Searching for the meaning of life forms: Captain Kirk takes the bridge at MPAC

Applause for Capt. James T. Kirk, a.k.a. William Shatner, at MPAC, Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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If anyone could reveal the meaning of life, it should be James Tiberius Kirk, right?

Captain Kirk ought to have the answer for several life forms. After all, he’s boldly gone where no man has gone before.

Actor William Shatner, right, makes point to emcee Steve Trevelise on NJ 101.5, at MPAC, Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Alas, if the commander of the Starship Enterprise knows, he’s not telling. And neither is William Shatner, the man who played him for three seasons on NBC a half century ago and in seven Star Trek movies.

But for an amusing hour at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center, after a screening Friday of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), the 88-year-old Canadian shared other secrets:

  • He has boldly gone where no actor has gone before: On a Broadway stage, on opening night of a one-man show. (Food poisoning. Say no more!)
  • If you’re ever headlining in Perth, Australia, close with a chorus of Waltzing Matilda. Worked like a charm during previews of Shatner’s World.
  • When you’re dressed as Captain Kirk, and the California Highway Patrol pulls you over for speeding to a TV shoot, come clean: You are racing to your spaceship.
  • “You’re the man!” is the only shout from the cheap seats that won’t earn a stern rebuke from the bridge.
  • Trekkie women saved the Enterprise. Read on.

When low ratings killed Star Trek in 1969, Shatner, a trained Shakespearean actor, fell on hard times. He lived in a camper and played parties to make a buck, the story goes.

“Five or six years after that,” Shatner deadpanned, “a terrible thing happened: Star Wars!”

Paramount decided to take the Enterprise out of mothballs.

ONSCREEN AND ONSTAGE: William Shatner, left, in ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,’ 1982; and at MPAC, OCT. 4, 2019. Photos by Kevin Coughlin

Robert Wise, who edited the classic Citizen Kane and won directing Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, wavered when offered Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.

Wise’s wife loved the TV series, according to Shatner. “You have to do it!” she told her husband.

Ricardo Montalbán as Khan, onscreen at MPAC, Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The movie faced technical challenges, as Shatner delicately put it. Instead of making people forget Star Wars, the film seemed destined to make people forget Star Trek. The head of Paramount quietly planned to mothball the Enterprise for good. Then his wife chimed in.

“Are you crazy?” she protested. “I love Star Trek!”

Ricardo Montalbán, pitchman for the Chrysler Cordoba (“rich Corinthian leather!”), reprised his TV role as the deranged Khan. Franchise saved.

JAMES T. KIRK vs. T.J. HOOKER

Shatner spent his previous Morristown visit, in 2015, blasting at warp speed across the galaxy of his career: Broadway, The Twilight Zone, wacky albums, books, Rescue 911, T.J. Hooker, Boston Legal, Priceline ads, breeder of champion horses and Dobermans.

This time, 101.5 FM personality Steve Trevelise endeavored to beam him back aboard when his stories lost their coordinates. He also parsed questions from the large and enthusiastic crowd.

Among other things, the audience learned who would win a fight between Kirk and T.J. Hooker, the cop Shatner portrayed on ABC and CBS in the 1980s.

William Shatner has boldly gone where no man has gone before…onstage at the Broadway opening of a one-man show. He ‘expunges’ the grim tale at MPAC, Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I’ve been asked that question before…that’s a stupid question!” Shatner japed, to laughter.

After comical critiques of Kirk’s choreographed chops and flying kicks, and of Hooker’s penchant for leaping onto speeding cars, he concluded: “They’re both completely inadequate.”

Flying kicks are out of the question now. Expanding like the universe, Shatner would have trouble wedging himself into the Enterprise commander’s chair, let alone his Starfleet jumpsuit — facts he wryly acknowledges.

While sci-fi novels allow for youthful reincarnations, the silver screen is less forgiving. Don’t expect any Kirk cameos going forward.

“I can’t run and jump…I don’t know how you bring back Captain Kirk in my present condition, to make him palatable,” said Shatner, expressing admiration for Chris Pine, who plays a young Kirk in Star Trek reboots.

William Shatner, left, as Admiral Kirk, said he suggested Mr. Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy’s) death scene in ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.’ Shatner spoke at MPAC, Oct. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Shatner cited a “gratuitous” cameo by his late friend Leonard Nimoy, famed as Kirk’s ever-logical Vulcan sidekick, Mr. Spock.

“I said to Leonard–cause they went back in time– you know, Leonard, you’re old when you go back in time…and you’re still old.”

Enter Denny Crane.

When producer David E. Kelley approached Shatner about joining the legal drama The Practice, he described his Denny Crane character as “a little bit senile.”

“I said, ‘I can do that. And as I get older, I can do it even better,'” Shatner recounted. He said he drew inspiration for the role–which he took to Boston Legal, winning an Emmy and Golden Globe in 2005–from a friend entering dementia.

Any disappointment over not discovering the meaning of life on Friday was softened a bit by gleaning the meaning of Star Trek.

Shatner found it on Oak Island, off the coast of Halifax. Legends of buried treasure draw legions of tourists. They’re not just coming to find riches, Shatner observed, “but to find faith, to find something to believe in.”

Just like with Star Trek.

Star Trek became a symbol of the future, of the possibility that we will clean our earth, and that science will triumph  — as it’s made the earth uninhabitable, that science will make it habitable. Of course, with people’s help. That’s the Star Trek message.”

Live long and prosper, Bill.

William Shatner, standing, shares a laugh with as emcee Steve Trevelise at MPAC, Oct. 4, 2019.

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