"So wait a sec," my lunchtime companion asked me. "William Shatner is actually calling your house tomorrow?"
"It's true," I said. "What should I ask him?"
It was a December afternoon, and my friend burst into laughter. Not because I was interviewing William Shatner the next day -- she knows I've interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life -- but because of something about the man himself. She threw her head back, held her arms up, and said, as if it were the only question anyone would want William Shatner to answer: "I'd just want to know when he realized that the joke's on him."
That sounds harsh. I knew what she meant, though. You know what she meant. We all know what she meant.
The obvious reality is that William Shatner, now 84, has made a career of being "William Shatner." He's no longer a single person; he is himself, and also his persona. This is true of any celebrity in varying degrees, from David Bowie's shapeshifting identities to every single carefully constructed moment in Kim Kardashian's day, but Shatner's case is particularly acute. Some people would call Shatner a caricature of himself, but I can't go that far. Not until I can ask about it, at least. How do you ask someone point-blank if they're a caricature of themselves?
The next day, five minutes before Shatner is about to call my house, I decide that's exactly what I'll do. I turn it over in my mind for a while. Then the phone rings.
"Hello Gabe!" Shatner says, deftly using my first name. (He does this.) "What a pleasure to speak with you."
I start with the basics. The whole reason Shatner's doing this interview is Shatner's World, his one-man show that's coming to the Warfield Theater in San Francisco (Saturday, Jan. 30; $39.50–$180; details here). I ask how hard it is to fit everything he's done in his life and career into a two-hour show.
"Let me sort of straighten that out a little bit," he says. "The one-man show, rather than being about my career or anything like that, is about the affirmation of life. Saying yes to life. Saying yes to all the wonderful things that life has, and even if they're not wonderful, it's part of living. So grief, and hatred, and love, and passion, those are all part of the skein of humanity, and we're here for a very short time, and we don't know what's on either end. So you'd better appreciate what's going on here by living in the moment.”
I quickly realize that this is not going to be an ordinary interview.
The first thing I learn is that Shatner wants to be a rapper. Or a heavy metal singer. He's recorded a handful of albums, spanning his dramatic rendering of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" in the 1960s to his singular version of Pulp's "Common People" in the aughts, and when I ask if he keeps up with new music he recalls that it took a while to get accustomed to rock 'n' roll. "Then I began, years later, to perform rock 'n' roll," he says, "and I realized it's all about passion! It's all about energy! It's all about excitement! I fell in love with it. So the music today, the metallic rock, and the rapping, I... don't quite get. But having learned from rock 'n' roll, I realize there's something going on here that I don't quite understand, that I do want to understand, and that I do want to be able to do before it's all over."
Before it's all over. The words ring with mortality. I bring up Leonard Nimoy, and Shatner doesn't beat around the bush: "The grieving process has been very hard," he says. He likens Nimoy's death last year to the death of his third wife, Nerine, whom he married with Nimoy as his best man. As he's on the phone with me, he says, he's resting his hand on a photograph of his recently deceased dog, another hard loss. "But with Leonard," he says, "we were so close, and so attuned to each other, and shared so many things that only we went through. He was always the person I could say, 'Remember when?...' to. He could remind me of things we'd done that I'd completely forgotten. And now I don't have that."
This isn't the Shatner that I know from television commercials. It's not the Shatner that people call "the king of overacting for no apparent reason." And yet he's still doing it all -- the pauses, the inflections, the whole schtick. But I'm starting to think it isn't a schtick.
So I just ask it. As someone whose reputation certainly precedes him, who people want to be “on” all the time, how does it feel to be William Shatner, the icon, someone who's in constant demand to portray a Shatner-esque version of himself?
"I know what you mean," he says, as I quietly exhale in relief, "and I'm trying to do less of that. I'm at a point now where I'm trying to strip away the layers that some people call 'Shatner-esque' – I don't know what they mean by that term – and to offer a pure version of myself. That's the most honest thing I can do. I'm trying to do less of everything, in fact. To own less of everything, to be less of everything."
It sounds very zen, I say.
"It's funny you ask that," he says, "because yes, I do feel like I'm entering that phase, where that's important. The ability to be one with something. I think of it often, as a horseman, and how in riding a horse, you're really becoming one with the horse, united in your purpose and destination."
What about regrets? Does he have any regrets? His answer, again, is pure zen.
"I'm at a point now where any regrets -- if you're talking about missteps, or mistakes -- anything like that has made me who I am. And I'm at a very good place in my life, and at my age, too, so I wouldn't go back and do anything again, no. If there's anything I regret or feel bad about, it's when I've learned later that I've hurt someone, often inadvertently."
Again, he's doing the thing. The Shatner thing. There's a 2004 interview with Shatner where an audience member begins his question by saying, "Recently you seem to have taken to a good deal of self-parody" -- and Shatner cuts him off, saying, "No, that's real, actually." It gets a laugh. But I don't think he was joking.
See -- Shatner's been Shatner for so long now that he and his Shatner-esque self are one. And as he talks to me, I start to realize how terrible this must be for him. Here he is on the phone spilling his heart about the death of his best friend and his life's regrets and his quest to offer a pure version of himself, and just because his timbre is rising and falling and he's making those dramatic pauses, the general public's knee-jerk reaction is: Oh, that wacky Priceline negotiator, so overly dramatic, always trying to go where no man has gone before.
Hence, take with you, if you will, the idea that William Shatner is a man trapped in the world's perception of him. And take with you, if you will, his closing words at face value, when I remind him that many fans have learned life lessons from Captain Kirk and Star Trek, and ask what his own biggest life lesson has been.
"Gabe," he says, in low, measured tones, "the lesson is this: I... know... nothing. You know nothing. We all know nothing. But we're all on this Earth together, and just as I am here talking to you today, all of us have a core being within us, guiding us in life. And we must follow it. It will never lead us astray."
I thank him for his time, we exchange goodbyes, and I hang up the receiver. I feel dazed. I feel enlightened. More than anything, I have a feeling that William Shatner, rather than a caricature of himself, is actually as real as it gets.
And as his most famous character once said, sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on.
William Shatner performs 'Shatner's World' on Saturday, Jan. 30, at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. Details here.