For those of you who are aware of the depths of my admiration for a man whom my son and I may or may not have met last Saturday . . .
I have a recurring dream where Shatner is a main character and we are just hanging out like brothers. His Captain Kirk has not only been a major influence in my survival, he is literally part of my psyche. Shatner’s portrayal of Kirk went all the way, diving full immersion into the human experience. Captain Kirk’s force of will, a man who will stop at nothing to find the solution, has inspired me to stay the course in difficult times. Without this important piece, I surely would be dead.
I saw some of that genius on display last Saturday night, when he held forth on the stage of the historic Redford Theatre in Detroit, where we were treated to a steller preshow Wurlitzer organ performance. Then a screening of The Wrath of Kahn, certainly the best of the Star Trek Original Series cast movies. Then Shatner appeared live, on stage. My heart dissolved like a transporter beam and reassembled in another world, the world of Shatner. It was astonishing the way he digressed from the dumb questions, picked from those previously written down before the show. He somehow managed to find his way back to answering them with his inimitable depth and personal poise. He is still a genius at 92. And he also is, and always has been, a completely free spirit, willing to explore and exploit any thought that pops into his brain, a massive repository of amazing experiences and endless inquiry, few mortals have the luxury of amassing. That may partly explain the depth of his astonishing acting ability. He is grateful enough about how the universe opened up to him as it has. But he also harbors some not so carefully disguised resentments, noting that when the next generation crew took over the films, even though they grossed the same as STOS cast movies “they were paid a lot more.” There’s nothing quite so jarring as spending hundreds of dollars of hard earned dollars to hear a multimillionaire complain about not making enough money. It was evident why his fellow actors report how difficult he was to work with. But still, it was utterly delightful to follow him in his intricately wild trains of thought, stories about his bodily malfunctions and the wonders of space travel, all in the same breath, the way your funny uncle might tell them. There were endless asides, quips, guffaws, rants, roasts, digressions and witty references to things mentioned earlier in the evening, all brilliantly tied in a bow in a somewhat cohesive, one sided conversation, just as Jim Kirk might do.
The theatre was packed solid with people, whom those like myself and Danny, take the genius of Shatner far more seriously than he apparently does. He continued his arrogant scoffing that he doesn’t remember much about the original series. He expressed as he has so often, that he really has “no idea” why people make such a fuss about STOS. Maybe if he tried actually watching these truly amazing works of genius, he might actually be able to answer the question he always gets, “what was your favorite episode?” I have seen every episode of STOS at least fifty times, have every monologue of his completely memorized and can safely boast I do the best impression of the TV icon in the world.
Sadly, after driving with my son Danny all the way from Charleston to meet my lifelong muse, we learned that our extra $100 “photo op” would consist of about 800 people, all wanting to meet him in person, lining up and eventually getting to stand for five seconds next to Mr. Shatner, who was on the other side of a plexiglass wall! No physical contact was allowed to protect him from any diseases his rabid fans might be carrying. I could have been standing next to a cardboard cutout of my childhood hero. All of it completely understandable but a real let down nonetheless. Honestly, its pretty much what I expected, but nothing as I’d dreamed it. Danny described the scene as “dehumanizing, the very opposite of everything he stands for as an actor.” Later on the long drive home, after listening to the Moonlight Sonata, I broke down and cried. I really wanted to shake his hand and hug him. Danny said with a lilt, “not in this life.”
I did manage to give him the painting I created for him, along with the ekphrastic* poem I wrote for him, inserted behind the painting. I showed him the canvas through the plexiglass. He raised his eyebrows and smiled approvingly. After the photographer snapped the pic, his assistant took my painting, told me how incredible she thought it was and assured me that Mr. Shatner would accept my gift. I suppose I’ll never know whether he at some point thoughtlessly discarded it or kept it as his priceless treasure forever. I will go on believing the latter.
For all the stories he regaled and the amazing body of work he has amassed, I have no idea whether he will understand or appreciate my painting and poem. Shatner is an impossible amalgamation of extreme narcissist and ego-less Zen master. It felt like putting a note in a bottle, throwing it into the ocean and hoping it might find a good home. But to quote the great Captain Kirk, “we’ve got to take that one-in-ten-thousand chance.”♠ All in all, it was pretty darn awesome. I saw Shatner, in person. And as awesome as that was, just stealing away with my son, Danny, for a couple days, our visiting with his cousins, and having that much uninterrupted time with him, was priceless.
My painting and poem are based on Shatner’s impressions from his brief trip to space. In his last moments on the stage he described his experience. He looked into the utter blackness of space, then turned back to see the beautiful blue ball, called Earth. And in that moment he fell in love with our planet. He admonished us all to take climate change very seriously, warning mankind was on the verge of an existential catastrophe if we don’t get our act together. He implored us by asking, “what can you do?”
That will also be my response to anyone who wonders why I never got to meet Bill Shatner. “What can you do?”
*Ekphrastic is a fantastic word I learned from my artist/poet friend, Erica Chappuis (click the word to learn the meaning)
♠ Ten points for anyone who can guess which TOS episode this quote is from.