- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

LOS ANGELES |

The sport utility vehicle pulls to an abrupt stop on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. In the middle of the westbound lane is a man in a loud shirt, his body coiled with energy, darting across traffic toward a strip mall.

The driver jumps visibly, and not merely at the presence of a human being on the pavement. It’s who that human is: Without the hasty application of power brakes, one of the most recognizable faces in the history of American television would have become one with the road.

Still, it’s lunchtime, after all. Good sushi is across the street, and a guy like William Shatner is not about to be stopped by something as mundane as traffic.

Why did Mr. Shatner cross the road? Why has he ever? To get to the other side. To see what’s out there. To find out stuff and inhale the universe in his singular Shatnerian way. It’s the story of his life - and the lives of the characters he has breathed, spoken and shouted into existence over a 50-year performing career.

It’s the story of “Boston Legal” bombast Denny Crane, racing to experience all life’s pleasures before Alzheimer’s drags him not-so-gently into that good night. It’s the story of the Priceline Negotiator, that discount-travel maniac who barnstorms across the planet to get us better deals on hotels and flights. It’s the story of James T. Kirk, the wise and womanizing starship captain who led a crew of 23rd-century explorers across interstellar back roads.

Finally, it’s the story of Mr. Shatner himself - a man governed by his passions and interests, a man who crosses new roads every day, gleefully ignoring those who dismiss him and conquering frontiers he never dreamed possible.

“I’m trying to fill the cracks in the bricks that have been written. I’m the mortar,” he says. “That’s what an actor should be doing.”

Yes, he’s been pilloried over the years - perhaps justifiably here and there - for his roundhouse method-actor style; for his apparent obliviousness to his own over-the-topitude; for his primal, all-encompassing Shatnerness.

However, being snide about Mr. Shatner is so 1997. He is 77 now, post-post-ironic, doing precisely what he wants - and, finally, no longer terrified about making a living. “Live life like you’re gonna die, because you’re gonna,” he sang a few years ago. And he does: “There is so much going on with me right now, it’s difficult to believe all of it,” he says.

You name the subject, he’s fascinated. Global warming. Asian soap operas. The sentience of fish. Afghan politics. The turkeys he deep-fries in a “multimedia show” every Thanksgiving. And his timeless loves - his wife Elizabeth, his three daughters and his racehorses.

To sit and talk with Mr. Shatner over a meal is its own multimedia show. You start by marveling about the familiar voice you’re hearing. By and by, you begin paying attention to what he’s saying, which is a theme park of topics.

Joining us for lunch is Brett Keller, chief marketing officer at Priceline.com, where Mr. Shatner has been frontman for a decade, urging people to name their own price. Both sides have benefited: Priceline got an iconic figure to shape its brand, and Mr. Shatner got stock options and a forum upon which to surf back into the collective consciousness.

In the latest Priceline ads, Mr. Shatner bursts forth as the Priceline Negotiator, a mashup of James Bond and Ron Popeil who will do anything to help people broker better deals.

Market research, Priceline says, has shown an affinity for Mr. Shatner across age groups and demographics.

“Everyone knows William Shatner,” Mr. Keller says. “You either love him or you hate him, and I think most people love him.”

He has always favored unusual paths. You don’t make an entire horror movie in Esperanto (“Incubus,” 1964) otherwise. You don’t open an equestrian camp to help disabled Israeli and Arab children get along. And you certainly don’t serenade George Lucas by dancing with storm troopers while singing a personalized version of “My Way.”

With these choices, Mr. Shatner has carved himself a unique place in the culture through a complicated blend of sincerity, bombast, wink-nudge irony and self-parody. Hate him or love him, rarely has an entertainer straddled giggles and glory so adeptly - and rarely does a performer have three distinct and separate careers, each building on the last:

mShatner No. 1: I’m a Very Serious Actor. This one played tortured men in two “Twilight Zone” installments, a slick racist in 1962’s “The Intruder” and created the role of the iconic Captain Kirk in the original “Star Trek.” This Shatner was drama on steroids, and he endured through the 1980s with the tough-as-nails “T.J. Hooker” and a Captain Kirk reprise in seven “Star Trek” movies.

mShatner No. 2: I Laugh At Myself and You Can too. Emerged around 1997. There were hints of this Shatner earlier - well-played comedy in a couple “Trek” episodes and a deadpan cameo in “Airplane II.” However, Mr. Shatner really jumped into self-parody in a 1997 film called “Free Enterprise,” in which he played a heightened version of himself. Then came his appearance as the alien leader on “Third Rock From the Sun” and his first Priceline ads, which cast him as a zeitgeisty, lounge-lizard joker.

m Shatner No. 3: We Laughed Until We Cried. The most sophisticated Shatner of all. For years, it was assumed that Mr. Shatner equaled Kirk. Then came Denny Crane, a Boston law firm’s rainmaker enduring the beginning of “the mad cow.” Denny is loudmouthed, sexist, self-obsessed and terrified at what age is stealing. Only his much younger colleague, Alan Shore, understands the panic behind the bluster.

This Shatner combined the serious and the comic in the most unusual way. “I’ve obviously had those instruments at my call,” he says, “but the opportunity to use them wasn’t there.”

“Shatner is the epitome of the post-ironic, 21st-century American cultural attitude,” says Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University television and pop culture historian.

“He’s completely taken the entire history of American mass entertainment from radio days to the present and melded it into a character that’s completely contemporary,” Mr. Thompson says, his cadence growing Shatnerlike. “I’m going to be teaching that guy 50 years from now in my history of television classes if I’m still alive.”

Midmorning on the “Boston Legal” set, where Denny Crane is proposing marriage to a sexy Montana cattle rancher: She’ll think about it, she says.

With each take, more dimensions emerge in Mr. Shatner’s performance. This is not a man known for subtlety, but he should be. He lends personality to Denny as he tries to release the ache of a fading giant trying to get the girl. By the final take, the scene is heart-wrenching.

Why does Denny Crane work so well? Some of it is David E. Kelley’s writing, but some is sheer Shatnerness.

“He brings to the moment everything you know about him,” says David Fisher, who collaborated with Mr. Shatner on his new autobiography, “Up Till Now.”

“He’s not a fresh face. We know who William Shatner is, as an audience. We know what he’s been through. We know the ridicule he’s received, we know the plaudits he’s received. He’s been part of our lives for so long.”

Says Mr. Shatner: “I have all of the hungers and passions and desires of when I was 20. There’s nothing I can’t do.”

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