It was two nights after Chanukah in 1958, and William Shatner was in the land of Israel.
He was in Bethlehem, along with Ralph Bellamy, in a holiday vignette called “Light One Candle.” They played Roman tax collectors; their scene was part of “The Christmas Tree,” a Hallmark Hall of Fame special.
Also appearing that night: Jessica Tandy, Carol Channing, Margaret Hamilton, Ellen Burstyn, and 10-year-old Bernadette Peters.
Not that NBC sent its actors to Bethlehem. Shatner was really on a television stage, during what later was known as the “Golden Age” of television. Filming was black and white, and often as not, live from New York City. Mr. Shatner then was 27 years old and living in Queens. It had been several years since he had left Canada to find fame and fortune on Broadway. At this point, his phone had begun to ring — but he still didn’t have any money in the bank.
Shatner didn’t know it yet, but he was halfway through the first act of his career, eight years away from the role that would launch his second act and bring him worldwide fame: Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. This led the way to his third and ongoing act: Playing himself. The Internet Movie Data Base records 227 television and film appearances in scripted roles (each of his television series counts as only one appearance in the list) and 356 as himself, whether as narrator for a documentary or as a celebrity contestant on the premiere episode of “Celebrity Bowling.”
As he tells it in his 2008 autobiography “Up Till Now,” one of his many memoirs, behind these prolific credits is a desire to always work. And behind that is the voice of his father, who ran a garment business and had hoped that his son Bill would join the firm. Decline a chance to appear on “The Hollywood Squares”? Mr. Shatner could imagine his father’s rebuke:
“Are you crazy? You’re going to turn down $1,000 for one day’s work? You know what I could have bought for $1,000? And you call that work? Sitting there and playing a game? I’ll tell you what work is!”
Mr. Shatner will bring all this to town next month, when his one-man show, “Shatner’s World,” comes to the Bergen PAC Performing Arts Center in Englewood on Thursday, January 21.
• • •
It is the first day of Chanukah in 2015, and William Shatner is on the phone. He is promoting “Shatner’s World,” and he is indefatigable. His office has scheduled a 15-minute interview.
“Let me connect you to Mr. Shatner,” says the assistant who placed the call, and then “How are you, Larry?” There is the voice, the voice from the “Star Trek” shows I watched every afternoon after school, the voice from the Promise margarine commercials and from the Priceline.com commercials he made for stock options back in the heady days of the dot-com era.
I am transported back to a “Star Trek” episode that first aired when I was two years old. It was Stardate 1512.2, and the clock was ticking down to a deadline set by an alien space ship and the promised destruction of Kirk and his crew. Amid the pressure, Lieutenant Bailey snapped and had to be escorted off the bridge of the Enterprise.
I hope I don’t snap.
So I set a course for childhood memories and the holiday season, and I ask him about Chanukah.
“I come from a fairly Orthodox Jewish family out of Montreal,” he said. “We were keeping a kosher home, my mother and father.
“Chanukah and its wonderful historical story was important,” he continued. “We told it at shul every year and it is a lovely, romantic story. As a young Jewish boy, you can take great pride in the way the Maccabees did their thing.”
Mr. Shatner’s father, Joseph, was an immigrant, “born — probably — in Austria. My mother Anne was born in Canada.” Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Ukraine.
Montreal has become known for its warm Jewish enclave, home to the likes of A.M. Klein, Mordecai Richler, and Leonard Cohen.
But that’s not the part of town where the Shatners lived. Instead, young William was the rare Jew in a Catholic neighborhood in a Catholic city. Come December, “It was very much Christmas. Our family sort of went along with the Christmas thing, it being a cultural rather than a religious holiday,” Mr. Shatner said.
His Christmas experience would stand him in good stead when it came time for the 1958 Hallmark Christmas special, and when, this year, he would appear in two Christmas films — “amazingly so,” he said of the coincidence — both the direct-to-video “A Christmas Horror Story,” and the Hallmark Channel film “Just in Time for Christmas.”
But that’s not what makes for a great Jewish Standard story.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.
The religious background of Mr. Shatner and Star Trek co-star Leonard Nimoy is old news. As Adam Sandler sang some 20 years ago, “You can spin a dreidel with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock — both Jewish.”
I yearn, though, to go where no Jewish journalist — or Star Trek fan — has gone before, so I ask about his bar mitzvah, hoping to spur new memories.
What does he remember of the occasion?
“I remember getting taught by a severe Jewish teacher who wasn’t afraid to rap me on the knuckles if I didn’t pronounce the word right. I remember my uncle davening beside me, rocking back and forth with a tallis over his head, muttering very suspicious words underneath there,” he said.
• • •
It is Stardate 8454.1. Captain Kirk is at Yosemite, on Earth between adventures. With him are Mr. Spock and the third musketeer, Dr. Leonard McCoy. In one of the most cringe-worthy scenes in the worst Star Trek movie ever, the three sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around a campfire.
“I haven’t sung around a campfire since I was a boy in Iowa,” Kirk says. It’s fair to blame Mr. Shatner for the scene, since he was the film’s writer and director. And if that campfire did harken back to childhood camps, then the original campfire was at a Jewish summer camp.
In fact, much of Mr. Shatner’s youthful stage experiences, as he tells it in “Up Till Now,” take place within a Jewish context:
“The first time I stood on a stage I made the audience cry…I was six years old, attending Rabin’s Camp, a summer camp for Jewish welfare cases run by my aunt in the mountains north of Montreal. I wanted to box at that camp — hitting people seemed like fun — but my aunt instead put me in a play named ‘Winterset.’
“My role was that of a young boy forced to leave his home because the Nazis were coming. In the climactic scene I had to say goodbye to my dog, knowing I probably would never see him again. My dog was played by another camper, costumed in painted newspaper.
“We performed the play on parents’ weekend to an audience consisting primarily of people who had escaped the Nazis, many of whom still had family members trapped in Hitler’s Europe. So many of them had left everything they knew or owned behind-and there I was, saying goodbye to my little doggie.”
This would have been in 1937.
The story in his memoir continues:
“I cried, the audience cried, everybody cried. I remember taking my bow and seeing people wiping away their tears. I remember the warmth of my father holding me as people told him what a wonderful son he had. Just imagine the impact that had on a six-year-old child. I had the ability to move people to tears. And I could get approval. Something in me always wanted to perform, always wanted the attention that came from pleasing an audience…”
Mr. Shatner has not always been the most reliable of narrators. There was that time he said he had seen a UFO. As he wrote in his memoir about that incident, the job of an actor is to pretend. A commenter on the blog “Shatner’s Toupee” (devoted to the actor’s alleged hairpiece over the decades) has noted that the play “Winterset” was about something else entirely.
Still, it is a reminder that Mr. Shatner grew up in fraught time for Jews. His father worked hard to bring over as many relatives to Canada as he could. Closer to home, he wrote, “There was always trouble between the Jewish kids and the Catholic kids, there was a lot of anti-Semitism. When I had to go to Hebrew school I’d walk on the opposite side of the street, pretending I didn’t even realize the synagogue was there — until I got in front of it. Then I’d look both ways and run for the door. I actually planned my strategy for getting there safely. Not that I minded a fight, I wasn’t a big kid but I never backed down from anybody. We had fights almost every day. My nickname was ‘Toughie,’ as in Hey, watch out everybody, here comes Toughie Shatner!”
It is a toughness that served him well when, in an effort to heed his father’s command — “Don’t be a hanger-on” — he performed as many of his own stunts as possible. It took his actor’s creed — to show up on time and know his lines — to the next level. And it also made him a great performer on reality shows, like the time he was filmed hunting a bear with a bow and arrow.
The desire for new experiences made him a logical performer in a TV series coming out on NBC next year, which he is eager to describe to me: “Better Late than Never.”
“It involves Terry Bradshaw, George Foreman, Henry Winkler and me going to Asia for a month and being involved in a variety of experiences. You see each of these variously faceted personalities reacting to the things we’re experiencing,” Mr. Shatner said, his shifting from a conversational tone to the voice-over he honed on shows such as “Rescue 911.”
“There’s sumo wrestling, eating crickets, going to temples, dancing, music,” he said. “It’s quite amusing, yet it could be quite interesting to see these four people in circumstances you’ve never seen before.”
He’s as busy as ever.
“I’m having the best time,” he said, and then seizes the moment to segue into promoting “Shatner’s World.” “I’m never having a better time than when I’m on this stage with this one-man show.
“Someone in Australia asked me to do it. I had thought about it over the years. It’s the benchmark of performing, a couple hours of attempting to keep the audience without extraneous things like music and dazzling lights and smoke and mirrors, just by the art of story telling.
“So I though if I fail miserably in Australia, and if I beg them not to let them out, maybe no one will know.
“It turned out to be rather good. I toured all of Australia with a more primitive version of what I’m doing now. Then Canada asked me to tour. I opened on Broadway and then did a variety of American cities over the past few years. It turned out to be quite an experience for me.
“I’m doing this 13 times in late January and early February.
“It has been inordinately successful for me in terms of audience reactions and I’m so anxious to bring this to you and your audience,” he said. “I know they will enjoy it. It’s a wonderful evening of laughter and tears and entertainment.”
In March, Mr. Shatner will turn 85.
His next nonfiction book about “Star Trek” (written, like his memoirs and his novels, with a co-author) will come out before his birthday. This one is “Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man.” I pivot toward that to try to get more Jewish details.
If I were to play the Lenny Bruce game and divide the Star Trek crew into the categories of Jewish and goyish, it is clear that Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock are Jewish. William Shatner and Captain Kirk, not so much. Spock is logical, deductive, prone to alien rituals, nearly rabbinic. Leonard Nimoy’s late life avocations included photographing nude women wearing tefillin. Kirk conquers through fists and romance; Shatner’s hobby is raising horses.
So I ask Mr. Shatner about doing Jewish with Mr. Nimoy.
“We went to synagogue together,” he said. “He belonged to a shul and I did not. My wife and I joined him and his wife on several occasions to celebrate one thing or another.”
Many of Mr. Shatner’s plans for the year ahead revolve around “Star Trek’s” fiftieth anniversary. “I don’t believe any show in the history of entertainment has been around fifty years and is still popular, still in front of a modern audience,” he said. “It isn’t languishing in the background.
“A lot of people are making plans,” he said. This may be an allusive reference to a rumored cameo in “Star Trek Beyond,” the movie coming out this summer. “I too am making appearances around the country. I’m planning a show.”
Any thoughts of retiring? I asked.
“I don’t even understand the word retire,” he answered. “This is what I want to do. I feel sorry for people who retire. It means they re-tire, which means losing strength.”
He turns the question around.
“Do you enjoy your work?” Mr. Shatner asked me in the voice of Captain Kirk.
Do I ever!
“Do you want to retire?” he continued.
Part of me thinks: After this it is all downhill. I have spoken to William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy is dead and are there any other childhood dreams left to fulfill? Maybe I should indeed retire at the top?
And then Mr. Shatner’s voice seeps in and I want to shout, no sir, Captain. Sign me up for another five-year mission, sir. Let the voyage continue.
In the end, I recognize the question as rhetorical. I remain silent — and make a note to see him next month on stage at bergenPAC.
What: Shatner’s World: 50th Anniversary of Star Trek
When: Thursday, January 21 at 8 p.m.
How much: $39-$200
For tickets and information: www.bergenpac.org