Eight minutes. That’s all the time Bill Shatner has for me today.
The all-too-brief phone interview is in preview of Shatner’s appearance at the Wizard World Comic Con this weekend inside the Greater Richmond Convention Center. That's where you can pay $80 to have your picture taken with this wily hunk of a former space commander.
One of the first toys I ever owned was a Capt. James T. Kirk action figure along with a funky Mission to Gamma planet backdrop, where the evil alien creature was actually your own hand in an spotty green alien glove, flexing through a plastic cave hole.
Somehow I never did become a serious Trekkie, but there are plenty other layers of Shatner’s career to enjoy. Oh, are there layers. As a child of the 1970s, how could I pass up this opportunity to briefly chat with the head honcho, numero uno, the big cheese: the Shat man himself?
Shatner started off as a Shakespearean actor, I'm pretty sure that's how he learned to act with such gravitas. Or maybe it was "Incubus," the 1966 horror film wherein he speaks Esperanto. There were early television cameos including “Twilight Zone” and “Gunsmoke" before the brief original "Star Trek" series run in the late '60s. The show was rediscovered as a cult hit in the '70s, which spawned those “Star Trek” movies that reignited his career in the '80s.
But in my book, you're not a true Shat fan if you're not familiar with some of his glorious, B-movie flotsam. We're talking cheesiness at its funkiest, from “Kingdom of the Spiders” and “Big Bad Mama” to the unintentionally hilarious '80s cops show “TJ Hooker.” At one time, it seemed like there was no role too poorly written or bizarre for Shatner to turn down. Of course, lovers of his inimitable rap can't forget novelty music albums such as “Transformer Man” with Shatner's unhinged covers of “Mr. Tamborine Man” and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" as well as the more accomplished "Has Been" album with pianist Ben Folds.
Fortunately, Shatner has always been willing to make fun of himself and to laugh at what many perceive as his own sweaty overacting. His. Penchant. For. Dramatic. Pause.
Recently he scored an Emmy win for “Boston Legal” and became the national spokesperson for the familiar Priceline.com commercials -- probably how millennials know him best (he really should've held onto his stock options, he's noted).
A robust 84, Shatner has a bevy of pursuits these days including breeding saddle horses; his internationally touring one-man show, “Shatner’s World”; a recent self-help book for seniors called (“Catch Me Up”); a brown bag wine tasting show; a sci-fi graphic novel, “Man O War”; a starring role in a new Krampus film titled “A Christmas Horror Story"; and oh, he just drove a steampunk-styled motorcycle with flame throwers across the country for charity. Whew.
The guy doesn’t know how to slow down. You could interview him for a day and not even scratch the surface of his Renaissance man lifestyle. So eight minutes? Really?
Style: How are you? Where are you?
Shatner: Good. I’m up in the i-cloud, in Los Angeles. It’s a pleasure to talk to you, I just want to make sure your readers know I’ll be at the Greater Richmond Convention Center Friday and Saturday.
Yes, I will definitely include that. So will you be checking out any local wine or maybe taking a trip to see horses?
No, I don’t have time. I would’ve checked out the horses. We have competed in Virginia from time to time. And I think I rode with the foxes there, but that was a long time ago. ... No, no horses in Virginia. Just a lot of science fiction people in that area who are really passionate about uhhh, science fiction and the current culture, and I deal with them quite often on uhhh, Twitter.
You’ve been a pop culture icon for so long now, is there one thing about fame you wish more people understood?
Well, I don’t know how to answer that. But my response would be in the area of using celebrity for good purposes. I can raise money for charities by using my celebrity or inveigle somebody else who is talented and a celebrity to come entertain us and raise money. I’ve been doing that a lot, either first or second party, sending out things to be auctioned off or to help people with their charity, plus a great deal of personal appearances.
For example, I drove from Chicago to Los Angeles on a motorcycle and we were under the aegis of the American Legion, who helped with logistics. So we had an honor coterie of guys, veterans on bikes, and we stopped at American Legion posts [ahem] and tried to raise money for their scholarship fund for the children of fallen soldiers. So, in doing this ride, which was meant to promote a motorcycle and shoot a documentary and raise money, I was able to use this celebrity that’s been foisted on me to that purpose. And it really worked. It was so gratifying to get the people out, press out, soldiers giving bills and small checks, all they could afford to help with this fund. It brought tears to your eyes. That ... that’s the thought about celebrity.
You’ve said before that you never understood how you became popular with “hipsters” and bloggers years back. I feel like it started with those leaked VHS tape copies of the “Rocket Man” performance from 1978. That’s such a quirky distillation of the '70s for some people. Do you remember what was going through your head during that performance?
My recollection is that it was an in-house moment at a small award show [the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards]. They asked me to do a number like that. I thought, “there are three rockets here: Rock it. Rocket” and then there was a third one, I can’t think of it now. So I tried doing all three at once. It was just experimental and something for the immediate audience. Well, somebody stole it and it got out there and it’s proceeded me ever since.
Just today, a fan-made video of your cover version of “Common People” (Pulp) was posted on the site Dangerous Minds [see below].
Yeah. For me, that album with Ben Folds was a real high-water mark. I wrote some of the songs on “Has Been.” It was a real achievement.
What was the most meaningful tribute you saw to your friend, Mr. Nimoy, when he passed?
Well, you know, I helped his son Adam get funds to make a documentary. And he interviewed me about Leonard. So there is his son doing a piece of film on his father. I mean that. That. Is. Just. [Dramatic pause]. Extraordinary.
William Shatner appears Friday night and Saturday at the Richmond Convention Center as part of Wizard World Comic Con. For more info, go to their website.