Thursday, February 25, 2010

Up Till Now— The Autobiography of William Shatner

As a leading actor on Broadway, the pitchman, police sergeant T. J. Hooker, a "B" movie actor, Alexander the Great, a recording artist, a husband of four wives, a frequent guest star on 50s and 60s television shows, a motorcyclist, a voice over artist, a father of three daughters, the star of a reality show, a horse lover, science fiction author, and a "has been" who won a couple of Emmy Awards late in life, William Shatner has truly lived. Most of us just go about, in relative anonymity, for seven decades, give or take a few years. However, just about anyone in America, and many beyond these shores, know the name, the voice, and the face of Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek series. In his autobiography, there's about a hundred pages of Shatner's life before Star Trek. And, at the time, Shatner viewed Star Trek as a failed television series and moved on with his career. Without its syndication, his life, and our culture, would be different.

There are many reviews of this book online, so I'll focus instead on some general themes within it. First, Shatner's energy comes across, as well as his ability to poke fun at himself. His work ethic comes from his upbringing— his merchant father taught him to take advantage of all opportunities and to work hard to achieve success. Although he decided to become an actor early in life, Shatner seems to have been very worried, for years and years, about not having work. That, and the financial instability that is part and parcel of an actor's life, motivated him to say, "Yes!" to almost every money making opportunity, however taxing— or downright bizarre. Being willing to work has kept him working. Every performance seemed to lead to some other opportunity, and Shatner's energy and his courage stand out, even when he pokes fun at many of the ways he has made money over the years. I did laugh aloud a few times, and the good humor of it all does keep the reader smiling and turning pages.

Although this account of Shatner's life starts early and ends late, Up Till Now is not always a linear narrative. Sometimes he tells stories which are on topic, but not in the time line. As a man who is gifted in years, he has much to tell, so the disruptions add to the charm of the book. In addition to his lengthy acting career and the Star Trek phenomenon, Shatner does address his lack of success in marriage, and the account of his third wife's death is particularly heartbreaking. With surprising candor, Shatner places much of the blame for his divorces on his own shoulders. A man who works that much is not available to his family, and he does acknowledge that he did not learn to be married until after he failed three times. Although he does not focus on his children often, it seems clear that he has a good relationship with his three daughters. Also, as he rambles through his life, most of his major roles are fodder for a few pages, and he does discuss Boston Legal, his latest television series, at some length.

Fans of Star Trek will enjoy the insights that the original Captain Kirk shares, but those who are interested in acting on stage and screen will also find interesting observations about the actor's craft in Up Till Now. Shatner discusses his approach to roles, and he often contrasts his way with the methods used by co-stars. At times, Shatner is funny, at times his struggle evokes a mixture of pity and amazement. Who would have thought that after Trek, Shatner would live in the back of a pickup truck in New York City, eking out a living doing an off Broadway play?

During the portions of the book devoted to the original Star Trek and the five movies it spawned, Shatner frankly discusses the challenge of making a television series set in space, but with such a low budget that the cast and crew had to be very creative. The movies were more successful and made money, but he states that budget constraints also affected Star Trek V, which he directed. Shatner doesn't dwell upon the disagreements he had with some of his Trek co-stars, but he does mention that many of them viewed him as difficult, and he did not become friends with Leonard Nimoy until the original series was long behind both of them. As a fan of science fiction, and of Star Trek, I especially enjoyed his assertion that Gene Roddenberry saw Star Trek as the quest for intelligent life on the other side of a television screen.

For Shatner's fans and for Star Trek fans, Up Till Now is a must read. Many others will enjoy it, however, because William Shatner is an ubiquitous, iconic figure. And, really, this book is funny. Who else would auction his kidney stone on eBay? Or play the amazing Denny Crane? William Shatner may not be tall, but describing him as larger than life is an understatement.

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