For an actor almost universally associated with a single character -- Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise -- William Shatner has found diverse ways to stay active in the public eye, even spoofing his overblown acting style in a way far more hip than desperate. Years after he last uttered "warp speed," Shatner remains a well-known face beyond Star Trek conventions, re-creating himself as the spoken-word pitchman for priceline.com, and starring in a popular series of smoky nightclub ads that featured some of the most cutting-edge musicians of the day.
The Canadian native was born on March 22, 1931, in Montréal, where he grew up and attended Verdun High School. Shatner studied commerce at McGill University before getting the acting bug, which eventually prompted him to move to New York in 1956. He initially worked in such live television dramatic shows as Studio One and The United States Steel Hour in 1957 and 1958, as well as on Broadway. His big screen debut soon followed as Alexei in the 1958 version of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
Throughout the 1960s, Shatner worked mostly in television. His most memorable appearance came in a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone entitled "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," in which he plays a terrified airline passenger unable to convince the crew that there's a mysterious gremlin tearing apart the wing. He also appeared in such films as Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and the bizarrely experimental Esperanto-language horror film Incubus (1963). In 1966, he got his big break, though neither he nor anyone else knew it at the time. Shatner was cast as the macho starship captain James Kirk on Star Trek, commanding a crew that included an acerbic doctor, a Scottish engineer, and a logician with pointy ears, on a mission "to boldly go where no man has gone before." However, the show lasted only three seasons, considered by many to be high camp. After providing a voice on the even shorter-lived animated series in 1973, Shatner must have thought Star Trek too would pass. A costly divorce and a lingering diva reputation from Star Trek left him with few prospects or allies, forcing him to take whatever work came his way.
But in 1979, after a decade of B-movie labor in such films as The Kingdom of Spiders (1977) and a second failed series (Barbary Coast, 1975-1976), Shatner re-upped for another attempt to capitalize on the science fiction series with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. This time it caught on, though the first film was considered a costly disappointment. With dogged determination, the producers continued onward with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), at which point fans finally flocked to the series, rallying behind the film's crisp space battles and the melodramatic tête-à-tête between Shatner and Ricardo Montalban.
Shatner had to wrestle with his advancing age and the deaths of several characters in Star Trek II and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), but by Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), the actor got to indulge in his more whimsical side, which has since characterized his career. As the series shifted toward comedy, Shatner led the way, even serving as director of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), which many considered among the series' weaker entries. During this period, Shatner also began parodying himself in earnest, appearing as host of Saturday Night Live in a famous sketch in which he tells a group of Trekkies to "Get a life." He also turned in a wickedly energetic mockery of a moon base captain in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). Shatner made one final appearance with the regular Star Trek cast in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), then served as one of the crossovers to the new series of films in Star Trek: Generations (1994), in which endlessly theorizing fans finally learned the fate of Captain Kirk.
The success of the Trek movies reenergized Shatner's TV career, even if it didn't immediately earn him more film roles. Shatner played the title role on the successful police drama T.J. Hooker from 1982 to 1987, directing some episodes, then began hosting the medical reality series Rescue 911 in 1989. Shatner returned to the movies with another parody, Loaded Weapon I, in 1993, and in 1994 began directing, executive producing, and acting in episodes of the syndicated TV show TekWar, based on the popular series of Trek-like novels he authored.
In the later '90s, Shatner was best known for his humorously out-there priceline.com ads, but also guested on a variety of TV shows, most notably as the "Big Giant Head" on the lowbrow farce Third Rock From the Sun. He also appeared as game show hosts both in film (Miss Congeniality, 2000) and real life (50th Annual Miss America Pageant, 2001). In 1999, Shatner suffered public personal tragedy when his third wife, Nerine, accidentally drowned in their swimming pool. The champion horse breeder and tennis enthusiast owns a ranch in Kentucky and remains active in environmental causes. Shatner took on a small role for 2004's Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, and voiced the villainous wildebeest Kazar in Disney's animated adventure The Wild in 2006.
Shatner returned to television for a starring role on the popular dramady Boston Legal, in which he plays Denny Crane, a once unbeatable lawyer who co-founded the successful law firm where he continues to work despite his reputation as an eccentric old man. ~ Derek Armstrong, Rovi