21 Facts You Probably Never Knew About William Shatner
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?
21. 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.
The episode in question was 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.
Shatner’s performance was a difficult one to get right, as he had to portray a man who was still recovering from a nervous breakdown, who has been placed once again in the situation that caused him to break down in the first place.
Throughout the episode, it is unclear whether the man is correct in trying to save everyone from the gremlin or if he is simply hallucinating, until it is revealed that he was right all along.
20. He once “c***ped his pants” while performing a one-man show on Broadway
There are many stages to an actor’s career. There’s the beginning, where they go to thousands of auditions and struggle to take their first steps on the ladder, desperate to become a recognisable face.
Then there are the minor roles in bigger and bigger projects until, if they are very lucky, a big break allows them to burst onto the scene and become a household name, with one major role that audiences fall in love with.
If an actor is really lucky, and they manage to not only become a household name but remain one, then that longevity and legend status allows them to become the kind of star who can justify touring their own one-person show.
William Shatner hit that point in 2012, when he secured 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 forgotten the incident, which isn’t all that surprising.
19. 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 video game and a series of TV movies in the 1990s (in which Shatner himself appeared).
TekWar was actually ghost-written by American historian and science fiction author Ron Goulart, but William Shatner’s proximity to the genre made him the perfect name to put to the series of books.
In addition to a video game and series of TV movies, the set of stories proved so immediately popular that they also spawned a comic book series and a spin-off television show, the latter of which Shatner appeared in personally.
The whole series revolves around the titular Tek, which is a mid-altering and illegal drug that is implanted in the brain via a microchip.
The drug creates a simulated reality that is tailored to each individual person who takes it, making it difficult to break away from and escape.
18. 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.
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.
By far Shatner’s most outspoken hater as his far as music goes is George Clooney, who went so far as to say he would bring Shatner’s spoken word cover album The Transformed Man along with him on an episode of Desert Island Discs.
This might seem like a huge compliment, but Clooney went on to explain that he would bring it along to hasten his own escape, since: “If you listen to [it], you will hollow out your own leg and make a canoe out of it to get off this island.” What a creative and brutal insult.
17. 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, most recently to Elizabeth Martin, who he wed in 2001. Reportedly the couple began divorce proceedings in 2019.
Shatner’s first wife was Candian 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.
Shatner’s marriage to Kidd only lasted for two years, although the pair never split up or divorced. Instead, the end of their marriage was brought about by tragedy, and they were very much still in love when it came to an end.
16. His third wife passed in tragic circumstances
In August 1999, Shatner’s 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.
Shortly after her death, Shatner called a press conference to announce her passing, during which he called Kidd his “beautiful soulmate” and explained that she meant “everything to him”.
In his grief, Shatner encouraged everyone to donate to Friendly House, a nonprofit designed to help women out of addiction and help them rebuild their lives in recovery.
Shatner went on to confess that his wife had problems with substance abuse, saying in an interview with talk show host Larry King: “my wife, whom I loved dearly, and who loved me, was suffering with a disease that we don’t like to talk about: alcoholism. And she met a tragic ending because of it.”
Shatner only became aware of his wife’s addiction thanks to his Star Trek co-star Leonard Nemoy, who had previously suffered from alcoholism himself. After Shatner, Nemoy, Kidd and Nemoy’s wife all went to dinner together, Nemoy called Shatner and asked “Bill, did you know she’s an alcoholic?” Nemoy even took Kidd to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but to no avail.
15. 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.
Many of Shatner’s horses have gone on to see success in the competition world, with three of his most notable horses being Call Me Ringo, Revival and Sultan’s Great Day.
Shatner even got to show off his horse-riding prowess in the 1994 movie Star Trek: Generations, where he rides his own steed named Great Belles of Fire.
14. 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.
The fire had started in a neighbouring Paramount soundstage, and rabidly spread towards where the latest Star Trek movie was being shot.
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 Paramount had been the victim of a deliberate arson attack.
Almost everyone was grateful to Shatner for jumping in and helping out, as his involvement helped to save the sets being used for the film, and may have even maintained the safety of the cast and crew.
However, the director of photography on the film, Charles Correll, was less thrilled, as he had secretly hoped that the sets would be damaged beyond repair, so that Paramount would agree to let him shoot the movie on location in Hawaii.
13. 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 jumped in to help with the fundraising effort, and managed to contribute an extra $20,000 to the final total.
As painful as the kidney stone was to deal with, it wasn’t the first health complaint that Shatner has had to accommodate in his life.
Shatner has often talked about the various “aches and pains” he has dealt with since getting older, including one that can be traced back to his days on the Enterprise.
12. 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.
Arena was the 18th episode of the debut season of Star Trek: The Original Series, which 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.
Originally, the writers of the episode had no idea that they had copied the structure and plot of the original short story so closely, and it was only once Star Trek’s research department discovered the similarity that they reached out to the author to have him approve of the episode.
Thankfully for the writers, Brown did agree to sign off on the episode as long as he was granted a screenwriting credit for it, which he was. Unfortunately for the cast of Star Trek, though, the shooting of the episode was not without its problems.
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.
11. 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.
10. He’s currently feuding 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.
Shatner even went so far as to direct a tweet to the DJ, telling him that he was on his own personal naughty list for the year. Ouch.
9. He once told a group of Trekkies to “get a life”
There’s no getting around the fact that without his stint on Star Trek, William Shatner probably wouldn’t be anywhere near the household name he is today.
Playing the character James T. Kirk launched Shatner’s career, and it will likely always be the role that he is best remembered for. However, when he first signed on to appear in the show, Shatner had no idea how significant it would go on to be.
Even once Star Trek was well-established and had legions of fans, Shatner still didn’t grasp the level of love that existed for the show, and didn’t understand why the sci-fi series had become so popular.
This lack of understanding led to one of the biggest gaffes of his career, when Shatner agreed to a Saturday Night Live skit in which he jokingly told a group of Star Trek fans at a convention to “get a life”.
Despite being a fictional sketch that 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.
8. He experienced real grief after Kirk died
It is not uncommon for actors to become deeply connected to the characters they play, even if they only get to embody them for a short time.
However, in cases where an actor gets to play a revered or beloved character for a significant portion of their life, there is often a bond between the character and actor that exists long after the actor stops portraying them.
Whether it’s David Tennant with the Doctor, Daniel Radcliffe with Harry Potter, or Patrick Stewart with Jean-Luc Picard, the idea of an actor becoming deeply attached to and grateful for one of their characters has been well-documented and discussed.
With that said, throughout his tenure as Captain Kirk, William Shatner always maintained that although he had come to like being in Star Trek and understand the importance it had to fans, he was excited to say goodbye to the character.
So when Shatner was approached to play Captain Kirk for one last time in 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, he was excited to finally put 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.
7. Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween is actually a distressed Shatner mask
As far as popular television and film characters go, there’s no denying that Captain Kirk is one of the most wholesome examples out there.
Despite his tendency to play the ladies’ man, and his occasional exaggerated manner and overconfidence when dealing with alien threats, the fact that he was such a mainstay of television for a whole generation makes him a comforting presence.
That’s why it is so discomforting to know that one of the most terrifying threats in all of horror is actually based on Captain Kirk’s likeness.
As surprising as it may seem, Michael Myers, the silent and deadly masked killer from the popular Halloween slasher series, actually wears a William Shatner Star Trek mask.
Michael Myers’ Halloween mask is now an iconic and instantly frightening image in its own right, so it can be difficult to look at and identify Captain Kirk somewhere within it.
However, the mask used in the original Halloween film was indeed a Wiliam Shatner mask that was painted bright white and then distressed, even if future masks were custom-made and look less like Shatner himself.
6. One of his early films was shot entirely in a made-up language
Given that William Shatner is best known for the bombastic and over the top acting style that he uses for the majority of Star Trek, many have cast aspersions on his ability to pull off subtle or skilful acting choices.
With that said, those with some knowledge of his early career will know that Shatner has been called upon to star in projects that require a great deal of skill to shoot, even if the projects in question were a little strange and unorthodox.
In 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 a made-up language.
Incubus was shot entirely in Esperanto, a language that did not develop naturally but was instead created on purpose by L. L. Zamenhof in the late 1800s. The language was created to be a universal second language, which people from anywhere in the world could use to communicate with each other.
Incubus was banned from being dubbed or subtitled into any other language, and so learning the script consisted entirely of remembering lines in a language that no one on set could speak.
Shatner later reflected on the experience, saying: “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.”
5. He got his big break in a 1958 Yul Brynner movie
William Shatner was born into a conservative Jewish household, with grandparents who had immigrated from what is now Lithuania and Ukraine, and working-class parents who worked as clothing manufacturers.
Shatner grew up loving acting, ever since his mother took him to a small acting school run out of a basement in Montreal by two old ladies who taught him how to memorise lines and emote.
However, his humble origins made acting seem like an unreliable and flighty profession, and so it wasn’t until his early adulthood that he found the courage to seriously commit to pursuing it.
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. Not only that, but it took Shatner until 1958 to land a significant film role.
In 1958, William Shatner starred in the MGM film The Brothers Karamazov, in which he played the youngest brother, Alexei.
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.
4. He’s been credited with starting a whole new style of acting
Many actors have become famous for their signature way of speaking and behaving, so much so that the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Owen Wilson and Robert De Niro becoming endlessly impersonated and parodied.
Despite that, 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.
In the end, you have to conclude that there must be something endearing about it, since Shatner’s time as Captain Kirk has remained iconic, and he also continued to get other roles once his Star Trek tenure was up.
3. 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).
With that said, Shatner did know 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.
This storytelling practice first gave him a taste of the joy that performing for other people could bring, and helped him hone different characters and styles of acting.
2. He trained as a classic Shakespearian actor
As far as acting training goes, learning to tell good stories to children at summer camp isn’t the most high-brow form of education you can imagine.
Thankfully, Shatner didn’t have to wait long to supplement his rough and tumble early acting education with some more classical grounding and rehearsal.
After he graduated university and made the switch from finance to acting, Shatner was lucky enough to take part in the second season of Canada’s annual Shakespeare festival, the Stratford Festival.
Shatner performed at the behest of famous stage director Tyrone Guthrie, who saw promise in the young actor and encouraged him to learn the ways of a proper stage troupe.
Once there, Shatner remained with the troupe for three seasons, returning each time to the festival to tackle a new set of classic Shakespearean plays.
The trial-by-fire nature of the rehearsal process, performances and schedule helped Shatner to develop his theatrical style of acting, which later distinguished him in all of his on-screen roles.
1. His autobiography was mocked by Sarah Palin
William Shatner’s affinity for spoken word poetry might not have been appreciated by music critics, or the majority of his fans, but he did eventually find a way to utilise it in his career.
For a short time, Shatner had a stint on Conan O’Brien, during which he would use his signature spoken-word style to comedically read from the works of famous figures.
The first time he was interviewed on the show, Shatner utilised his talents as an orator to read out Sarah Palin’s resignation speech.
The next time he returned, Shatner continued the gimmick by reading from Palin’s autobiography, which drew an even bigger laugh from the crowd.
Unfortunately, Palin did eventually get her own back, appearing on the show and reading out Shatner’s own autobiography as revenge!