All the world knows that William Shatner is a man of many parts -- some of them ridiculous, as the 71-year-old actor-writer-director would be all too happy to prove, if asked.
The leading part, only slightly ridiculous, is James Tiberius Kirk, variously ranked as a captain, admiral and civilian, in retirement. Although two new generations have supplanted Kirk and his crew, with the head of the third set of space adventurers seen briefly these days on the big screen in "Star Trek Nemesis," Shatner's Kirk and the never-ending voyage are inseparably linked.
When the time came to make a feature-length parody of the "Star Trek" phenomenon, the highly amusing "Galaxy Quest" centered on Tim Allen as Jason Nesmith/Cmdr. Peter Quincey Taggart, the egomaniacal star of the long-canceled show and of its appearances at science-fiction conventions and ribbon-cuttings. There could be no doubt that Taggart was Kirk, or that Nesmith was Shatner.
Yet one "Galaxy" element was a bit misleading. Alan Rickman's Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus, the Spock figure, was drawn as a long-suffering Shakespearean, trapped forever in a rubber suit. ("I played 'Richard III,' " he keens.) Leonard Nimoy, who came to be known as the cerebral member of the "Trek" ensemble, came to his Vulcan with no notable classical credits. Shatner, on the other hand, made his Broadway debut in 1956 in Christopher Marlowe's "Tamburlaine the Great," directed by Tyrone Guthrie and produced in association with this hemisphere's most outstanding classical company, the Stratford Festival of Canada.
Born in Montreal, Shatner graduated from the city's prestigious McGill University with a bachelor's degree in commerce but wrote and directed a musical as an undergraduate. He joined the Stratford Festival in 1953. Understudying Christopher Plummer in "Henry V," he went on when the leading man was suddenly hospitalized. One observer reported: "His performance, full of abrupt stops and inappropriate pauses when he could not remember the dialogue, was acclaimed by critics as remarkably intuitive and full of passion. Always quick to respond to positive feedback from his audience, Shatner began to incorporate these techniques into subsequent performances."
Perhaps it was this discovery that shaped his playing of Kirk. His vocal delivery -- brusque, sometimes blustering, clipped and sometimes choppy, full of dramatic pauses -- became known as "Shatnerian."
Two years after he acted at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre with Anthony Quayle and Colleen Dewhurst in the bombastic Marlowe epic, which lasted 20 performances, Shatner took on a lead in a more commercial play, Paul Osborn's adaptation in "The World of Suzie Wong," starring France Nuyen. That David Merrick production ran for 508 performances. And, in 1961, having made his movie debut, Shatner returned to Broadway one final time, in "A Shot in the Dark," starring Julie Harris and featuring Walter Matthau.
During the '50s, he was also active in the so-called Golden Age of live television. The first major movie role (he had previously played a priest in "Oedipus Rex") was Alexi (Alyosha in Dostoevski), the saintly youngest sibling in "The Brothers Karamazov." Lee J. Cobb was the father, and Yul Brynner and Richard Baseheart were the older brothers.
Working alongside such big names did not lead to other major roles, although he did have a supporting part in the 1961 film "Judgment at Nuremberg" and a major role in 1964's "The Outrage," a reworking of Kurosawa's "Rashomon," starring Paul Newman. Roger Corman's "The Intruder" (1961) gave Shatner a dynamic, challenging role as a Southern racist agitator, but the picture flopped.
Then, in 1966, the historic moment arrived, as Shatner was cast in Gene Roddenberry's modestly budgeted "Star Trek." Three years later, it was all over, and, as he neared 40, Shatner's star seemed to burn out. After the series was canceled, his first wife, Gloria Rand, left him and reportedly took him to the cleaners. Low on money, with few acting prospects, he lived in a truck bed camper for a time.
In the late '60s, before the fall, Shatner achieved another kind of immortality by recording "The Transformed Man." His dramatic reading of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" is considered a camp classic.
But the '70s were rough, with such pictures as "Big Bad Mama" (1974), "The Devil's Rain" (1975) and "Kingdom of the Spiders" (1977). In 1975, he starred in another series, "Barbary Coast." But it was not until he and his cohorts rejoined for a big-screen spectacular, the 1979 "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" -- jump-started after the enormous success of "Star Wars" -- that Shatner again shot into space as a star. He went on to make six more chapters in the hugely popular series and directed "Star Trek: The Final Frontier."
Malcolm Johnson is a film critic for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune company.