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Captain, My Captain 

William Shatner on life, love, horses and making a record with Ben Folds

Thursday, Nov 4 2004
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Photo by Charles Stewart

Is it bizarre to suggest we should take William Shatner seriously? Like the recently departed Rodney Dangerfield, he’s never gotten much respect, but that’s starting to change. In September, he won his first Emmy for the role of Denny Crane on The Practice, which he has reprised on ABC’s Boston Legal. And his new, Ben Folds–produced album, Has Been, is a profoundly interesting work — humanizing, funny and poignant. It features 11 autobiographical songs about making it in Hollywood, the difficulties of mixing career and family life, and being mistaken for Captain Kirk — not to mention guest stars Aimee Mann, Joe Jackson, Henry Rollins and Brad Paisley. When I met him at his production office in the Valley, Shatner, at age 73, was still larger than life. He reminded me of a late-career Marlon Brando or Orson Welles, both of whom, like Shatner, could be accused of old-school overacting. All of them possess a peculiar sad gravitas. As he spoke, Shatner occasionally employed, as if by . . . Magic. His signature, cadence.

L.A. WEEKLY: So, the first thing we should tackle is The Transformed Man, your 1968 album that featured Dylan and Beatles covers alongside Shakespearean monologues. How do you explain it?

WILLIAM SHATNER: I had achieved a measure of popularity as a result of Star Trek. It wasn’t an enormous hit, but it was good enough to bring me to the attention of people in the business. And I had this idea of wanting to relate classical literature to modern literature, which is songs, really. The poetry of yesterday and the poetry of today. That was in my head. How successful I was I don’t know. But I think the intent is clear. I haven’t listened to The Transformed Man in many years, so I don’t know what my present-day perceptions would be.

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What was the reception like?

The key moment came on the Johnny Carson show. It was at the height of his popularity. I was going to do a whole cut which was six minutes long. I’m this young actor, I didn’t know about three-minute airtime. So I choose a cut, I think it was “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and the literature. And somebody comes to me after rehearsal and says that’s too long. Do either the literature or do the song. And I’m like, I better do the song, it’s the most popular. So I did just the song. And I guess they didn’t know what I was doing. And I guess it caused a puzzlement. Heh-heh-heh.

How, then, did that 36-year-old album lead to a relationship with Ben Folds? And how did that relationship help Has Been come into being?

It didn’t help; it made the record. Ben initiated it. He writes me a letter saying how much he wanted to work with me. And I’m looking at this as a fan letter. I don’t know Ben Folds. This is avant-garde music, and I’m into Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra. And one of my kids saw it and they said Ben Folds? He’s great! So I wrote him back. Apparently he heard The Transformed Man and glommed onto it as something innovative and creative, and so along comes Ben Folds out of the North Carolina wilds. Part of this whole moving experience is my relationship with Ben and his wife and his kids. I just love him, and love them.

On Has Been, it’s apparent you were willing to be extremely vulnerable around him. What was the process that took you from him admiring you to making a record?

Ben calls me one day. He’s at a studio in L.A., he’s written a song for me, and he wants me to come by and record it. It turns out to be the most popular number on that album. [“In Love” appeared on Fear of Pop, Volume 1.] He calls me later to say he’s coming to town for a gig. Would I come to do the number with him at one of his concerts? What a kick that would be! Sitting there when I get this call are the Foos brothers of Rhino Records, and they’re saying, “We’ve sold Rhino, we’ve started Shout! Factory, and we’d like you to make a record.” I had Folds on the telephone while they’re sitting there. So, I said, “Would you like Ben Folds on it?” “Oh, we’d love Ben Folds.” “Ben, would you like to make a record?” “I’d love to make a record with you.” So I said to the Foos brothers, come and see us do a number. And the number went beautifully. And everybody was happy, and the Foos brothers got all excited about me and Ben doing an album.

What you’re not saying is that the Foos brothers are the same guys who excerpted The Transformed Man as parody on their Golden Throats compilations, which collected celebrities’ musical vanity projects.

Well, the mystique for me was that The Transformed Man propelled Ben Folds into calling me. But on another level — a lower level — it propelled the Foos brothers to get a hold of me and say we’d like you to make a record. I think they wanted me to do something that they could have fun with, point the finger at like they did before. I, of course, wasn’t going to do that. I said to Ben, what am I going to do? How am I going to overcome the scoffing and fun that people have had with the record I was very serious about? And he said the key words. He said, “Let’s tell the truth.” And I said, “I’ve never written a song.” And he said, “I’ll make the song, you write.” And I began to look and think, what do I think about this? And what do I feel about that? As far as I was concerned, I fashioned 15 pieces of poetry.

Why then is the album’s leadoff track a cover version of Pulp’s “Common People”?

Ben chose it. It’s a good acting song. I built it as an actor would, to a crescendo. If this was something I was performing onstage — a speech, a soliloquy — well, you break it down like a musician. For example, one could consider Shakespeare as musical. You could write melodies to his words.

In making the album, did you have the feeling that “I am an actor and this is my soliloquy”?

Absolutely. I approached it as an artist trying to interpret and distill my life. We recorded the songs that were the best of the ones that I had written. Later we began to place them in order so that there was a sense of love, and the death of love, and the re- emergence of love and the continuity of life. I liken it to when I was climbing in — to gaining a foothold in your life, to having some control, to being courageous, to put your foot where it may slip but you have to have faith.

Do you get the sense that it’s all coming together these days?

It is a weird focus that’s happened. On this album I had one of the best experiences of my life, a truly creative explosion, and I was aided by the best people in the world, and it was beautiful, it was so beautiful. I have a featured role, if you will, in Miss Congeniality 2, which will be out in March. I’ve made it into a totally comic role, it’s almost farce. You’ll laugh a few times. I’ll guarantee you two laughs. So that’s coming out. And then the series and the album. And the concert tour that I could go out on, and another record if this is successful. And I won a world championship with my horses; in fact I’ve won two. I just came back from riding right now, and I rode this horse, this one particular horse, I rode this horse with such . . . divinity! And it was a magical moment between horse and horse trainer. I just . . . I rode without reins. This horse was so tuned in to me. The discipline here that I’m doing was called reining. The reiner. They gallop at full speed. And then they slow down. They turn fast. Then they turn slow. And then they run circles fast. And run circles slow. And then they slide to a stop and they change lead. They back up. And I’ve done it all without reins. This horse is so tuned in to me that I just came back from a magical experience with these things that I love. So much. Horses. That I just —Ahhhhhh! It was unbelievable. So not only is it, like, professionally extraordinary, but I love my wife so much, and am having such a good time. It’s sort of wild.

Do you think you have more of a sense of humor about your career than other actors do? Or a sense of self-awareness — after the highs and the lows and the Trekkies and all the things that have happened from there to here?

I have no basis of comparison. I like to be funny and I like to make people laugh, and I like to make people cry. Always have, always did. “I am what I am,” said Popeye.

Reach the writer at alecbemis@brassland.org

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