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The UnXplained with William Shatner

Everything you need to know about William Shatner

Image: The UnXplained Series 1C

A budding performer

William Shatner was born in Montreal, Canada on 22nd March 1931. His father was a clothing manufacturer, while his mother was a housewife who occasionally gave elocution lessons. It was she who, in Shatner’s own words, gave him a push when he was around six years old. In an interview many decades later, Shatner recalled how he ‘went to a little school in a basement where a couple of women, not unlike my mother, were giving so-called acting classes’.

This instilled an interest in performance, which continued even while Shatner studied economics at university. He acted in student productions, dabbled in local broadcasting, and joined a theatre company after he graduated.

A rising star

Shatner made his Broadway debut in a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in 1956. A few years later, he landed his first major film role alongside Yul Brynner in a 1958 adaptation of Dostoevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov.

Then, in 1963, Shatner starred in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, arguably the most famous episode of The Twilight Zone. He put in a brilliantly edgy, angsty performance as a nervous plane passenger who sees – or thinks he sees – a diabolical gremlin causing havoc on the wing. The episode has since been remade and parodied several times – including in a Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons, where Bart took on the Shatner role.

The year after his breakthrough performance in The Twilight Zone, Shatner teamed up with another actor who became a 60s pop culture icon: Adam West. They starred in the pilot for a proposed adventure series about Alexander the Great, but it wasn’t picked up for a full series. While Shatner was ‘deeply, deeply, horrendously disappointed’, it’s probably just as well. If it had been a hit, we’d likely never have seen William Shatner as Captain Kirk, or Adam West as Batman.

To boldly go…

William Shatner wasn’t originally a part of Star Trek – and neither was Captain Kirk. In the pilot episode, the man commanding the Enterprise was one Christopher Pike, played by an actor named Jeffrey Hunter. The episode was condemned as ‘too cerebral’ by the network, but they gave the show another shot by commissioning a second pilot.

Jeffrey Hunter decided to pull out, meaning a new captain was required. Enter William Shatner as James T. Kirk, the role that would make him one of the all-time TV greats. It also gave him a supporting part in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, thanks to the now-famous kiss between Kirk and Lt Uhura in the episode called Plato’s Stepchildren.

This was the first time a white man had locked lips with a black woman on US television and triggered a huge response from viewers. Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, later said the response to the kiss was overwhelmingly positive, and that even the one critical letter they received was grudgingly admiring. ‘I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races,’ the man wrote. ‘However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.’

The big comeback

Star Trek was cancelled after only three seasons. Typecast as a starship captain, Shatner struggled to find new roles in the early 1970s and was even forced to live out of his truck as he drove from theatre to theatre. He later spoke of how ‘the only comfort came from my dog, who sat in the passenger seat and gave me perspective on everything.’

Fortunately, Shatner turned things around as the decade continued, delivering memorable performances in hit shows like Columbo and The Six Million Dollar Man. Then came the big news that – off the back of the cult following it had generated through syndicated repeats – Star Trek was coming back, this time on the big screen. Shatner played James T. Kirk in seven Star Trek movies and even directed one of the instalments himself.

Shatner’s TV career remained strong from the 80s onwards. Career highlights include his popular stint as the eponymous hero of the 80s cop show TJ Hooker, his Emmy-winning turn as a flamboyant lawyer in Noughties drama Boston Legal, and Sky HISTORY’s documentary series about mysterious phenomena, The UnXplained. But, as well as being an actor and presenter, Shatner is famous just for being Shatner – part man, part meme, bursting with energy and sly, self-deprecating wit.

The oldest man in space

In October 2021, at the age of 90, William Shatner outdid himself by becoming the oldest human being ever to travel to space. He was treated to a seat onboard a rocket owned by Amazon founder (and life-long Trekkie) Jeff Bezos. While Shatner and his crewmates were only in space for a matter of minutes, it was a profoundly moving experience for the star.

‘I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary, extraordinary,’ he said on returning to Earth. ‘To see the blue colour whip by you, and now you’re staring into blackness… everybody in the world needs to do this. Everybody in the world needs to see this.’