In Focus: Talking $#*! — and Dodging Doo-Doo — with William Shatner
William Shatner seems perfectly happy to be where he is.
At the moment, that's starring in CBS' new Twitter-based sitcom, $#*! My Dad Says, in which he plays the irascible but decent — and maybe lonely — lead character.
But it's also sitting in a futuristic treehouse-like structure, set in the middle of San Diego's Comic-Con, where he's doing interviews about the show and his life. And expressing no regrets.
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"I'm a firm believer you get what you're supposed to be getting and you're doing what you're supposed to be doing," says Shatner, 79. "If you're really not supposed to be doing what you're doing, it becomes — it becomes so reprehensible that you've got to get out of it.
"How many times do people say, 'I've got to get out of it?' Or 'I'm retiring'? I don't even understand that concept. Retiring from what? Does that mean you don't like what you did your whole life and you're going to go... sit on the balcony, which is what you wanted to do in the first place? I mean how much does it take to sit on the balcony? You could have been doing that 20 years ago."
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The talk about his life comes from a question about his zig-zagging career path. Trained in Shakespeare, the Montreal-born actor worked on Broadway, film, and even the Canadian version of Howdy Doody before landing the role of James T. Kirk, the hot-blooded center of Star Trek's cool universe.
"I'm always saying about my life, 'God, how did this happen?' My life has been so blessed that every time I land behind the barn in that pile of doo-doo, I somehow come out of it, if not covered in roses, I'm not covered in doo-doo."
$#*! My Dad Says is based on a Twitter feed-turned-book written by comedy writer Justin Halpern, and Shatner is giving interviews on a potentially awkward day: It's July 23, and word has just come out that the actor playing his son on $#*! has been replaced. The pilot will be re-shot. Reshoots and recastings are extremely common, but it's just as common for TV insiders to interpret them as harbingers of doom.
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The doo-doo-averse Shatner sees only opportunity — and aspires, like his characters, to bold action.
Kirk cut through debate and pontification by setting phasers on stun. T.J. Hooker didn't have time for red tape. Denny Crane, the character he masterfully played on The Practice and Boston Legal, thrived on doing what others feared to do.
Shatner shares their directness. Consider his thoughts, for example, on the online world that informs his new show. "When I first got these phones and people were emailing, texting, I actually thought, Instead of going through all this, just press the speed dial and say hello. 'Hi, I'm coming home soon.' — the warmth of your voice, instead of all these shortcuts. "It's such a cold way of doing it," he says. "If you write goodbye, it's cold. If you say goodbye, it has a warmth that the coldness of Twitter doesn't reflect."
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Warmth, he decided, was also key to improving the pilot. His character's bluntly off-color one-liners, like the tweets upon which they're based, rely on shock value to entertain. But Shatner decided the show was about more than that. Part-time novelist that he is, he dug into Halpern's book. In its pages he found a tenderness that didn't come through, to borrow Shatner's phrase, in the coldness of Twitter.
The new version of the pilot (airing Thursday at 8:30/7:30c) focuses less on shock value and more on the father making human connections. Whether you buy the new, warmer center is up to you. But Shatner aimed for a more sincere product.
"No, I don't think it will break any barriers," Shatner says of the show, when asked if it could break taboos like Star Trek did with TV's first interracial kiss. "But the guts of this show is the relationship between fathers and sons. And if we shed any light on that, that'd be wonderful."
It's also an approach that should keep him, if not covered in roses, at least smelling OK. After years in the business and a rich collection of pastimes outside acting — writing, spoken-word recordings, his horses, his dogs, scuba diving — he says he's gotten used to not getting everything he wants. At least not at once.
"Take scuba diving," he says. "I read scuba magazines and here's a great place to dive, and here's a great place to dive, and I'd love to go. But I'm now involved in a series. But the series means I get to make people laugh. And there are such talented people helping me and giving me the material to make people laugh that I'm fulfilling that.
"So if you don't make yourself unhappy by desiring more than you can do or get, I will fulfill some of those scuba-diving dreams." He adds, as soon as he completes the thought: "I wish I could run faster. I wish I could sing." But all those spoken word recordings —aren't those enough? "I took guitar lessons for a while but I just didn't have time," he says. "My musical dream would be playing the guitar and singing... I think Spanish love songs with the sob in the voice."