To describe William Shatner, who turns 92 later this month, as “full of life” would be a gross understatement. When Deadline spoke with him about the documentary You Can Call Me Bill, which is making its world premiere at SXSW, he was about to go horseback riding. At a time when many people his age, those fortunate few to reach their 90s, are getting about with walkers or wheelchairs, he’s hoofing it.
“After this interview I’m gonna get on a horse,” he told us, with some astonishment. “I’m not going to get in a wheelchair. I’m gonna go on a reining horse and practice.”
He said he can’t quite believe the term “91-year-old” applies to him. “Every time I hear that figure I think, ‘That’s right. That’s me. My God,’” he laughed. “I think, how is that possible?”
The actor-author-singer (or perhaps “reciter of songs” is the more accurate term) knows the end of his life must be relatively near, given actuarial tables. He muses about mortality in the documentary directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, observing that to number among the billions of people who have lived and died means “the occasion of your death is meaningless.” Mostly, he focuses on the inexhaustible wonders of life and nature.
“Dogs speak to you, horses speak to you, trees,” he marvels in the film, noting that what has distinguished his life is taking care of his inner child – preserving a being filled with awe. “That curiosity is what keeps us alive,” he says. “I think curiosity is the fulfilled life.”
As if to prove the point, our conversation ranges from the origins of the term “mad hatter” (he recently learned it has to do with hat makers in the olden days handling mercury, which drove them insane), to the skies above.
“We’re surrounded by mysteries — the big ones, of course, are life and death and all that kind of thing, but there are small ones,” he said. “I’m looking out now across the San Fernando Valley, and I’m looking at clouds. We know that clouds are water vapor condensing, but how does that work? The warming air creates more space for the water molecule to get into the air then as it rises — because hot air rises and why it rises I don’t know. I mean, how about that for a question? Why does hot air rise? So, one question begets the other… I never wanna go through a day without saying, wow, look at those clouds.”
Shatner’s sense of wonder about nature informs a substantial portion of You Can Call Me Bill – the documentary begins and ends on a grove of sequoias. That theme also runs through his latest project.
“This new thing I’m working on is a children’s album and book, and we’re writing songs now… ‘Elephants and termites’ is the name of one of the songs,” he said, explaining the origins of the musical composition. “Elephants in the savanna of Africa, coming upon a termite turret — I’m sure you know that termites build these mounds. They masticate the earth, build a tower, and millions of them live in the tower — along comes an elephant with an itchy butt, and they scratch their butt on the tower, destroy the tower, tower crumbles. It’s now dirt. And the elephant’s walking around on it with its heavy feet and makes a shallow dish of that clay… Now it rains and it’s a receptacle for water and it gets bigger and bigger because the elephants wallow in it and eventually it becomes a watering hole. And it was done by an itchy butt and a termite. So, it’s a song.”
In the documentary, Shatner shares many stories about his career, as Capt. Kirk on Star Trek the original TV series and in seven motion pictures, the take-no-prisoners police Sgt. T.J. Hooker in the 1980s ABC series, and getting one of his first breaks by subbing for fellow Montreal native Christopher Plummer in a theatrical production of Shakespeare’s Henry V (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”), as well as his appearances on the Twilight Zone and the early days of live TV.
One story that doesn’t make its way into the documentary has to do with a live teleplay he did that called for him to enter a tavern armed with a gun and shoot a guy. But the prop gun wouldn’t fire, so Shatner, in character, had to quickly improvise to dispatch his foe.
“The end of the story is there was a little bit of a bar there, and I found a corkscrew and I screwed him to death,” he laughs. “It’s a great story!”
Another great story, one with more profound dimensions, has to do with Shatner becoming, at age 90, the oldest person to fly to space. That happened in 2021 aboard Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origins rocket. In the documentary, he talks about the view from the capsule into the dark chasm of the galaxy.
“Relentless blackness was all I could see,” he says in the film. “All I could see was death.”
He told Deadline, “I didn’t understand the depth of my feelings until I came down [to Earth], got on land, and there I was crying — I’m on national television and I’m uncontrollably crying. I couldn’t figure out why until hours later. And it took me a few days to conclude, make all my observations about how complex my reaction was.”
Part of his emotional reaction, he believes, had to do with feeling “grief for the Earth,” for what we, as a species, are doing to our home. Referring to climate change, he says in the film, “It’s total denial on a global scale.”
Shatner is deeply embedded in our popular culture, through his many performances, be it as Kirk, T.J. Hooker or Denny Crane on ABC’s The Practice and Boston Legal. But it goes beyond that. The frightening mask worn by killer Michael Myers in the Halloween movies famously was based, essentially, on Shatner’s face.
“That story is true where somebody [from the film production] ran into a Halloween store, grabbed a mask and it happened to be the death mask – well, they called it a death mask — that Star Trek made of me in order to put on prosthetics without having me there,” he said.
Masks, as we hear in the documentary, are another subject of fascination to him.
“On my album Bill, which is out there now on Spotify, there’s a song called ‘Masks,’ about how not only do actors wear masks, but we all wear masks,” he noted. “We retain, for one reason or another, our masks, and I don’t know when we drop them.”
At SXSW, Shatner will not only unveil the documentary, but take part in a keynote conversation with Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain (Chris Pine – the actor who has taken up the mantle of playing Capt. Kirk in the recent Star Trek films – coincidentally will appear at SXSW tonight in the opening night film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves). It’s part of a busy schedule for Shatner.
“Tomorrow morning, I get on an early morning plane, turn up in Atlanta and perform,” he said, “and then, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis this weekend. It’s amazing.”
At an appearance at Neue House in Los Angeles a few days ago to discuss You Can Call Me Bill, Shatner mused that he might just show up at his SXSW events on horseback. At nearly 92, he’s got the skill and the physical vitality to do it.
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