He’s like a professor, the revered and feared kind, the scholarly voice-of-God type. He speaks with a purpose but sprinkles in humor (you best catch it!) and questions (so you better listen up).
A conversation with William Shatner is short on chit-chat but loaded with rat-a-tat. In a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, the man who played the iconic Captain James T. Kirk had a mission: Promote “Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage,” a symphony concert that blends live music with video from the movies and television show.
The 100-plus-city tour, which celebrates Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, comes Saturday to Shea’s Performing Arts Center.
Talking up the concert was Shatner’s stated purpose. But his other projects were fair game too, and there’s a lot from which to choose. The 84-year-old actor’s creative endeavors stretch beyond Star Trek or any of his many television shows, movies and Priceline commercials.
He’s the author of several books, including the recent release “Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man,” a biography of his late friend and Star Trek castmate Leonard Nimoy. This fall will bring Shatner’s novel “Zero G,” a story about the FBI in space a half-century from now. He’s developed comic books, games and documentaries, including one based on his Chicago-to-Los Angeles ride on a motorcycle he helped design.
Currently the Canadian-born actor is touring with his one-man show, “Shatner’s World.”
For Shatner, however, interviews are not one-man affairs. Talk to the man and you’d better be ready to speak with precision and answer his questions, too. This is where he becomes professorial: He considers it his job to educate you – and grab your interest, too.
Buffalo.com: While writing your book about Leonard Nimoy, what did you learn about your friend?
Shatner: How enormously creative he was. He was doing things I didn’t know about, and the things he was doing, he had so much to do with that I didn’t know about. Doing my due diligence into his life, it was incredible, and I wish I would have known that.
But the book is about friendship. It’s about why men have more difficulty making friends than women – at least that’s my opinion. And how important a deep friendship is and how few and far they are between. You’re lucky if you get just one friend in a lifetime. Many people don’t have it ever, and I had it for a brief while.
Q: Is your creativity a point of pride?
A: I don’t consciously say, “Aren’t I wonderful?” and “I’m creative,” but things occur to me that don’t occur to anybody else around me. Then I have the ability because of this so-called celebrity, to sometimes do something about it. I just recently was asked to make a Christmas album, for example.
Suddenly, the concept was in front of me. Of course, I’m not going to tell you the concept. It’s simple enough, but nobody’s done it yet, to my knowledge. I spoke the concept to the guy who was going to put money into it and he said, “I love it. Let’s do it.” So I will do a Christmas album for next Christmas based on this concept.
So what is the nature of that creativity? How does it work? Where does it lie in your brain?
I don’t know. It comes out like spittle. It just emerges.
Q: One of the basic tenets of creativity is keeping an open mind and looking at how things could work versus how they can’t.
A: Great observation. That’s exactly right. To not have any boundaries. To not say, “Well, I better do a song,” but instead say, “Wait a minute.” Then, boom, this iconoclastic idea occurs to you. You put your finger on exactly the opening salvo, which is have an open mind. A closed mind can’t be creative.
Q: Have you always been an open-minded guy?
A: You have to define what that means. I don’t think you should rape and pillage.
Q: As you go through life, if an idea occurs to you, do you think about how you could do it, versus why you shouldn’t or couldn’t do it?
A: So often, I’ve got this great idea. “God, what a great idea that is.” Either I’m half asleep or I’m doing something else, and then I say, “What was that idea?” I’ve forgotten half my great creative ideas.
Q: That’s what they say about the great creative people.
A: Is that right? Look at that: I’ve just defined what a great creative person is.
Q: Do you carry a notebook?
A: No. I keep thinking I’ve got the memory, and then I can’t remember what the joke was.
Q: What’s special about the Star Trek concert tour?
A: It’s taking the music of Star Trek and playing it live onstage. If that were all it were, a concert tour playing the music of Star Trek, that would be enough. But that isn’t all it is. On a 40-foot screen is projected the scenes from which the music came. And in addition to that, there may be if it’s thematic – say, it’s man against machine – there may be two or three iterations of Star Trek that use that theme.
The audience becomes aware of how the music is enhancing the scene, they become aware of how critically important music is to movies. So a lot is going on while the audience is looking slack-jawed at the stage.
Q: Meanwhile, you’re touring with your one-man show. I want to ask you what it’s like to be alone up there. But then, when I consider there’s an audience in front of you, I wonder if you’re really alone.
A: Your first premise is correct. You’re out there alone. I went to the Pantages Theater here in Los Angeles to hear an oratorium which had 250 musicians and 1,500 people singing. So there were almost 2,000 people on the stage entertaining 3,500. Several weeks later I was on that stage by myself doing the same thing that those people were doing, trying to entertain a whole audience by myself. So yes, you’re there by yourself. It’s called a ONE-man show.
Q: Is that a special challenge?
A: No question. This (concert) is the “Ultimate Voyage”? The one-man show is the “ultimate” challenge.
Q: You’ve haven’t capped out what you can achieve – you keep doing more. At this point, what challenges you?
A: Well, what’s more important is you don’t feel that I’ve tapped out. What challenges me? Everything challenges me. Talking to you is a challenge, let me tell you …
(There’s a long, slightly awkward pause.)
I’m not joking. I wanted to hear a snicker from you at least. But what I mean by that is I’m doing publicity for the 50th anniversary concert tour. That’s a challenge to speak to a lot of people and get that information across, get you to write the right thing. It’s a challenge.
An interview is a challenge. I want to make it fresh, I want to make it interesting. I want you to like everything I’m talking about. And that’s a challenge – I consider it a challenge. Have I met the challenge or not?
Q: I think you have.
A: Are you Canadian?
Q: I’m not.
A: Because “I think you have” is not “You have” or “You haven’t.” Have I met the challenge of interesting you in what I’ve just talked about?
Q: You absolutely have.
A: [laughs] Absolutely met the challenge! Now you’re talking.
Q: Now I’m going to turn that into a question. Am I interested in what we’ve discussed? Yes. But I have to get into the process of developing the story to know if it’s successful. In your projects, at what point in the process do you know whether you’re pleased?
A: An interesting question, that is. And my answer is: you never know. You can’t know until the audience tells you. You can think you’ve got the greatest thing in the world and the audience says, “That’s awful,” and it comes as a shock. The same shock applies if it’s a success.
How many times have you heard people say, “I can’t believe it’s successful?” That’s because you really don’t know until you’re in front of the audience who tells you, “That is terrific,” or “That’s not terrific.” Until that moment, you’re living on the edge.
“Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage”
8 p.m. Saturday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are 35 to $75 (box office, Ticketmaster)