William Shatner is an instantly recognisable face and name, best known to numerous generations as the indomitable Captain Kirk, the brave and bold leader of the Star Ship Enterprise. Throughout the 60s, his sci-fi adventures delighted television audiences, and his own popularity has grown with that of the show, comprising of numerous TV and movie appearances as well as moments of self-parody and reflection.
Outside of Star Trek, Shatner has had a varied career spanning seven decades, including other hits such as TV cop show T.J. Hooker. Over time, his relationship to the Star Trek fandom, his Shakespearan roots and his own bombastic acting style have all changed – but did you know the following fascinating facts about the screen legend and sci-fi icon?
20. He appeared in the most famous episode of The Twilight Zone
In 1963, Shatner made an appearance on the nightmarish anthology series The Twilight Zone, in what proved to be arguably the most celebrated episode in the show’s history: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, which is a favourite of fans and considered to be one of the scariest and most action-packed episodes in the series. Based on a short story by Richard Matheson, the episode casts Shatner as an airline passenger who sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane outside his window.
This was in fact Shatner’s second appearance on The Twilight Zone, as he had previously appeared in 1960 episode Nick of Time. John Lithgow would later re-enact the story in 1983’s troubled Twilight Zone: The Movie, and this would later be the subject of a fourth-wall breaking joke when Shatner guest-starred on Lithgow’s 90s sitcom Third Rock from the Sun.
19. He once soiled himself on stage in a Broadway one-man show
2012 saw Shatner secure a three-week run at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway for his own one-man show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It. Unfortunately, the show wasn’t the glamourous victory lap that the actor had probably imagined. Instead, the night before his debut performance on Broadway, William Shatner came down with a nasty case of food poisoning.
Shatner bravely soldiered on and managed to make it through the first half without incident, but in the second half he, as he put it: “c***ped [his] pants.” He later admitted that he has never quite gotten over the incident, which isn’t all that surprising.
18. The TekWar series was actually written by a ghost author
Shatner’s best-known contribution to science fiction is, of course, his role in the Star Trek franchise. However, he’s also the creator of his very own SF universe as a novelist, most famously with the TekWar series. These novels proved very popular, and later formed the basis for a series of TV movies in the 1990s in which Shatner himself appeared, as well as comic books and video games.
Although Shatner’s name is all over the franchise, TekWar (a futuristic tale centred on a mind-altering drug called Tek) was actually ghost-written by American historian and science fiction author Ron Goulart. Even so, the core concept of the series was created by Shatner, who began working on the story whilst making Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
17. He’s notorious for his unique take on ‘singing’
Outside of acting, Shatner has attained a level of infamy for his music career. Recording mostly cover versions, the distinctive performer has put his own unique stamp on a number of well-loved hits. His music stood out from the work of other actors-turned-musicians instantly, as he had his own strategy for making his covers memorable. Put simply: rather than singing the songs, he decided to simply recite the words in a bizarre fashion.
Among the songs that Shatner tackled with his spoken word poetry approach were Rocket Man by Elton John, and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by the Beatles, none of which were received well by fans. Critics were similarly bemused and angered by Shatner’s take on the classics, with Dave Barry from Mad Magazine calling the album “truly unfortunate”. Not to be put off, Shatner went on to record seven more albums.
16. He’s been married four times
Captain James T. Kirk was one of the best-known loverboys in TV history, so it probably shouldn’t come as any great surprise that Shatner is also quite the ladies’ man in reality. The actor has been married four times in total, first to Canadian actress Gloria Rand, who he married in 1956 and shares three daughters with. He broke off their relationship while shooting Star Trek: The Original Series, and Rand subsequently filed for divorce in 1969.
Shatner’s second marriage was to Macy Lafferty, the daughter of famed television producer and executive Perry Lafferty, and their quiet marriage lasted from 1973 to 1996. Unfortunately, that marriage also came to an end, and Shatner married again less than a year later, this time to Nerine Kidd, a union which ended tragically (see below). Finally, Shatner married Elizabeth Martin, and this union also ended in divorce in 2020.
15. His third wife passed in tragic circumstances
In August 1999, Shatner’s third wife, Nerine Kidd, was sadly discovered dead in their pool at their home in California. An investigation ruled her death an accidental drowning, although there was alcohol and prescription medication in her system at the moment she passed away. Shatner publicly stated that Kidd had been his “beautiful soulmate… [who meant] everything to him”.
Shatner would admit that Kidd’s death was a result of her alcoholism. This had been recognised by his old friend and co-star Leonard Nimoy, who had himself been an alcoholic. Nimoy tried to help, even taking Kidd to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but sadly this did not help.
14. He’s raised millions for charity with his horse shows
One of Shatner’s greatest passions outside of acting is breeding horses. In 1990, Shatner founded the annual Hollywood Charity Horse Show, which has raised more than $1.25 million for various children’s charities since it started. So great is Shatner’s love for our equine friends, he’s even written a book about them: 2017’s Spirit of the Horse: A Celebration in Fact and Fable.
Shatner has also said for him, being in a stable brings him the same sort of peace that other people feel while in a church or cathedral. That helps to explain why, currently, Shatner has a 360-acre farm in Kentucky named Belle Reve Farm, where he keeps, breeds and shows his American Saddlebreds.
13. He was a real-life hero when a fire broke out on the set of Star Trek III
He might have taken on heroic roles in both the Star Trek series and T.J. Hooker, but during the production of 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, William Shatner got the opportunity to be a hero for real. When a fire broke out on set, Shatner was one of the people who jumped into action, grabbing a fire hose to help put out the fire and save the sets from destruction.
At first, it was thought that it was the stash of pyrotechnics needed to shoot Star Trek that was actually the cause of the fire, although that theory was soon ruled out when it became obvious that the Paramount studio lot had been the victim of a deliberate arson attack. The actions of Shatner and others helped to save the sets being used for the film, and may have even maintained the safety of the cast and crew.
12. He auctioned off one of his kidney stones to raise money for charity
Star Trek fans are often willing to part with a lot of money for something that offers some sort of connection with their screen heroes, and Shatner has taken advantage of this to help raise money for charity. The actor once auctioned his kidney stone that had been removed to help raise proceeds for Habitat for Humanity, which supports building houses for those in need.
In an interview with The View soon after, William Shatner revealed that the kidney stone itself actually sold for $25,000 after a bidding war erupted among fans. Not only that, but the cast of Boston Legal (his hit TV show of the time) jumped in to help with the fundraising effort, and managed to contribute an extra $20,000 to the final total.
11. He’s had tinnitus ever since a Star Trek pyrotechnics accident
Ever since the 90s, Shatner has battled tinnitus, which he has traced back to a pyrotechnics incident that occurred on the set of the Star Trek episode Arena. The 18th episode of the debut season of Star Trek, Arena first aired in 1967, and it was based on a 1944 short story of the same name written by Fredric Brown. The episode centres around Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise pursuing a Gorn vessel, after it appears to launch an unprovoked attack on a Federation outpost.
The episode called for several explosions to be detonated on the Enterprise set, close to where both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner were stood. As a result of the repeated exposure, both actors developed tinnitus, Shatner in his left ear and Nimoy in his right.
10. Leonard Cohen was Shatner’s cousin
William Shatner has cultivated a great love of music throughout his life, even if critics and fans alike have disagreed about whether he has any real skill in the area. Curiously, it turns out that this musical spirit could be a family trait, as Shatner is actually related to one of the most influential musical legends. Thanks to shared great-great-great grandparents on Shatner’s mother’s side, the Star Trek star was actually the cousin of the late singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen.
Both were aware of the family connection, even if it’s unclear whether they actually spent any quality time together – though their paths definitely crossed at least once. As if being related wasn’t enough, Cohen and Shatner also attended the same university in the same year. Unfortunately for both of them, despite the fact that they both enrolled in McGill University in Montreal in 1951, a friendship never developed between them before Cohen’s passing.
9. He feuded with a Greater Vancouver country music radio station after they refused to play one of his Christmas songs
Despite his being one of the most beloved actors and instantly recognisable faces in all of TV history, not everyone is an automatic William Shatner fan. In particular, one radio DJ in Port Angeles, Washington is a committed Shatner detractor, and he even accidentally began an ongoing feud between himself and the famous actor. The story goes that one day, a listener of the Greater Vancouver country music radio station rang in, and requested that the DJ play a song from Shatner’s new Christmas album.
Without hesitation, the DJ replied “I have heard the album and it is NOT good. You’ll need massive eggnog to make that go down,” and refused to play any song from the album on his station. In a huge and very unfortunate coincidence, William Shatner happened to be listening, and within minutes he had blocked both the radio station and the DJ himself on Twitter.
8. He apologised to Trekkies over his Saturday Night Live “Get a Life” sketch
December 1986 saw Shatner appear on beloved TV comedy Saturday Night Live. The episode saw him appear in a sketch set at a fan convention, in which he told an audience of stereotypical nerdy fans to “get a life.” Though it was meant as harmless fun, many Star Trek fans felt wounded and betrayed that Shatner would turn their love for the show into a joke.
Shatner saw the outpouring of emotion in response to the sketch and immediately regretted it, even admitting in his autobiography that he “was a dope” for “buying into Trekkie stereotypes”. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the fandom to forgive him.
7. He experienced real grief after Kirk died
1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country marked the retirement of the original Enterprise crew. However, Shatner came back to play Captain Kirk for one last time in 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, which would see the character definitively killed off. After playing the role for almost three decades, the actor was excited to lay the character to rest.
However, once the project was over, Shatner reported feeling a huge wave of grief and emptiness overwhelming him. Shatner apparently spent weeks grieving the loss of Kirk as a character, and was only able to reckon with what the performance had meant to him in retrospect.
6. Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween is actually a distressed Shatner mask
William Shatner is generally cast as the good guy, but did you know he also inadvertently provided the face of one of cinema’s great villains? 1978 horror classic Halloween sees masked maniac Michael Myers go on a killing spree, and to create his distinctive mask the film’s costume department bought a rubber Captain Kirk mask from a costume store, sprayed it white and distressed the wig.
From these unlikely origins, Michael Myers’ ghostly visage became one of the most iconic images from horror film history. It’s very different from what might have been, as the filmmakers initially considered using a clown mask.
5. One of his early films was shot entirely in a made-up language
In early 1966, when Shatner was only just beginning his career and was still struggling to add titles to his filmography, he was asked to star in a horror movie named Incubus. The film was a traditional gothic horror flick, with a plot that revolved around a demon succubus becoming changed by the pure and pious love of Shatner’s character Marc. There was one big twist, however: the film had to be shot entirely in the made-up language of Esperanto.
Invented in the late 1800s by L. L. Zamenhof, Esperanto was created to be a universal second language, which people from anywhere in the world could use to communicate with each other. Needless to say it never caught on, so very few people who saw Incubus understood what was being said – including the cast themselves. Shatner recalls, “no one forgot their lines; although that may have been due to the fact that no one knew their lines, no one understood their lines, and no one knew if anyone else was saying their lines correctly.”
4. He got his big break in a 1958 Yul Brynner movie
After graduating from university with an unrelated degree, Shatner trained in stage acting for a time, and didn’t make the transition to a screen acting career until 1951 – and even then, he failed to land a significant film role until 1958. That year saw Shatner co-star in the MGM film The Brothers Karamazov, in which he played the youngest brother, Alexei, alongside the considerably more famous Yul Brynner.
Reviews of the film regarded it positively, even if Shatner’s performance was only rarely given a mention. It did stand the actor in good stead for future roles though, even if the movie has mostly been forgotten today.
3. He’s been credited with starting a whole new style of acting
William Shatner has, for decades, remained one of the most widely imitated actors from film and TV. He has a very distinctive style of delivering dialogue, which has been dubbed ‘Shatnerian’ acting for its uniqueness. This unorthodox style of delivery sees the actor break sentences and throw in pauses at unexpected moments, as well as place the stress on words that don’t necessarily seem to need emphasising.
It also sometimes involves delivering lines at tremendous volume, most famously when Shatner cries out the name of his adversary Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Much debate has been had over whether William Shatner’s signature style is overhyped or underrated, with many entertainment journalists even writing pieces in defence of his unmistakable delivery.
2. He developed his acting skills as a summer camp counsellor
Shatner did not immediately pursue a career in acting after graduating high school, since he originally planned to go into the secure and lucrative field of finance (he would go on to finish university with a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce). Still, he had known he wanted to be an actor from a very young age, and one of the things that solidified his ambition was his stint working as a teen camp counsellor.
Like many other teenagers looking for a summer job in Montreal, Shatner started working at the B’nai Brith camp in the Laurentian Mountains. Among his other duties, one of the things Shatner was asked to do was entertain the various cabins of kids, by telling them the kinds of funny and scary stories that summer camps are famous for. Due to the huge age range of the kids at the camp, Shatner had to think on his feet and adapt his stories and performance style for each group of children.
1. He became the oldest person to go to space aged 90
Having long been one of popular culture’s most famous fictional space travellers, it was only fitting that William Shatner be one of the world’s first space tourists. On October 13th, 2021, Shatner was among the passengers on Blue Origin, the space craft of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, which went to orbit for roughly ten minutes. As he was 90 years old at the time, Shatner was the oldest person to ever make the journey to outer space.
As much as this might be a dream come true for many, Shatner’s reaction wasn’t quite what might have been expected. The actor reflected in his memoir Boldly Go, when he looked into space, “all I saw was death. I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing.”