite Shatner performances.  (And, as Captain Kirk did with the Kobayashi Maru test, I cheated:  There are more than ten.)

10.  Live Shatner
Shatner got his start on the stage, doing Shakespeare in Canada, performing on Broadway—and the closest we’ll ever get to experiencing that aspect of his career is through some of the surviving performances from the golden age of live television.  Two of my favorites are Rod Serling’s 1958 Playhouse 90 drama “A Town Has Turned to Dust” and Reginald Rose’s 1957 two-part Studio One production of “The Defender.”  This drama—in which Shatner plays a young attorney whose methods alienate his law partner, and father, played by Ralph Bellamy—served as the unofficial pilot for one of the most prestigious dramas of the early 1960’s, The Defenders (Shatner was offered the lead and turned it down)—and also became the basis for a classic episode of Boston Legal.

9.   The Intruder
Someone—don’t ask me who, I don’t remember—wrote that if The Intruder had been a mainstream Hollywood production, Shatner would have certainly received an Academy Award nomination for his performance as racist agitator Adam Cramer.  He’s charming, repulsive, manipulative, charismatic and, by the end, he’s a broken, pitiable wreck of a human being.  The 1962 film, written by Twilight Zone’s Charles Beaumont and directed by Roger Corman, was ahead of its time in its raw portrayal of racial issues in 60’s America.  Because of its incendiary nature, the movie was barely seen at the time—and it’s still a hidden gem.  Lucky for you the whole thing is on YouTube.

8.  The Big Giant Head (Third Rock From The Sun)
When Shatner received his first Emmy nomination, in 1996, it wasn’t for a dramatic part, but for his wonderfully silly performance as the Big Giant Head in the wonderfully silly science-fiction sitcom, Third Rock From The Sun.  Shatner was always a gifted comic actor—Captain Kirk’s down-to-earth humor balanced his penchant for Shakespearean speechifying—but Third Rock allowed WS to unleash his inner comedian and let him run wild.  (If you enjoy over-the-top, silly Shatner, I’d also recommend his performance in Airplane II:  he steals the movie.)

7.  Free Enterprise
Robert Meyer Burnett’s 1998 movie about two bewildered young men being tutored (badly!) in life and love by their idol, William Shatner, has become a geek classic—and Shatner’s performance manages to be both hilarious and genuinely moving.  This ability to shift, effortlessly, from comedy to drama would serve Shatner well a few years later when he took on his greatest role, as Denny Crane in Boston Legal. 

6.  Rookie Blue
Chances are you’ve never heard of this Canadian cop drama, which aired in the U.S. for several summers on CBS; but Shatner’s 2012 guest-shot, as a grandfather driven to drink and despair because he feels responsible for the kidnapping of his granddaughter, is as stripped-down, raw and Emmy-worthy a performance as he’s ever given.  

5.  The Andersonville Trial
Not long after the cancellation of Star Trek, Shatner played one of the three leads in this extraordinary 1970 PBS drama (a kind of Civil War Judgement at Nuremberg), directed by George C. Scott and done live-on-tape:  a throwback to the TV golden age of the 1950’s.  Watching Shatner, as the fiery prosecutor, joust with Jack Cassidy, as the defense attorney, and Richard Basehart, as the defendant, is like studying a master class in acting:  all three men give powerful, and memorable, performances.  Even Harlan Ellison, one of Shatner’s most vocal critics, called WS’s performance “staggeringly brilliant.”  And rightly so.

4.  Has Been
Shatner has been mercilessly ridiculed—some of it justified, some of it not—for his 1968 spoken word-with-music album The Transformed Man, but that album intrigued and inspired a young musician name Ben Folds and, years later, Folds and Shatner came together to co-create the remarkable (and I don’t mean that ironically) 2004 album Has Been:  a painfully honest and (intentionally) funny autobiographical journey through life and death, love and loss, failure and success.  Shatner has tried to recapture the magic of Has Been in several subsequent albums, but hasn’t quite hit the mark.  I think a reunion with Folds is in order.

3.  The Twilight Zone
Just about everyone knows, and just about everyone loves, Shatner’s performance in the classic 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”  Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner, it features Shatner as a fragile airplane passenger, recovering from a nervous breakdown, who is literally fighting for his sanity.  Just as good is an earlier TZ episode, also written by Matheson:  1960’s “Nick of Time” is a subtle episode (more a psychological drama than a supernatural one) and it requires subtle acting—which Shatner and Patricia Breslin, as his wife, both deliver.  "Nightmare" and "Nick of Time" are both available for streaming on Netflix and Hulu. 

2.  Captain Kirk (Star Trek)
What can be said about the commander of the Starship Enterprise that hasn’t been said before?   Only this:  Kirk encapsulated everything about Shatner’s acting—from the towering heights to the melodramatic depths (and that’s part of Shatner’s charm:  he always dances, fearlessly, out on the limb.  Sometimes it holds, sometimes it breaks and he takes a spectacular fall).  Warts and all, it’s a performance, and a character, for the ages.  Our lives would be far less rich without Star Trek and, with all due respect to the great Leonard Nimoy and the equally-talented DeForest Kelley, Kirk was the heart and soul of the series. 

My favorite Shatner/Kirk performances are the 1967 TOS episode “City on the Edge of Forever”—in which we get a Kirk far more human and vulnerable than anywhere else in the series—and the even more vulnerable and human Kirk of 1981’s Wrath of Khan, still the best big-screen Trek of them all.  That said, if I was going to single out one particular scene as defining both James T. Kirk and Star Trek it would be the one below.  Not surprising that the insipring words Shatner speaks—with such passion and power—came from series creator Gene Roddenberry. 

1.  Denny Crane (Boston Legal)

Shatner was at another crossroads, becoming (at least to my eyes) less of a serious actor and more of a beloved celebrity, when writer/producer David E. Kelley handed him the greatest role of his career.  Boston Legal’s Denny Crane was a modern Falstaff:  both a buffoon and a wise man, absurdly comic and heart-breakingly real; as three-dimensional and fully-realized a character as Shatner has ever played.  The fact that he was surrounded by a cast of astonishingly-gifted actors—most notably James Spader, whose chemistry with Shatner led to (sorry, Spock) one of the most memorable bromances in television history—only pushed WS to greater heights.  He received his first Emmy win for Denny Crane’s debut on The Practice and then went on to five more consecutive, well-deserved nominations (and another win) for each season of Boston Legal.  

Captain Kirk may be the role that the public will always identify Shatner with but, to me (and my wife and daughter, who love BL as much as I do), he’ll always be Denny Crane. 

Happy birthday, William Shatner:  may you live even longer and continue to prosper.    

©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis


  1. For me, the best part of "Free Enterprise" is the rap scene. No matter how many times I watch it, I just laugh and laugh. Although, honestly, the whole film is an exercise in joy.

    1. It is. I met the director, Robert Burnett, a few years back. Nice guy...and a true Shatnerphile.

  2. You know Dematteis, you mention Shatner every year, but today is more than just his birthday. It's also

    -The birthday of the lead singer of the Yardbirds
    -The anniversary of the Stamp Act passing... which lead to the formation of the United States of America
    -The anniversary of the first rocket launched into space
    -And it was also the day the Beatles first something was released in the UK. I think it was the first single but I may be wrong.


    1. Definitely not their first single, Jack, that was November 1962. But John Lennon's "Power to the People" came out on this day in 1971.

    2. No, it was definitely the Beatles they talked about on the radio. maybe it was their first live television appearance.


  3. What a great tribute to the one and only Shatner, Mr D. I'm a Brit but I can assure you, we all love him just as much as you guys over the pond!

    If I might add two more to your list: his immortal version of "Rocket Man" and his appearance on The
    Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where he first played a heightened version of himself.

    If you've never seen it, please check it out - he's fantastically funny in it.

    By the way, I noticed a while back we had a LOSH/Star Trek comic - can I dare to dream of a JLI/Star Trek, written by yours truly?!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Karlos. Shatner actually did a new version of "Rocket Man" for his SEEKING MAJOR TOM album, and it was a much more...shall we say restrained version? And, yes, I've seen the FRESH PRINCE episode. A lot of fun.

      Thanks for checking in!

  4. Completely agree. As cool as Captain Kirk was, Denny was Shatner's greatest role. I love the way you described Denny. I think it is very accurate and the way it mirrored Shatners own twilight years added more weight to both the character and the man.

    1. Yes, there was a mirror effect at work with Denny, which add to the power and poignance of that performance. "Denny Crane!"

    2. I'm sure I'll tell my grandkids about him.
      Denny Crane!

  5. I'd also suggest watching Shatner's performance in "The Tenth Level" (mid-1970s), a CBS TV special that thinly fictionalizes Stanley Milgram's famous (or infamous) obedience to authority experiment. Shatner plays the Milgram character. What makes it especially interesting is that the movie not only explores the experiment & what it revealed about the willingness of ordinary decent people to follow orders to a frightening degree, but the aftermath as well, when Shatner's character is forced to confront his own moral culpability in subjecting those participants to such emotional stress in the name of detached scientific curiosity. A very Star Trek-style ethical dilemma, I'd say.

    Sadly, the only way you can see it is on YouTube, though I'd love to see it appear on DVD, complete with some extras.

    1. I remember watching THE TENTH LEVEL when it first aired, Tim: an excellent, thought-provoking piece. I've only seen bits and pieces of it since then, but I think a Youtube re-watch is in order. Thanks for reminding me about it.