Sixteen years after the starship Enterprise first blasted off in search of bold adventure, new life forms, and high ratings for TV’s Star Trek, a familiar figure is again strutting through the control room in his intergalactic jumpsuit. As all but the most hardened non-Trekkies know, William Shatner is back in his most stellar role as Admiral James T. Kirk, a kind of 23rd-century Marco Polo. This time it’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in a part Shatner has done so often that, he says, “when I shave my sideburns to a point the first time I feel as if I’m drawing my sword from its scabbard.” In fact, Star Trek’s originator, Gene Roddenberry, says good-naturedly, Shatner and co-star Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) “live that show so intently that by now they’re convinced they created the whole thing.”
Yet the latest launching of the Enterprise retains all the suspense of a maiden voyage. The first Trek film, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, was a $42 million black hole in 1979, and since the TV series didn’t take off until it was dropped by NBC in 1969 and went into syndication, it has been 13 light-years since Shatner and crew made a major hit.
In its first weekend Star Trek II grossed a record $14.3 million—and although it cost $11 million to make, it seems certain to outgross its costlier predecessor. Most gratifying of all for Shatner, he monopolizes the screen throughout in a bombastic, mesmerizing duel with archvillain Ricardo (Fantasy Island) Montalban. “I’ve always had the feeling that Star Trek is grand opera in outer space,” executive producer Harve Bennett exults, “and Bill is an actor who’s best with poetic, classical material.” “I am the fulcrum,” Shatner says immodestly, “and I really wanted this popular validation. I always knew there was a large audience that wanted to see me.”
In fact, Shatner stands to gain a double triumph if his ABC-TV police series T.J. Hooker—which did well in a pilot and four episodes this spring—clicks next fall. “I’ve tried to make Sergeant Hooker very different from Kirk,” he says. And it’s not just a matter of rank. “Hooker is a tough, yet vulnerable, cop. But again, both the characters rest on me.”
Despite his identification with Star Trek, Shatner, 51, is a theatrical jack-of-all-trades. He has made three one-man albums on space and science; he recently toured in Deathtrap; and last fall he directed his wife, Marcy, 36, in a hit production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in L.A. He has also written two scripts for T.J. and does many of his own stunts—”more,” says stunt coordinator R.A. Rondell, “than I’d like him to.”
Shatner was raised in a “close-knit, average family” in Montreal, the son of a clothing manufacturer who wanted him to join the family business. But at 6 he played his first role at camp. “I found out I could make people cry,” he recalls. “I was a lonely kid, and the plays and audience made up for that.” At McGill University, he says, “all my waking hours were involved in drama courses. I withdrew into a world I loved. I was very shy in those years. I still hate new places and meeting new people.” When he decided to turn pro, Shatner père cut him off financially. “For five years I lived in cheap rooms and starved, which didn’t make my father happy. It’s a terrifying decision for a parent to take away a child’s support. Look at Hinckley’s parents.”
Fortunately, the pressures eased during three years with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, during which he met and, in 1956, married Gloria Rand. Shatner spent the next 10 years shuttling between coasts, appearing on Broadway (The World of Suzie Wong), on TV (Playhouse 90) and in films (Judgment at Nuremberg). Meanwhile the Shatners produced three daughters. “It was a displaced decade for me,” he recalls. “I had no roots or home life.” In 1966 Captain Kirk brought him permanently to L.A. but helped break up his marriage. “The hardest work in show business is having a lead in a series,” he says. “It’s physically debilitating, marriage-wrecking and mind-blowing.”
Bill met Marcy Lafferty on the set of The Andersonville Trial, where she was assisting director George C. Scott, in 1970. “I fell for him, hook, line and sinker,” she recalls. “Bill had just been through a terrible divorce and a folded series. He didn’t want to get involved. But I hung in there and wormed my way into his heart.” They married in 1973.
With his kids now grown (Leslie, 24, is in advertising in L.A., Lisabeth, 20, is a model in Italy, and Melanie, 17, begins college this fall), the Shatners divide their time between their Spanish-style San Fernando Valley home, patrolled by three Dobermans, and their horse-breeding ranch in the Sierra foothills. Marcy, who appeared briefly in the first Star Trek film, yearns to act more. “I never watched TV,” she jokes, “but now I’d give my arm for a sitcom.” Shatner, meanwhile, savors his upcoming opportunity to continue breaching the final frontier in a planned Star Trek III. “One originally becomes an actor to please people,” he says. “Then it becomes a job. Then every so often a moment like this comes along, and at the base of the spine there’s a warm glow.”