At the top of the stairs leading up to the Hollywood Dance Center on Highland Avenue, the first sight that comes into view is mirrors lining the walls. In the mirrors, you can see the long worktable, at which sit a stage manager, sundry assistants and director Scott Faris. In front of the table, the mirrors reflect the back of a slightly rotund actor in a short-sleeved, button-down sport shirt, black nylon running sweats and jogging shoes. He's standing near a swivel chair, preparing to rehearse two scenes from the solo show he wrote, Shatner's World: We Just Live in It, slated to start previews on Broadway at the Music Box on Valentine's Day, before opening Feb. 16 and starting a national tour March 10 at the Pantages Theatre.
The writer-actor is, of course, William Shatner, whose far-flung career has ranged from Star Trek, on which Shatner portrayed the handsome, no-nonsense, slightly wry and occasionally romantic Captain Kirk, to his current reputation as a Priceline front man and Betty White–esque cult figure. Shatner's other looming claim to fame is his portrayal of the politically conservative attorney Denny Crane who appeared in two series: ABC's The Practice and its spinoff, Boston Legal. Shatner is one of the few actors who has won Emmy Awards for playing the same character in two different shows.
Shatner, who grew up in the Jewish enclaves of Montreal and launched his career performing with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, turns 81 in March. He has retained his booming stage voice and some physical agility, which results in smooth, even impish gestures and polished comic timing.
With his new show, he is spending a lot of time looking into mirrors — not only literally, in rehearsal, but also in the writing of his script, as it allows him to reflect on his life and accomplishments.
"I start at a very young age, I conclude with some stuff that I've done of late," he says during a lunch break. "So the story spans my lifetime, told in words and, at the very end, with music."
The title of his latest book, Shatner Rules, whose cover is a photo of the actor hugging a globe, suggests he is no shrinking violet.
When asked about his four marriages, Shatner says the show mentions it "but doesn't dwell on that." (He's been happily married to Elizabeth Martin since 2001. In 1999 he found his then-wife of two years, Nerine Kidd-Shatner, at the bottom of their swimming pool. She was an alcoholic at the time of their marriage, and the autopsy report disclosed a lethal combination of alcohol and Valium in her bloodstream.)
He now has four grandchildren. When asked about concerns he has about the world they're entering, he describes formative concerns as an environmentalist. "There's too many people in the world," he says. "The ability to breathe the air and drink the water will be what the wars will be about from here on in. And it's coming with alarming rapidity." There's a "little bit" of this in the show, he adds.
Munching chicken on rice and black beans from a Styrofoam cup, Shatner says he has no regrets. "Because you can't predict what would have happened had you taken the left road," he says. "Your situation might be a lot worse. So you have to be content with the decision you made at that particular moment."
Sounds like you're a happy man, I suggest. "I'm a happy man. I'm a somewhat anxiety-ridden man right now, with opening night [on Broadway] and all that. But in its right perspective, there should be a sense of joy about it. I'm going to open on Broadway in a one-man show. It's extraordinary. What a gift — to me!"
There's some poignancy in Shatner's return to Broadway, 50 years after performing there at the Booth Theatre, as Paul Sevigne in Marcel Achard's A Shot in the Dark, with Julie Harris and Walter Matthau, directed by the legendary Harold Clurman.
Despite a famous Saturday Night Live skit in which he quipped that Trekkies should "get a life," Shatner's solo show percolated during numerous appearances at Star Trek conventions around the world, where he would speak to up to 15,000 adoring fans at a time, which allowed him to fine-tune the stories of his life and career.
The show in its more recent form was conceived at the invitation of Australian producers and enjoyed a successful run in Sydney and Perth, leading to an invitation to tour the show in his native Canada, then to the Broadway invitation by various investors. In Australia and Canada, other actors appeared on the stage with him and would guide the show by asking such questions as, "What happened next?"
That's a contrivance, what Shatner calls a "crutch," which he has removed, insisting he now needs to be brave enough to go it alone, hardly where no man has gone before, but certainly where William Shatner, who has orbited numerous worlds, has yet to travel.
William Shatner will perform Shatner's World: We Just Live in It on Broadway at the Music Box Theater, Feb. 14-March 4, with opening night Feb. 16. The show's national tour launches March 10 at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre. For more information, go to broadwayla.org.