Those celebrities who would bemoan their fame--those penny-ante hack-tors who populate wretched sitcoms and crowd video-store shelves with useless product, those sad-sack musicians who write songs about how awful it is to sell out even as they line their pockets with suckers' cash--have nothing on William Shatner. Imagine being so identified with a single character people actually think it's your name; Lord knows how many times he's been asked how the warp-core engine works, how many times he's been hassled about how much a Tribble really can eat, how often he's been forced to explain that he and Ricardo Montalban are really pals. It wasn't always this way: Forty-five years ago, he was a struggling actor building a respectable résumé. He played Broadway, debuted on television during the golden age of live TV (his first appearance was on the Goodyear Television Playhouse), appeared in a small role opposite Burt Lancaster and Spencer Tracy in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg. He showed up in now-classic episodes of The Twilight Zoneand The Outer Limits; he killed time on such shows as Gunsmoke, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Defendersand Route 66. He starred in oddball features (none more disquieting or bizarre than Incubus, a black-and-white low-budget horror pic done entirely in Esperanto) and waited for that Big Break, which, when it arrived, busted wide-open the Canadian's world and swallowed him whole, for better or worse. It is hard to feel sorry for a man so idolized and adored, but one can't help but wonder how difficult life can be for a Starfleet legend.
That Shatner's making the convention rounds to celebrate Star Trek's 35th anniversary is at once a shock and of no surprise at all. Here, after all, is a man who once insisted his audience "get a life!" during a beloved Saturday Night Liveappearance. "It's just a show," he scolded, and the joke resonated as only the truth can; clearly, he was a man who wanted to be just that--an actor, left alone to do his job. He even appeared in 1994's Star Trek: Generations, without old friends Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, and allowed himself to be killed off in most ignominious fashion. It was as though he wanted to walk away from Captain James Tiberius Kirk, and he was made to do so on his hands and knees--fine by him. And he is fond of mocking himself: In Free Enterprise, written and directed by idol-worshippers, Shatner giddily poked holes in a swelled-up ego. He goofed, till he became pleasantly, charmingly goofy.
And as Trekmoves forward by moving backward (the fourth spin-off series, Enterprise, set 100 years before the original series, debuts September 26 on UPN), Shatner vaults ahead without the baggage. At 70, he works harder than men half his age, appearing in Miss Congeniality, Osmosis Jones and forthcoming films American Psycho 2and Showtime(opposite Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy); he's also just finished shooting a film he wrote, directed and appears in, Groom Lake. Yet, like all good myths, Kirk lives on: Shatner would go on to provide Kirk's voice for myriad video games (in one, computer animation allowed him to look as he did in 1966--handsome, full of confidence and promise), and he would pen Trekbooks in which Kirk survives the events of Generations(or does he?) and even marries. And he has penned several books about Trek, including Get a Life!in 1999, in which he wrote that a "convention ovation is unmatched, and probably best described as a loud, long, percussive 'I love you.' You can never get used to it." Little wonder that all these years later he no longer ducks the long shadow that trails him everywhere--that of Jim Kirk, who's really just a funny 70-year-old guy named Bill.