Skip to main content
Actor William Shatner

In 'Shatner's World,' Stories About Acting, Loss, Life

In his new one-man show, William Shatner talks about his childhood growing up in Montreal -- and the ups and downs of creating iconic characters, from starship captain James T. Kirk to lawyer Denny Crane.

26:43

Other segments from the episode on March 6, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 6, 2012: Interview with Jesse Eisinger; Interview with William Shatner.

Transcript

March 6, 2012

Guests: Jesse Eisinger-William Shatner

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Ever since the banks came close to collapsing in 2008, the Federal Reserve has been working to restore the health of the financial system. The Fed has reduced interest rates for the banks to almost nothing and loaned the banks trillions of dollars. And last year, it allowed the banks to pay out tens of billions of dollars in dividends to their shareholders.

My guest, Jesse Eisinger, an investigative financial reporter for ProPublica, obtained a previously unreported memo, which reveals that the decision was opposed by Sheila Bair, who was then the head of the FDIC, the Federal Deposit and Insurance Corporation. She thought the banks should hold on to more capital as a cushion against possible future crises.

The Fed's decision raises questions about how it's managing the financial crisis and whether it's been too lenient with the banks. Eisinger's article is jointly published by ProPublica and The Atlantic Online.

Jesse Eisinger, welcome back for FRESH AIR. Now, the main focus of your article, which is jointly published by ProPublica and That Atlantic Online, is what you describe as one of the Federal Reserve's most critical oversight decisions in the wake of the financial crisis, and this was after the Fed had paid out bail money to the banks, bailout money. What was the decision?

JESSE EISINGER: Well, the Federal Reserve undertook a stress test of the nation's top banks. They wanted to see whether the banks could survive in certain kinds of dire economic scenarios: if the economy took a hit, if the stock market fell, if unemployment soared, things like that.

And they asked the banks to do a kind of self-test: Tell us how you will do under these scenarios. And if you pass, we'll allow you to pay out billions to shareholders in the form of dividends, or we'll buy back stock. And this is one of the ways that companies, including banks, pay shareholders for buying their stock. They take the money from earnings, and they pay it out in dividends and share buyback, and that's what you get as a shareholder.

It's one of the ways that you benefit economically from buying stocks. It's very important to investors to get that money from healthy companies, and banks especially, bank investors depend on that kind of dividend and buybacks especially.

GROSS: So the banks wanted to show hey, we're healthy again, you know, we can afford to pay dividends to our shareholders. And the question that the Federal Reserve had to answer is: Are they really healthy enough to do that?

EISINGER: Exactly, and so the Fed was going to put them through their paces, supposedly a very rigorous test, and then you'd come out of it, and there would be all sorts of benefits from it, supposedly. The banks would be able to say they were healthy, and shareholders would pile into the banks again.

That would mean that they would be more confident about lending, and of course it would make the Fed look better because the Fed would be able to say: See, we've brought all the banks through the financial crisis, and we've tested them rigorously, and they're safe. You can believe and trust in us, as well as the banks.

GROSS: Would it be fair to say that one of the bottom lines of your story is that even though the banks passed the stress tests, they might not be as healthy as the passing grade would lead us to believe?

EISINGER: Absolutely. This was a very generous decision for the banks. They were able to pay millions to shareholders amid huge uncertainties. Most people are aware that Europe is continuing to have a financial crisis. It's kind of in an ebbing period now, but it's still quite serious. And of course the housing market in the United States continues to fall, which continues to put a lot of pressure on banks.

And they have legal liabilities. So they are not out of the woods of the financial crisis yet.

GROSS: And when you say legal liabilities, what kinds of legal liabilities?

EISINGER: Two kinds of things, things that happened before the financial crisis and things that have happened since. Before the financial crisis, they sold a lot of securities that have turned out to be worthless or worth a lot less than they said they were going to be, and there were a lot of misrepresentations and problems with those securities, mostly having to do with residential housing.

And so they're suffering a lot of legal exposure because of that, and then the second thing is in dealing with the housing crisis and crash's fallout, they've had to deal with a lot of foreclosures and problems like that, and they've had a lot of legal problems.

The thing that we most know about is robo-signing, where they were - they had bank employees just signing forms, essentially false affidavits that they were reviewing materials and then therefore falsely foreclosing on people. And there are billions and billions of liabilities associated with that, as well.

GROSS: People are suing because of the robo-signing.

EISINGER: People are suing the states...

GROSS: Suing the banks.

EISINGER: Suing the banks. The state's attorney general just came out with a $25 billion settlement with the banks. And New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been assigned to a taskforce by President Obama to look into further problems with both mortgage securities and the foreclosure liabilities.

So this is an ongoing legal problem that is metastasizing and shows that the financial crisis is still with us.

GROSS: So the Federal Reserve decided, based on the stress test, that the banks were ready to pay out dividends, but the FDIC, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, decided no, it's really, they're not ready. And Sheila Baer, then the head of the FDIC, you know, objected to the Fed's decision.

And of course the FDIC, this is the corporation that bails you out, as an individual investor, if your bank goes under. They're the ones that insure your bank account.

EISINGER: Exactly.

GROSS: So what was their difference about?

EISINGER: Well, the FDIC, and Sheila Baer in particular when she was the head of it, was a much stricter bank regulator, in part because they've got money on the line, as you say. So they really are interested in protecting that fund from bank failures and concerned about that. But they are also concerned about the larger financial picture, which didn't seem as good as the Fed seemed to think back about a year ago.

And so Sheila Baer wrote to Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and said, don't let the banks pay dividends yet. They're not ready. They don't have strong enough earnings. They don't have solid enough assets. We don't think that they're ready.

Now unfortunately, Sheila Bair and the FDIC didn't have an official say in the stress test. They were kind of shunted aside, and it was really up to the Fed, and the Fed ignored those warnings.

GROSS: Did we not know about her objections until you found this - or I don't know how you got the memo, but you were the first to report a memo from her, objecting to letting the banks pay dividends.

EISINGER: Yes, we - ProPublica was the first to report that, in my story, about this objection, a pretty high-level, important dispute between two powerful bank regulators.

GROSS: So why is it so important that the FDIC disagreed with the Fed over whether the banks could pay dividends? Why is that important?

EISINGER: Well, it goes to the heart of whether the banks really are sound and safe now in the wake of the financial crisis and whether we should have a lot of confidence that the regulators have put these banks on safe and solid footing.

And the FDIC didn't think so, at least not last year, and things have arguably gotten worse. Europe has gotten worse. The housing market has declined. Other things, of course, have gotten better. The U.S. economy is looking a little bit better.

But the question really is, you know, if you've got two very high-level, powerful regulators in Washington, and they disagree, and then you've got banks heavily lobbying the Fed, and the Fed, with all this bank lobbying, overrules or shunts aside the FDIC with its cautious take and allows the banks to deliver billions to shareholders, it makes the banks less strong. It weakens the banks at this time of great financial peril.

And the question is, also, well, why would they want to pay dividends? It's not just to shareholders because - it's to executives because executives at banks get paid in stock, largely, so they benefit personally when they get dividends or share buybacks.

GROSS: And as a lot of us have learned, dividends are taxed at a much lower level than salary is, which is one of the reasons, I suppose, why it's good for executives to be paid in stock as opposed to salary.

EISINGER: That's exactly right.

GROSS: So how do banks lobby the Fed?

EISINGER: Well, they get meetings with the big governors who oversee these things. They write letters. They do the kinds of things that Washington is known for. In my story, I talked about how Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, personally discussed this with Daniel Turullo, who is in charge, essentially, of the Federal Reserve's banking regulation (unintelligible). He's a governor who sits on the board of governors at the Fed.

And he said, he urged Turullo to let JP Morgan pay dividends, raise its dividend and buy bank billions in stock. He said that they were healthy enough to do it and that they should be treated differently than other banks, and the Fed eventually agreed - although there's no evidence that there was a direct quid pro quo, that it just - they were persuaded by that logic.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jesse Eisinger, and he's a senior reporter at ProPublica, which is an independent, nonprofit newsroom in New York City that produces investigative journalism. And his new article about the Fed and the bank stress test and the health of the banks is published jointly by ProPublica and The Atlantic Online. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jesse Eisinger. He's a senior reporter for ProPublica, the investigative news organization, and his article about the Federal Reserve, the bank bailout and disagreements between the Fed and the FDIC has been jointly published by The Atlantic Online and ProPublica.

So you say that the Fed's decision to let banks pay out dividends to shareholders when maybe the banks didn't have enough of a cushion to do that yet, that you have to see that decision in the context of other decisions the Fed made. What's another example of a decision that the Fed made after the financial crisis that you think was very favorable to the banks and maybe has a downside?

EISINGER: Well, in the lead-up to the financial crisis and at the peak of the financial crisis, banks probably were - had failed. They probably were insolvent, probably most of the big banks, if not all of them. And the federal government invested in the banks to save them.

And then the central bank, the Federal Reserve, gave them literally trillions of dollars in low-interest loans. And those were incredibly profitable. The government got very little in return for that. We invested in a kind of stock where we didn't have voting power, and we didn't have a lot of rights, and we didn't have a lot of upside if the banks got through this. So we ended up making money when we invested in the banks but not as much as we may have.

And that was a very generous decision to those institutions, to the employees of those institutions, the executives, the shareholders of those institutions. The government paid a lot of money, took a lot of risk and got very little return for it.

GROSS: There were also very few strings attached. I mean, for example, when the banks got all of this money in loans from the Federal Reserve, they didn't have to use the money to lend money. So the mortgage market remained really difficult, hard to get a loan, I think, for a lot of small businesses.

EISINGER: Exactly.

GROSS: But bank executives were allowed to take, what, larger profits?

EISINGER: Bonuses.

GROSS: Bonuses.

EISINGER: Yeah, there was no restriction on bonuses, and there was no requirement that they had to lend the money out, which means that people have had a much harder time than expected, even though interest rates have fallen, refinancing their mortgages, getting new loans to start new businesses. There's been a very severe tightening of credit. And the Federal Reserve's goal was to loosen credit. But bank bonuses to executives have been pretty high, steadily, through the years after the financial crisis.

GROSS: Have bank bonuses eaten up all the money that would have been going toward credit? I mean, why aren't the banks doing more to loan money to people who need mortgages or loans for small businesses?

EISINGER: Well, they're afraid, they're afraid to lend into a very poor economy, and they don't want to make a bunch of bad loans. One of the things, the ironies, is that the Federal Reserve has given the banks very cheap money. They've lowered the interest rates, so that made the cost of money extremely inexpensive, very cheap, and banks take that money and lend it back to the federal government by buying treasuries, by buying government bonds.

When you buy a bond, you're really lending to the government. So they've borrowed from the government to lend back to the government, and in doing that, they're making enormous amount of profit because of that, because they borrow very, very cheaply, and then lend back at two or three percent. They're making that entire spread.

Then they can use that money to pay executive bonuses or pay out dividends and buy back stock.

GROSS: So is the government losing on both sides of that deal?

EISINGER: The government is - it's - I mean, it's not necessarily losing because the government might be able to make money in the long term, and the Federal Reserve is an enormously profitable entity for complicated reasons. But it's a question of whether this is a great use of the government's money, if they could do better - if the Federal Reserve could find some other way to channel money into the economy or more reasonably to force the banks to actually lend the money that they're getting.

GROSS: So were there any regulations that the Fed imposed on the banks that were bailed out about how much of that bailout money could be used to lobby the Fed on future decisions?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

EISINGER: None that I'm aware of. There were no restrictions on using the money to lobby, no.

GROSS: Did they use it? I mean, do we know that?

EISINGER: They - you know, money is fungible. So they had to use some of it to lobby. You know, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bailed out, the two housing mortgage giants, and then they were prohibited from lobbying. But that's a great question, because the banks were not prohibited from lobbying, and they got lots and lots of taxpayer dollars, some of which they inevitably used to funnel back in to lobby for less regulation.

GROSS: So although a lot of critics of the way the federal bank bailout program was handled think that there weren't enough strings attached, that the banks weren't regulated enough after taking so much federal money, the banks were still anxious to get out of the TARP program as soon as possible so that they'd have no strings attached anymore.

But the government - you know, I always thought, well, the government would want the banks to pay back as soon as possible, and that would just be victory right there. But there was a lot of caution about making sure when the banks were ready to actually pay the money back and exit the program. Can you describe that process?

EISINGER: Yes, the banks wanted to pay back the money as soon as they could, because they were worried about the stigma, and they were worried that regulators might impose some strictures on them. And the government wanted the public relations victory, to say that look, the banks have paid all this money back.

And so everybody was - wanted to get them out as soon as they could, but some regulators were cautious. They said: Look, you have to replace this on a dollar-for-dollar basis so that you remain with this kind of cushion. And they ended up debating this, and the regulators decided no, it shouldn't be on a dollar-to-dollar basis, it's OK, it can be 50 cents on the dollar that they pay back the government, and they can borrow the rest of it.

And so they - people thought that wasn't enough, but they - the regulators ended up deciding, OK, 50 cents on the dollar is OK. And then, immediately after deciding on that kind of condition for the banks, they relaxed it for some of the weakest banks - like Bank of America and Sun Trust, a regional bank out of Atlanta, which were the weakest banks.

They said they're too weak to raise that kind of money, so we should let them out for even less. And that was pretty shocking to some of the regulators who had lost that debate.

GROSS: What are the implications of that?

EISINGER: The implications are that Bank of America now is struggling. It has had to sell assets. It has had to raise money from Warren Buffet. The question is whether it's a viable entity going forward. Sun Trust, also, is a very vulnerable bank, right now. Investors are deeply skeptical about the health of the bank. So these banks could potentially - and it's dangerous to discuss this, I'm not saying that they're going to - but they're more vulnerable to failure.

And the regulators have the obligation to try to prevent bank failures, to try to make banks solid enough to avoid failure not only because it hurts the customers of that particular bank but also because it can cause another financial crisis.

GROSS: So the Fed really has to balance a lot here because on the one hand, when the banks can be out of the TARP program, the money's reimbursed, or at least part of it is, the banks look healthier, it gives a positive sign about the banks' health and about the economy's health. On the other hand, if the bank really isn't all that healthy, it's very risky.

EISINGER: These are incredibly complex decisions that the Fed has, and I'm not envious that they had to go through this. They - a lot of this is about confidence-building and psychology. If investors are more confident, they'll - the stocks will go up. The banks can feel more confident about lending. They can sell stock at a higher price.

All these things build on each other, and panics also build on each other. So the Fed is constantly worrying about investor sentiment. The danger there is that you get caught up in that, and you do things for PR reasons rather than sound financial reasons because you think that confidence will take over, and then it becomes a kind of Potemkin confidence. It becomes something that you've done for appearances rather than solid financial reasons.

GROSS: Well, Jesse Eisinger, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

EISINGER: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Jesse Eisinger covers Wall Street and finance for ProPublica, and he writes a column for the New York Times Deal Book section. His new article is jointly published by ProPublica and The Atlantic Online. You'll find a link to the article on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.William Shatner has played two iconic TV roles decades apart. In the 1960s, he was Captain James T. Kirk in NBC's "Star Trek." More recently, he starred as unpredictable attorney Denny Crane in ABC's "Boston Legal." And at the age of 80, he's still performing. He's recorded and released a two-CD concept album called "Seeking Major Tom," and currently, he's starring in an autobiographical one-man stage show called "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It." The show just concluded a limited Broadway run and begins a nation-wide tour Saturday in Los Angeles.

William Shatner was born in Montreal, studied economics at McGill University, and performed at the Shakespearean Stratford Festival of Canada before embarking on the stage and screen career in the U.S. Before "Star Trek," his other memorable TV roles included playing to a terrified airline passenger in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," a 1963 episode of the "Twilight Zone."

Our TV critic David Bianculli spoke to William Shatner last week when he was in the final days of performing "Shatner's World" on Broadway.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

William Shatner, welcome to FRESH AIR.

WILLIAM SHATNER: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be at FRESH AIR.

BIANCULLI: I've seen one-man Broadway show...

SHATNER: Have you? Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ..."Shatner's World: We Just Live in It."

SHATNER: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: And you're about to go on a nationwide tour.

SHATNER: Right.

BIANCULLI: As a conversational biography, it seems pretty complete. It's got your early acting roles, your love of horses, the days of TV's "Star Trek" and "Boston Legal." But I want to start off by asking, there's an early TV highlight that you don't mention, and I'm really curious about why you didn't. So it's all the way back to 1957. It's a live TV installment of the CBS anthology series "Studio One."

SHATNER: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: So, yes, it's 55 years ago, but I consider it a really important moment in TV history.

SHATNER: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: It's Reginald Rose's "The Defender."

SHATNER: Yes, "The Defenders." I did a lot of those live television - I refer to them, ending up with "Playhouse 90."

BIANCULLI: Yes.

SHATNER: Reggie Rose's "The Defenders" was a huge thing, and - but...

BIANCULLI: And this was the pilot, where - it's father-son lawyers, and in the pilot, Ralph Bellamy was the father and you were the son. And the client that you were defending on a murder charge was, indeed, Steve McQueen.

SHATNER: Right.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's hear a clip from it. This is from "Studio One," "The Defender," 1957.

SHATNER: Wow, you are going back.

BIANCULLI: I am going - well, it's only 55 years. I'm sorry. You've had a very long career.

SHATNER: That's true.

BIANCULLI: So this is you as a young defense attorney, and you're doing a preliminary interview to try to pull more information out of your client, who is played by a very young Steve McQueen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEFENDERS")

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Now when you brought the delivery up in the elevator, what did you do with it?

STEVE MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I told you. I rang the bell. She opened the back door, and I handed her the package.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Don't you usually ring the bell, leave the delivery leaning against the door and get back into the elevator?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Yeah, that's what I do.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Why did you wait?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I told you. I thought maybe I could get a tip.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) I see. And then you came back down in the elevator.

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Yeah.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) But the elevator man says you didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF POUNDING ON DESK)

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I don't care what he said. What do you want from me, huh? I came down on the elevator.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Then what did you do?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I got on the subway, and I went home.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Why didn't you call the butcher shop and tell them you were sick?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I was too sick to call.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) What do you take for your headaches, Joe?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I told you: codeine.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Do you have any at home?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Yeah.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Where do you keep it?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Next to my bed.

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) Did you take any when you got home?

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) Yeah. How many more times even ask me?

SHATNER: (as Kenneth Preston) I'm asking you because you might have forgotten something, something important.

MCQUEEN: (as Joseph Gordon) I didn't forget nothing.

BIANCULLI: That was Steve McQueen and our guest, William Shatner, as client and defense attorney in the 1957 live TV production of "The Defender."

SHATNER: That sounds good, doesn't it?

BIANCULLI: When is the last time you heard that?

SHATNER: I've never heard it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: That was not the answer I expected. So what goes through your mind as you're hearing something from...

SHATNER: Oh, I'm listening to a younger voice. I'm listing to how good Steve McQueen is. I'm listening to the rapidity of the delivery. I'm listening to the spontaneity involved in there, and I'm thinking, hey, that sounds darn good.

BIANCULLI: I thought it was darn good, too. What are the differences in intensity between acting on live TV and on Broadway, and even before an audience on a sitcom, all of which you've done?

SHATNER: Well, I suppose the immediate answer is that there's no difference. You start from a germ of truth, and if it's a comedy, you go to a comedic area that's almost inexplicable. So many people on Broadway wanted to do live television, because it was a way of earning a living that was very similar, but it was also intimidating. You're intimidated by the fact that you had to be perfect. If I had fluttered at all, uh, uh, uh, uh, I'd have been left out to dry. There's no help. Then there's the cameras. The cameras come floating in. They're huge. They're warm, and they're like animals. And then this red light goes on...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHATNER: ...and it's staring you in the face, and you've got to be truthful. So it's intimidating to a lot of people.

BIANCULLI: You say in your most recent book that by the time you get on stage, you're no longer thinking about the words. Is that still true?

SHATNER: Well, that's the epitome. That's what you want to work for. You want to work to the point where you no longer - I ride horses a lot, and in riding a horse, you need to be in balance. So you're taught to be in balance - head, shoulders, hips, legs all in balance, and there's a whole technical thing that you're taught that sometimes can take years. When you're done, the technical part - I ski.

When you're done, the technical part of skiing and horses, you're then into the joy, into the Zen, you're into the mysteriousness, into the mystery of the thing you're doing - like the mystery of a horse, like communicating with a horse with your hands and your legs and your voice - that is almost imperceptible, both to you and the horse. When you're skiing a hill and you swoop down over a swell and you you use the swell to caress your skis and you're playing the hill like a piece of music, and that's at its epitome. That's what an actor does with the words.

BIANCULLI: The night I saw your play, the most memorable thing to me, the most touching thing wasn't even words, and it wasn't a story that I would consider that you had told many, many times. It was you folding and a jacket, and the way, the preciseness with which you folded it and why. Can you talk about that?

SHATNER: Well, my father was in the clothing business, and he once showed me how to fold a jacket for shipping. The thought was when I was a young man, I was going to go into this small business, and with my youth and vigor and his intelligence, we would make it a bigger business, and the family would have more sustenance. We weren't poor, but, you know, we weren't rich. We were in the lower end of the middle-class and we had enough to get by, but we weren't in luxury, by any means. So the whole idea was I was the only son. I was going to go into the family business.

So my father showed me how to fold a jacket, and I remembered that, because he folded it with such care. It was like a sculptor putting the last touches on his sculpturing, sanding that last moment. And it became, in my mind's eye, for years, a part of my father. So when I thought of telling the story of my father's death, it came to me that I would tell it through the act of his jacket and how - so I take my jacket off, and it becomes part of my father. And then I lay it to rest in a coffin, and then I bury it. And then the most moving moment for me is that I come to the conclusion that life doesn't have to end with death if love is present, and I put the jacket back on.

BIANCULLI: There's no way of getting around an interview with you when we're talking about your whole career without getting to your most iconic role of James T. Kirk in "Star Trek."

SHATNER: That's cool.

BIANCULLI: But I thought that we would start by playing a clip. I found something where you're giving a little speech, so it shows the way you act as James T. Kirk, but it talks about a philosophy that sounds not too far removed from the one that you talk about in you new Broadway show. So here's a scene in which Capt. James T. Kirk is encouraging his team to see that the advantages of a starship trump its risks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

SHATNER: (as Captain James T. Kirk) Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn't reached the moon, or that we hadn't gone on to Mars, and then to the nearest star? That's like saying you wish that you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut like your great-great-great-great grandfather used to. I'm in command. I could order this, but I'm not, because Dr. McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this, but I also point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great. Risk. Risk is our business. That's what this starship's all about. That's why we're aboard her.

BIANCULLI: That's our guest William Shatner in his iconic role as a starship Captain James T. Kirk in the 1960s TV series "Star Trek."

SHATNER: God, 50 years ago. Unbelievable.

BIANCULLI: Almost. Almost. So, well, you say in your Broadway show that it's easy to say no. It's risky to say yes.

SHATNER: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Does that speak to you through the world of "Star Trek," that long ago? I mean, are you speaking to you?

SHATNER: You know, I listen to that speech - yes. It's easy to say no, I'm not going to do that. I'm not leaving the house. I don't - I'm happy with what I've got. No, I'm not going there. No, I don't want a new idea. The old idea is fine. No. And you're safe. You're right in your little hole. You haven't moved, and what you did before is what you're doing now, and that's safe. That's comforting. You're going to die that way. Yes requires you to move out of that hole. Yes is like those little animals that pop their head out...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHATNER: ...you know, that look around, what, what's going on? I'm back in my hole. But some of them don't go. Some of them, what is that wonderful series where these little animals...

BIANCULLI: The meerkats?

SHATNER: Meerkats.

BIANCULLI: "Meerkat Manor."

SHATNER: Yeah. There you go. It's a meerkat. You want to be a meerkat. We can be a meerkat. Taking risk is the way we should leave our lives.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with William Shatner, who's about to tour the country with his one-man Broadway show "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: My guest is William Shatner, who's about to embark on a national tour of his one-man Broadway show, "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It."

I guess it was 1976 when "Saturday Night Live," in its first season, did a long spoof of "Star Trek." And the audience that night reacted with such love and familiarity to John Belushi as you, that it was clear that something was up. Of all the imitators of Captain Kirk, do you have one that's closest to your heart? Or farthest away?

SHATNER: Well, no, I always thought I did the best imitation, but geez, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHATNER: I'll tell you the iconic moment. We did a - I was on. I was the host of "Saturday Night Live" - they've never asked me back, by the way, in all these years. And it was I, as Shatner, come up in front of all these geeks who are wearing ears. And I called them geeks now then, but I've done a documentary in which I portray them as they really are.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

SHATNER: They're not geeks. They're people in search of something else. But that's another whole subject. Anyway, a group of these "SNL" people were wearing ears and all that, and I gave the phrase: Get a life. And a lot of the people laughed and some of the people didn't laugh across the country who were aficionados. But it was meant in fun, and I've ultimately wrote a book called "Get a Life," which examine why the people are going to conventions and their reason(ph) .

BIANCULLI: Well, I consider it one of the - I don't mean to stop you. I just consider it one of the best...

SHATNER: Stop me.

BIANCULLI: ...moments ever on "Saturday Night Live." And I want to ask you a couple of questions about it. But first...

SHATNER: Please do.

BIANCULLI: Let's play it.

SHATNER: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

SHATNER: You know, before I answer any more questions, there's something I wanted to say. Having received all your letters over the years, and I've spoken to many of you, and some of you have traveled, you know, hundreds of miles to be here, I'd just like to say: Get a life, will you people?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER, CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

SHATNER: I mean, for crying out loud, it's just a TV show. I mean, look at you. Look at the way you're dressed. You've turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

SHATNER: I mean, how old are you people? What have you done with yourselves? You, you must be almost 30. Have you ever kissed a girl?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

SHATNER: I didn't think so. There's a whole world out there. When I was your age, I didn't watch television. I lived. So move out of your parents' basements and get your own apartments and grow the hell up. It's just a TV show, damn it. It's just a TV show.

BIANCULLI: That's William Shatner in a sketch from a 1986 edition of "Saturday Night Live."

In your one-man show, you show a clip from one of your documentaries in which you're talking to Patrick Stewart, who played...

SHATNER: Right.

BIANCULLI: ...Jean-Luc Picard from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." And he talks about realizing that his obituary will lead with "Star Trek." And he says he's fine with that. And then you say, at that moment, that you had an epiphany.

SHATNER: That's correct.

BIANCULLI: Will you say that to us now?

SHATNER: I had an epiphany.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Now, would you explain the epiphany?

SHATNER: Oh, you want an explanation.

BIANCULLI: I know. I know. Oh, man.

SHATNER: You didn't...

BIANCULLI: It's OK. It's OK.

SHATNER: All right. So you're...

BIANCULLI: Once you're on a sitcom, there's no holding you back. Go ahead.

SHATNER: No, no. I had spent years doing "Star Trek" bits and things, and a lot of people loved it. A lot of people mocked it. A lot of people, you know, they did their various comic turns on "Star Trek." And I went with the joke, because - what? You're not going to go with the joke? At the time, the three years I spent, I applied every talent I had to making it valid and working on story and fighting management and doing the best I could. There were many, many talents who did that. I don't mean to take that away. All I'm saying is I did the best I could.

So when I left "Star Trek," I left it with pride and went on to other things. And then "Star Trek" started to become popular about six years afterwards, as it went into syndication. And then people started talking about, hey, there's - beam me up, Scotty. And there's Captain Kirk. And, you know, and then somebody would say: Do you really go where no man has gone before - in that sort of semi-mocking tone that I thought, well, all right. Maybe it wasn't as good as I thought it was. And maybe I wasn't as good as I thought I was. And I held myself up defensively.

It was only watching Patrick Stewart - and I have great respect for Patrick, both as an actor and as man. I love him. And the gravitas that this great Shakespearean actor gave to his role, that I suddenly realized that this guy is taking Captain Picard every bit as seriously as Macbeth. And I used to. And I stopped. And what the hell's the matter with me? It was a great piece of work. Everybody contributed to three years that has lasted 50. It's a phenomenon. Why aren't I proud of it? And that's when I had that moment.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with William Shatner, who's about to tour the country with his one-man Broadway show "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: My guest is William Shatner, who's about to embark on a national tour of his one-man Broadway show, "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It."

You did manage to create a second major TV character, which a lot of iconic actors do not, on television. But Denny Crane on ABC's "The Practice" and "Boston Legal" is just about every bit as big, and on the night that I saw your Broadway show, got as much applause for the first mention of Denny Crane as for the first mention of James T. Kirk. Now, I have such respect for David E. Kelley as a TV writer-producer, and...

SHATNER: He's a genius.

BIANCULLI: It's just such a funny character. And I'm wondering: How quickly did you and Kelley find each other's wavelengths? I mean, because I think producers, once they see what an actor can do, start writing more for that.

SHATNER: Well, you see, that's very astute of you. That's exactly what happened. He had me saying Denny Crane. And I thought: Well, why is this guy saying Denny Crane all the time? I mean, it was a good comic device. I don't know what David had in mind. But every so often, he would say, Denny Crane. And I thought: Why is this character saying Denny Crane? And in my mind, what I saw was a lizard who sticks his tongue out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHATNER: OK. It's funny on the surface, right? Denny Crane. But wait a minute? Why does the lizard stick his tongue out? Do you know why? Because that's the way it's listening and looking and tasting its environment. Its tongue is its - I don't know about eyes, but it's his whiskers. It's its means of appreciating what's in front of it. It sticks its tongue out to be sure that it's not going to be eaten. It's identifying itself by sticking its tongue out. And so I thought, that's what he's doing. He's saying Denny Crane to see what the - I mean, he used to be a great lawyer. So when he says Denny Crane, who's appreciating that? I began to think of Denny Crane, and he sticks his tongue out.

So he had me in one scene, David Kelley wrote Denny Crane, seven over - eight times. How do you play that? I played it like the lizard saying Denny Crane - OK, what was the reaction on that? Well, Denny Crane. Denny Crane. He tries a different series of ways of sticking his tongue out by saying Denny Crane to see who's there to - and nobody pays any attention to him. He's trying to say here I am, but without being able to say it. And that was the image I had.

BIANCULLI: I'd like to play a scene from "Boston Legal." This is from 2006, with you in the courtroom as Denny Crane. And it shows your outrageousness and your - it shows a lot about your character in a very brief scene. It's a case in which an attractive young woman is seeking emancipation from her parents and trying to make it as a young model, and your cross-examination hones in immediately on her daily diet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOSTON LEGAL")

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) What did you have for breakfast this morning?

JESSY SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) I had a diet soda and a cracker with some butter spray on it.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) And lunch?

SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) I didn't eat lunch. I can't eat when I'm stressed out.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) So how many calories have you had today?

SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) Sixteen.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) Are you aware that the daily required number of calories for someone your age and height is somewhere between 18 and 2,400?

SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) And are you aware that two out of three Americans are overweight? No one's calling them sick. I'm healthy. I watch what I eat, and I exercise. You can ask any fat girl at my school if she'd want to trade places with me.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) Now, don't go knocking fat girls. I love chubby sex. I'm sure your honor does.

MARY BOUCHER: (as Judge Rose Olsheim) Mr. Crane.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) Ms. Wilson, are you aware the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" defines anorexia nervosa as a mental illness?

SCHRAM: (as Claire Wilson) Thirty years ago, they said the same thing about homosexuality.

SHATNER: (as Denny Crane) Exactly. No further questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHATNER: That's great. It's great writing. It's great writing.

BIANCULLI: That's our guest William Shatner as attorney Denny Crane in the David E. Kelley series "Boston Legal." My further question is: How much fun was this guy to play?

SHATNER: Oh, my Lord. I could do anything. I remember one moment, he was giving himself Botox injections, himself. And something surprised him, so he sprang out of his chair, and he had a Botox needle sticking out of his forehead. I mean, he takes a gun into the office and he shoots somebody because - I mean, the things that Kelley imagined were so outrageous and so plausible in an outrageous character, because in one moment, he's totally lucid. And the other, he's totally insane. How extraordinary. What a character to play.

You know, to have had the privilege to have worked with those great actors James Spader and Candice Bergen and John Larroquette and David Kelley and all the - Bill D'Elia and all those wonderful directors and writers, and I just - I loved every one of them, and it was a sad, sad moment to say goodbye when the show was over.

BIANCULLI: Your one-man show tour for "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It," I'm looking at the schedule. It's March 10th, L.A., March 11th, San Francisco, March 13th, Philadelphia, March 15th Minneapolis. I mean, that's a grueling, young rock star schedule. How and why are you doing it that way?

SHATNER: How am I going to do it? How am I going to do it? I'm going to do it - I once did, as a much younger man, 43 cities in 44 days. How did I do it? I don't know. I came back to Los Angeles, and as I came down the escalator to get the baggage, my hand was trembling from fatigue and nerves. And I thought, wow, that was challenging, physically. I can do this. My wife's going to be with me. I'll make it by resting as much as possible.

And if nothing else in my life, I point to my endurance. I used to run track, and I was an endurance runner. And I'm doing everything I can to make this work because, at the end of which, like I did on opening night, I became exultant. I did it. I - this rage inside me which says I've got to do this, I've got to please the people, has not been banked. It's still there. And I will be there at your city, and I will make it a great show. And fear not.

BIANCULLI: I noticed that you'll be - you're scheduled to perform in Dallas, Texas on March 22nd.

SHATNER: Yes.

BIANCULLI: That's the day you turn 81 years old. Any special plans?

SHATNER: I am. Plans? To stagger on stage and give the best performance of my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Well, congratulations on the show, the tour, the longevity, the career, and thank you for being FRESH AIR. I've really enjoyed this conversation.

SHATNER: Thank you. So have I, and I fully expected to, and it's met my expectations.

GROSS: William Shatner spoke with our TV critic David Bianculli. Shatner is about to embark on a national tour with his one-man, autobiographical show "Shatner's World." The first stop is Los Angeles, Saturday.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org. And you can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Questlove spins the soundtrack of his life in 'Music is History'

In his new book, Roots co-founder Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson starts in 1971 and moves year-by-year through his life, writing about memories, turning points and the songs he listened to.

42:18

In 'Maid,' a single mother struggles to make it on minimum wage

While raising her young daughter, Stephanie Land cleaned houses to scrape by. It was back-aching work for low pay. Her memoir inspired the Netflix series, Maid. Originally broadcast Jan. 29, 2019.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue