I was going to begin my autobiography this way:
Call me . . . Captain James T. Kirk or Sergeant
T.J. Hooker or Denny Crane Denny Crane or Twilight Zone plane passenger Bob Wilson or the Big Giant Head or Henry V or the Priceline Negotiator or . . .
Well, that's the problem, isn't it? I've been a working actor for more than half a century and I've played so many different roles on the stage, on television, and in the movies that it would be impossible to focus on just one of them. Besides, my career as an actor is only part of my story, so I realized I couldn't begin this book that way.
Then I decided I was going to start this book by telling the story of my memorable meeting with Koko the gorilla:
In 1988, to help the Gorilla Foundation encourage Californians to contribute to its Endangered Species Campaign, I was permitted to visit Koko the gorilla in her quarters. Koko was an extraordinary animal who had learned to communicate with human beings. She was able to sign more than six hundred words, but more impressively, as her handlers told me, she understood the meaning of those words. She knew the signs for water and for bird and the first time she saw a duck landing on a lake she signed water bird. That displayed a synthesis of knowledge. So you see, she was obviously very intelligent. I was allowed to go into her compound, to enter a room with her all alone. As I walked into that room I was reminded that she was an imposing, powerful animal; smaller gorillas have been known to tear off men's arms in anger. I am not often afraid, but truthfully I was frightened.
There is a form of acting that teaches: feel it and say it, and that feeling will be revealed through your words. The English form is quite different: say it and then you feel it. To deal with my fear of this magnificent animal as I got closer and closer to her I found myself saying, "I love you, Koko. I love you." I said it earnestly and honestly and I looked directly in her eyes as I spoke. I crouched over a little to show submission, moving forward rather than backward to show I was not afraid. Over and over I repeated, "I love you, Koko, I love you." And as I said it, I began to feel that love. Finally I stopped directly in front of her and looked into her deep brown eyes and saw her furrowed brow and her enormous hands. I love you, Koko.
And with that she reached out and grabbed me by my balls. And looked me right in the eyes. After a slight pause-in a substantially higher voice-I tried to repeat, "I love you, Koko." Obviously these words had more significance than a few seconds earlier.
Her handler, standing just outside the room, said, "Stand very still. She wants you to go to her bedroom." So I stood very still because I did not want to go to her bedroom. I think it is fair to say that few people in history have ever stood as still as I did at that moment. Meanwhile, in the adjoining compound a young gorilla who they hoped would mate with Koko was pounding on the door like a jealous husband. There I was, caught in the eternal triangle, with a gorilla holding on to my rapidly shrinking scrotum. Eventually she got bored...
Starting this book with that story would enable me to inform the reader that it's not going to be limited to my professional career, that it will also include stories about all the extraordinary opportunities I've been given to explore the world. I'd discuss all the amazing experiences I've had, from that dark night in Africa when I pursued a wild elephant to the afternoon a helicopter left me more alone than I'd ever been in my life on top of a twenty-thousand-foot-high glacier, and even to that memorable moment when I saw aliens in the desert. And it would also demonstrate that there are going to be a lot of laughs in this book, most of them at my expense. But then I realized that people know me primarily from the work I've done as an actor, so that wouldn't be effective as a beginning. So I decided not to begin that way either.
Then I had a great idea. I was going to start the book by quoting the lyrics to a song I'd written about the truly tragic death by drowning of my beautiful wife, Nerine Shatner:
My love was supposed to protect her It didn't My love was supposed to heal her It didn't You had said don't leave me And I begged you not to leave me We did
Opening the book that way would be so meaningful to me, beginning with the great tragedy of my life. And it would immediately let readers know that this is to be a truthful book. But it would also be such a sad beginning, when my life has been filled with so much joy. And of course, I'm not known for my singing; in fact there are those who believe my performance of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" may be the worst version of a Beatles song ever recorded. Not me- of course. And this is such a personal story that it needs to be told in its entirety, so certainly I couldn't begin my book that way.
There is one extremely well-known phrase that I definitely decided I would not use to begin this book:
"Beam me up, Scotty."
In fact, I am determined that this phrase will not appear anywhere in this book.
The beginning, I knew, needed to catch the interest of the reader within a few words, to engage their curiosity, to make them wonder, perhaps, what the hell is he talking about? Which led to:
I arrived in New York City for the first time in my life in an Indian outrigger canoe, having paddled all the way from Montreal...
I liked that, but it didn't seem to convey the essence of my life. Somehow it seemed too gimmicky, too clever, so I knew I couldn't use that. Maybe later in the first chapter, I decided.
It occurred to me that perhaps I should open this book with a description of the day I took my beautiful horse, Sultan's Great Day, for his final walk in the pasture. Oh my, you should have seen him in his world-championship days. I'm telling you, this was the most magnificent stallion you've ever seen. I'm not kidding about that. Really, people were in awe of his presence. They would look at him and...
I would use that beginning to tell you about my passions, the passions that have made all the difference in my life. The passions that I've spent my life pursuing: the love of a beautiful woman, the love for my family, the love for my craft, my art, the need to experience every aspect of life. Sometimes I'm amazed to realize that I live today with the vestiges of my priorities as a young man, the desire to act, the need to be loved, the pleasures of a great meal, a great laugh, and enduring companionship.
But simply telling you about my passions-even my passion for horses and dogs-seemed far too somber an opening.
Perhaps, I thought, I should start this book by being glib, by exposing my quirky sense of humor to the readers. Make them laugh at the very beginning by quoting a newspaper story about one of the more unusual things I've ever done:
(AP) 1/17/2006 Actor William Shatner agreed on Monday to sell his kidney stone for $75,000 to an online casino. The money will go to Habitat for Humanity. "This takes organ donors to a new height, or perhaps a new low," said Shatner. The auction price includes the surgical stent and string used to permit passage of the stone.
According to Shatner, the kidney stone was so big, "[Y]ou'd want to wear it on your finger. If you subjected it to extreme heat, it might turn out to be a diamond..."
While that beginning certainly would be humorous, it just seemed too frivolous to start that way. Instead, it occurred to me that the opening of this book should be thoughtful, it should be about my life. How much more sincere could I be about the life I've had than using words written by David E. Kelley for the character I play on Boston Legal, Denny Crane Denny Crane:
Evening: Crane and Shore on the balcony outside Crane's office
Alan Shore believes man has a soul. Stop the presses.
Don't you believe it? Can this be all there is? And if so...
have we not wasted...
I haven't wasted a second. I've enjoyed my ride, all of it.
But will it have truly counted for something?
You've heard the old joke, Alan. Man shows up at the pearly gates, sees this guy in a pinstripe suit, briefcase, cigar, prancing about, he says to St. Peter, "Who the hell is that?" St. Peter says, "Oh that's just God. Thinks he's Denny Crane."
What would you do, Denny, if you actually met God one day?
I dunno. Probably take him fishing.
For a brief time I had decided this was the perfect way to open this book. Then it occurred to me, let Denny Crane write his own book! Finally, inspiration struck! I had what I believed would be a unique and perfect opening:
Are you tired of paying full price for this book? Well, you don't have to. You can buy as many copies of it as you like-and you name the price! That's right, you name the price you want to pay. At Priceline.com it's as simple as that. Here's the way...
Opening this book like that would be funny, yet accurate, as many people know me from my work representing various companies, such as Priceline.com. And if we also could sell a few more copies of this book, well, I didn't think St. Martin's would object. And if Priceline was approached properly by my agent, perhaps they might even be willing to purchase the rights to the opening paragraph. For less than full price, of course.
But perhaps that was too crass for the opening of my autobiography, I decided. Is that really what I wanted to emphasize about my life and my career? And would Priceline meet my price? So that opening too, was rejected.
And then it occurred to me: I don't need an opening. By the time you've reached this paragraph my autobiography has already started. Of course that was very similar to my career; I was already in the middle of it before I realized it had begun.
The first time I stood on a stage I made the audience cry.
Let me establish the rules for this book. I will tell all the jokes unless I specifically identify a straight line. In which case you will have the opportunity make up the jokes.
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 good-bye 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 good-bye to my little doggie.
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. Years before my camp debut my older sister remembers my mother taking the two of us downtown. Apparently I ran away and it took them several hectic minutes to find me-dancing happily in front of an organ-grinder.
Where did that come from? That need to please people? What part of me was born with the courage to stand in front of strangers and risk rejection? There was nothing at all like that in my family history. The Shatner family was Polish and Austrian and Hungarian, and apparently several of my forebears were rabbis and teachers.
Like so many Jewish immigrants my father was in the schmatta business-he manufactured inexpensive men's suits for French-Canadian clothing stores. Admiration Clothes. They were basically suits for workingmen who owned only one suit. Joseph Shatner was a stern but loving man, a hard-working man. I can close my eyes and remember the smell of his cutting room. The unforgettable aroma of raw serge and tweed in rolled-up bales, mixed with the smell of my father's cigarettes. Saturday afternoon was the only time he would relax, lying on the couch and listening to New York's Metropolitan Opera on the radio. He came to Montreal from Eastern Europe when he was fourteen, and worked selling newspapers and in other labor-intensive jobs. He started in the clothing business packing boxes and eventually became a salesman and finally started his own small company. He was the first member of his family to come to North America, but eventually he helped all ten of his brothers and sisters leave Europe. My friend Leonard Nimoy likes to joke about the fact that I never stop working; he does an imitation of me in which he says, "It's quarter of four. What's scheduled for four-ten? If I'm done there by four-thirty can we get something for four-fifty?"
Perhaps there is some truth to that. Every actor has spent days... months staring at the telephone, willing it to ring. And living with the hollow fear that it might never ring again. Painting the walls over again while waiting for the next offer. After beginning my career I went more than twenty years without taking a real vacation, petrified I might miss a phone call. Having had that experience, having lived in the back of pickup trucks in the parking lots of summer theaters, indeed I am open to opportunities. But there is a general belief that I will accept almost anything that I'm offered and that certainly is not true. It was less than two years ago that I turned down an offer. Like any actor, I'm concerned about being overexposed, so I've been very careful to limit myself to acting on the stage and in dramatic television programs, hosting documentary-type programs and game shows, appearing in movies and commercials, endorsing products, doing voice-overs, charity appearances, radio programs, Webcasts, videos, Star Trek conventions, game shows, horse shows and dog shows, writing books and songs, making albums, creating, directing and producing television programs, performing at concerts, and appearing on talk shows, competitive reality-type shows, and award programs. But that's where I draw the line. For example, I rarely do bar mitzvahs and I've never worked in the Catskills.
My work ethic comes from my father. His dream was that I would eventually take over the business. So, as he had done, I worked in the factory packing suits. One of my skills is good packing. I know how to fold a suit with the shoulders touching inside-out, the sleeves down, folded flat so it stays pressed. I know the correct way to fold pants and put them in a box. Had I not become an actor I could have had a fine career in folding.
But acting? What did my father know from acting? Acting smacting, that wasn't a thing real people did, it wasn't a job. It wasn't what people did to earn a living. It was playing.
From my father I learned the value of education, respect for others around me, and to be on time and prepared to work. Eleven-oh-five, he used to tell me, was not eleven o'clock. All my life I have been on time and prepared to work. I'll tell you how deeply that ethic is ingrained in me. In 2007 I was invited by ABC to participate in a show entitled Fast Cars and Superstars, actually a NASCAR celebrity race. This was an opportunity to drive as fast as possible in an oval without having to worry about speed traps. A racetrack is the one place in the world you can drive as fast as your skills and your courage allow. This was my kind of TV show. I said, "Of course, I'd love to do it." And then I began negotiating furiously for as much money as I could get.
As I was leaving the set of Boston Legal to fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, a producer gently put a comforting hand on my shoulder and explained, "Remember Bill, you've got to report for work Thursday at seven a.m. And if you're not here, if you've hit a wall and broken your arms and legs or turned the car over and are lying in a hospital somewhere covered from head to toe in bandages so you can't get back, this company can sue you." Then he paused and smiled broadly. "Other than that, have a great time."
I've loved fast cars all my life. I've long admired the great drivers. But I am aware of the danger. I know Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s fate. The reality is that race drivers die. They crash and burn, they roll over and catch fire. I've seen those pictures. Not me, of course, them. I have been in enough television shows and feature films to understand reality-the star never gets hurt.
There were twelve competitors divided into four groups. Each group of three people shared one car. For safety, there would be one driver on the track at a time. We were racing against time, not directly against each other. My group consisted of myself, former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, and volleyball player-model Gabrielle Reece. We drove for the first time in a morning practice round. I hit 160 mph, and as I went around the turns I was convinced the car was going to slide out from under me and hit the wall. Well, it didn't, and 160 mph put me way back in the pack.
I promised myself I would do better in the actual competition. I realized I had been holding back on the straightaways, anticipating the next turn. When we raced that night I intended to press down on the accelerator so I could remain in the race. The only question I had was who would be eliminated first from my group, Cowher or Reece?
My group was scheduled to race Tuesday night. Cowher went first. He spun out and hit the wall; the $500,000 car was badly damaged. We waited more than an hour for a replacement car; finally Cowher made his run and established his time. Gabrielle Reece had posted some very fast times in her practice runs, but during her run she also spun out and almost hit the wall. Now it was my turn.
I was wearing a completely fireproof jumpsuit and a large bulbous helmet with a face mask that covered my entire head. When they tried to strap me in I realized something was wrong. This car had been set up for Cowher and Reece, two very tall people. My feet didn't reach the pedals. And the seat wouldn't move. The only thing that did move was the telescoping steering wheel. But the wheel in the car was too large, so they replaced it with a much smaller wheel that was sticking into my gut, much smaller than any steering wheel I was used to. By then it was one o'clock in the morning, I was tired, and the lithium lights shining down on the filthy windshield made it difficult to see clearly.
In minutes I was going to be driving faster than 160 mph with a steering wheel jammed into my belly and pillows stuffed behind me to push me forward so I could reach the pedals on a track I could not see clearly.
This was crazy and I knew it. I thought, what am I doing here? I could be killed.
I put my foot down on the accelerator and took off. I've learned in karate that your chi is below your belly button and as you do any physical activity you release it in explosive breaths. I've done that many times. My intention was to blow out my chi by yelling as I went around those turns.
Actually, I believe that my exact words as I raced around the corners were "Whooooooooooooooooooooo. Whooooooooooooooooooooo." I was not blowing out my chi, I was trying to contain my fear. I was seeing death. I knew I was going to die. I could barely control the car, I couldn't see where I was going, and I was driving faster than 160 mph. I never should have been in that situation. Drivers have told me about the feeling of Zen they've experienced in which they are one with the car. I didn't get that feeling, instead I felt like a foreign body that the car was trying to eject.
I finished my three official laps. I never learned my time; I was disqualified for a technical violation. But later I wondered why I had taken that risk. I risked my life for a television program? I did it, I realized, because the cameras were rolling. Believe me, if those TV cameras had not been there I wouldn't have risked my life. But the cameras were there; this was a show, a performance. This was my job. And as I had been taught by my father, I was there on time and ready to go to work.
It was my mother, Ann Shatner, who encouraged me to act. She sent me to acting school; she never missed a performance. She went with me to audition for radio roles and when I didn't get the part she would call the producer, Mr. Rupert Kaplan, to scream at him for not hiring me. Unlike some mothers she didn't follow me to college when I attended McGill-she didn't have to, we lived two miles from the campus.
My mother might accurately be described kindly as ditzy. Her own family had been relatively well off and she was somewhat spoiled; the contrast between this lovely young woman who had so much and a hard-working man struggling to bring his family over from Europe must have been extreme. My mother had a great dramatic flair. She wanted her life to be big and loud. When we went for dinner, for example, she would quite often inform the waiter that it was her birthday. I still get embarrassed thinking about it. She would sit there beaming while the rest of us were cringing as the waiters gathered around our table to loudly sing "Happy Birthday." I'm certain people would look at our table and wonder why this entire family was looking down and not singing "Happy Birthday" to that lovely woman. What a reputation we must have had: that Shatner family won't sing "Happy Birthday," imagine that. My mother had more birthdays than anyone in the world.
She always took great pleasure in my success, and even more pleasure in sharing it. I can still hear her saying those memorable words, "I'm William Shatner's mother." I can still hear it because she never stopped saying it. Everywhere she went. If she got on an elevator before the doors closed she would say, "Hello everybody, I'm William Shatner's mother." In department stores, in every restaurant, "I'm William Shatner's mother." On occasion I'd get on an airplane and the stewardess would tell me she'd had my mother on a flight. I didn't need to ask how she knew it was my mother. I would tell my mother over and over, please don't do that. It's embarrassing. I hate it. Don't do it. And she would look at me sadly and say, "Okay, I won't do it." And then she would turn around, "Hi, I'm William Shatner's mother."
My father used to remind me with tremendous emphasis, "She's still. your mother" Meaning no matter what she's done, how much you don't understand her, you will treat her with respect. She's still your mother.
She was an elocution teacher. She was not, as she often corrected my father, an execution teacher, she was an elocution teacher. I want you to do something for me please, try to pronounce these words aloud as you read them: ten tin men, ten tin men. The difference between "ten" and "tin" is elocution. My mother was probably a frustrated actress; there really was no place for a middle-aged Jewish mother of three to perform in Montreal, so she would act out monologues at home. When I was seven or eight years old she enrolled me in the Dorothy Davis School for Actors, which was run by Miss Dorothy Davis and Miss Violet Walters in the basement of someone's home. It was in that basement that I learned the skills necessary to succeed in the difficult thespian world-specifically, get up on stage, say my words, get off the stage-skills that eventually allowed me to play such memorable roles as Prince Charming and Tom Sawyer at a theater in the local park. I am proud to say I am the most famous graduate of the Dorothy Davis School for Actors.
I don't remember being taught how to act, we just acted. And the school charged admission to watch us act. Actually, I don't believe acting can be taught, but what you can learn is the discipline of learning your words, having to appear, and having to say them.
I was a lonely kid. I'd walk to school by myself. In school, on Valentine's Day, I would send myself valentines. Those would be the only ones I would receive. One year I got six valentines from myself! Truthfully, I don't know why I didn't have many close friends. It might have had something to do with the neighborhood in which we lived. While all my relatives lived in the Jewish section of Montreal, my family lived in a comfortable house on Girouard Street, in the more affluent, mostly Catholic area NDG, Notre Dame de Grace.
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, actively 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! Actually, you might not want to mention that to little Lenny Nimoy, another Jewish kid growing up at exactly the same time in Boston. I'd hear stories about Jewish soldiers who had come back from the war; one or two men taking on a whole gang of anti-Semites and beating them into submission with an ax handle.
I played football and skied in high school and I loved both sports, but it was acting that made me feel complete. Acting made me special, and I was good at it. I never had difficulty pretending to be someone else. At camp, not only did I make the adults cry, I literally drove a camper crazy. I was working as a counselor with my friend Hilliard Jason-he required me to call him Hilliard. We ran a bunk filled with kids who had survived the Holocaust, kids who had seen their parents slaughtered, kids who just as easily could kill you with a pencil as become friends. I was able to control them because I was the camp storyteller. At night, in the dark, I would read Poe and Kafka with great elocution. One night I read "The Tell-tale Heart"- "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me"-and one child broke down in fear. He let free all of those emotions kept inside for so long and it was too much for him. He became hysterical. The next day he was sent home, wrapped in blankets in the backseat of a car.
What had I done? I felt terrible. Awful. That had not been my intention. But I was also astonished. Once again I had seen the extraordinary power of words to evoke great emotion. Look what I could do! Just by saying some words!
I acted throughout my childhood. When Dorothy Davis established the Montreal's Children Theatre we put on our plays at the Victorian Theatre in the park and on local radio. For five years I saved damsels on Saturday Morning Fairy Tales, even if I wasn't quite certain what a damsel was. What eight-year-old doesn't want to be Prince Charming? Or Ali Baba? Or Huck Finn? I got to be them all. Acting was playing. I was being me being someone else. It came easily to me. I crashed my sister Joy's sweet sixteen party, for example, costumed as an old man. Joy had no idea it was me, no idea. She came over to me and said, politely, "Excuse me, but I don't think I know who you are." When she got close enough and looked into my eyes, she knew. But the concept that I could do this as a profession, that I could earn...
Oh, excuse me. I just have to go star in another movie with Sandra Bullock for a little while. Here, please hum along with a song I wrote with Ben Folds and I'll be back in a few sentences:
I know what she's gonna do; And I can't wait for her to do it. She knows me and I know her; what I hate and what I prefer. Dum de dum, dum de um. I know her scent, I know her touch; where to hold her and just how much.
My lady belongs here and so...
Okay, I'm back. Where was I? Growing up, the concept that I could continue to do this playing as an adult was not something that occurred to me. It was just something that I loved doing. In high school I played football and acted in school plays and for the first time I allowed myself to dream. Under my photograph in my senior yearbook I finally admitted it out loud: I wanted to be an actor. Not that out loud of course, not loud enough for my father to hear me.
While still in high school I got my first real job in the theater-as a stage manager. I was fifteen years old and I had absolutely no experience. Looking back, I suspect I got the job because I was young and good-looking and oh so terribly naïve. A well-known French male singer was starring in a play at the Orpheum Theatre, which housed all the touring companies. It was thrilling for me. I was in the theater; backstage, but inside the theater. The actor was tall and good-looking and early in the run he asked me if I wanted to join him for dinner.
Well, I thought, I must be a great stage manager. The star of the show has asked me to have dinner with him. Naturally I accepted his invitation. As we left the theater that night he asked me if I had a jacket with me. "No," I admitted.
"That's fine," he said casually. "I've got a jacket that'll fit you in my hotel room."
Welcome to show business, Shatner. The strongest memory I have of that night is being chased around the bed. Football season had recently ended so I was in good shape and strong. I stayed out of his reach. Incredibly, I didn't even know what he wanted. I was unaware of homosexuality. I didn't know that men could be attracted to other men. It was not something spoken about in middle-class Jewish homes.
What happened that night changed my attitude toward women for the rest of my life. I understood the anger and frustration that a woman feels when she says no, and means no, and the man believes she is saying yes.
Acting had become my passion. I was hungry to stand before an audience and perform. I accepted every opportunity offered to me. When I was sixteen I got a part in a production of Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty being done at a Communist organization meeting hall in Montreal. Every serious young actor wanted to do meaningful theater, even if we didn't understand the meaning. I didn't know anything about Communism, but I knew the history of Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre. I remember being on stage, looking nobly to the ceiling, my fist raised, screaming, "Strike! Strike!" And the audience-my God, they went out of their minds! "Strike! Strike!" When the audience responded I could feel the power of my performance. Me, little Billy Shatner from the west end of Montreal, not quite Westmont, holding this audience in my hand. Strike! Strike! It was magnificent, beautiful. Strike! Strike!
I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. No understanding of political philosophy. I was acting, that's all. Giving life and emotion to words written on paper. The red-baiting movement started several years later, just as I was beginning my career in America. I was terrified that someone would ask me about my work for the Communist party.
At West Hill High School I was never a very good student, more because of a lack of interest than a lack of ability. In school, those things about the world that would one day intrigue and delight and fascinate me didn't even interest me. I wanted to act and play football, that was it. I barely graduated from high school and yet was accepted to the McGill University School of Commerce. The business school. I was admitted under a Jewish quota that existed at that time. With my grades they must have been marking on a very large curve. My family believed I was at McGill to learn how to bring modern economic practices into my father's clothing business, so I could turn it into the hugely successful corporation we all knew was just the completion of my college education away. But I knew I was there to perform in their shows.
I spent considerably more time in the drama department than going to class. I got by, I always managed to get by, but more important, I wrote and produced and appeared in several campus productions. I was also working part-time as a radio announcer at the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Here, remember these words: "Stay tuned for our next exciting program." That was me.
Growing up, I wanted to be like the kids who lived in Westmont, the moneyed part of the city. I wanted to be like the upper-class English kids who drove their MGs to college. I remember when I was five or six years old I found a five-dollar bill. That was all the money in the world to a child, but I wanted to share it with my only friend-so I tore it in half.
I understood the importance of money-but acting was more important. I knew I would never make as much money acting as my father earned in the schmatta business, but I didn't care. I suspect every actor has a financial goal when they begin. Mine was a hundred dollars a week. I thought, if I could earn a hundred dollars a week as an actor I will be a very happy man. Leonard, whose father was a barber, wanted to earn ten thousand dollars a year, but Leonard always had extravagant dreams.
Telling this to my father was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. My father's dream was that we would work together one day. As a teenager I would go with him on sales calls. We'd put on our best suits and drive to these small French villages outside Montreal. He had friends in every village-this is my old friend Jake, my old friend Pierre, my old friend Robert-people he had sold to for years. To each of these men he would proudly introduce me, "This is my son," and they would comment on how tall I was, how much I looked like him. It was the salesman's dance. I was being brought into the family business.
I didn't know how I could tell him. One afternoon, during my third year in college, for some reason we were in my bedroom and he asked me casually if I'd thought about my future. Just as casually I told him I wanted to be an actor. And his heart just plummeted.
He sat down on my bed as the enormity of that hit him. He didn't understand the theater. Acting wasn't a job for a man. Actors were bums. For him, it was like being a minstrel. The chances of succeeding, of having any kind of meaningful life were very, very slim. I knew he was devastated, but the only thing he said to me was, "Well, you do what you want to do. There's always a place for you here. I don't have the money to support you, but I'll help you the best I can." The only thing he asked of me was that I not become a "hanger-on." By that he meant being dependent on other people, on unemployment insurance, a man who couldn't earn his own keep.
How brave he was to put aside his dreams so I might pursue my own. And how it must have hurt him. He was a man rooted deeply in the reality of a paycheck; the life of an artist was inconceivable to him. But rather than trying to talk me out of it, or offering advice, he gave me freedom.
And he always kept that place for me. Just in case.
I graduated from McGill University with my degree in commerce and I immediately put that degree to work. Mrs. Ruth Springford, a woman who had directed me in several college plays, was the director of a summer theater, the Mountain Playhouse. Having seen my work, she hired me as the assistant manager. The company was performing mostly one-set Broadway shows like Roman Candle and The Seven Year Itch. In those days playwrights were writing shows with minimal scenery and sets, knowing that if their play was successful on Broadway the number of companies that produced it in local theaters-and paid those royalties-would depend greatly on how many sets it had. Generally those plays were light comedies featuring a young guy-often a shy or bumbling young guy-with an innocent smile big enough to reach the back rows.
I was a terrible assistant manager. A disgrace to my commerce degree. I kept losing tickets and mixing up reservations, which were basically the only responsibilities I had. Actors were easily replaceable, but the survival of the theater depended on getting the ticket sales right. Most actors get hired; to save the theater I was fired into the cast. I began playing all those happy young man roles.
These were Broadway shows coming to Canada; the audience was ready to laugh. My talent was knowing my lines and waiting until the laughter stopped before speaking. I had no formal acting training, I never did. I would read about actors in New York City studying The Method. Well, I had my own method, I said my lines as if I were the character. I learned how to act from acting. The audience taught me how to act. If I did something and the audience responded, I did it again. So this experience of working every night, learning new roles, studying lines, experimenting with movements and expressions, that was my acting class.
A few years later, when I was a member of the company at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, they held classes in technique and voice production and even swordplay for the young actors. The problem was that we were working much too hard as actors to find the time to take classes to learn how to act. By the time I had learned technique we had already opened our second show of the season and were in the middle of rehearsals for the third show. But at Stratford I did work with classically trained actors, among them James Mason and Anthony Quayle. We worked with experienced actors every day, we rehearsed with them, we played small roles, we understudied, and when we weren't onstage we watched them. I learned to act by watching other actors, reading about acting, and living with actors. I studied my craft, but I learned acting by acting.
I was a serious actor, I knew I must be a serious actor because I wasn't making any money at it. Those days prepared me very well for much later in my career when I would be a well-known television actor and wasn't making any money from it. I still dreamed of one day earning one hundred dollars a week, but that seemed far away. At least once a day, sometimes more, I spent twenty-seven cents for a plate of fruit salad at Kresge's lunch counter. I lived on fruit salad and grew to hate fruit salad. My one luxury was my forty-dollar car. That's what I paid for it, and it was worth that price. The driver's door was jammed shut, so to get in and out I'd have to climb through the window, and it burned so much oil that every forty or fifty miles I'd stop at a gas station and pour used oil into the crankcase. In those days you could buy oil that had been drained out of other cars very cheaply, which was my price. Generally I'd pour in oil once a day.
When that summer ended Mrs. Springford recommended me to the Canadian National Repertory Theatre in Ottawa-as their assistant manager. Again my uncanny ability to lose tickets and mix up reservations-although sometimes I would mix up tickets and lose reservations- ended up with me joining the cast-at a salary of thirty-one dollars a week!
During my second season in Ottawa a woman contacted me and told me very seriously that a company was being formed to perform Shakespeare in Stratford and invited me to join the company. I thought she was kidding. Give up a secure job that paid thirty-one dollars a week to go to some little town and become a member of some Shakespeare company I'd never heard of? What did they think I was, an actor?
"Thank you," I said, "but I have a regular job and I'm going to keep that one."
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival opened and within months had become celebrated throughout Canada and eventually around the world.
Excerpted from Up Till Now by William Shatner with David Fisher
Copyright © 2008 by William Shatner.
Published in May 2008 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher