William Shatner Explains How He Landed ‘Star Trek’ Role as Captain Kirk

William Shatner recalled how he managed to land the role of Captain James T. Kirk on the original 1966 Star Trek series.

During the actor’s keynote interview at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League asked Shatner about how he got his career-changing gig.

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“Talent,” Shatner initially deadpanned, to audience applause, but then he told the story.

As all Trek fans know, Jeffrey Hunter was cast in the NBC show’s first attempt at a Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” as Captain Christopher Pike. “Jeffrey Hunter, good-looking guy, he was quite a name,” Shatner says. “They presented the pilot to NBC and then there’s that moment when the gods — and, in this case, NBC executives — decide to buy or not to buy. To buy, or not to buy, that is the question! They said, ‘No, we’re not going to buy it, because we don’t like it. But we like the idea. So rewrite, recast and we’ll give you the money to do it.’ I’ve never heard of that happening before or since.” (To be fair, it’s actually happened many times since.)

“So they went around looking for a new captain,” Shatner continued. “I was in New York doing some work. They called me and said, ‘Would you come and see the pilot?’ With the idea of me being the captain. And I watched the pilot [and thought], ‘Oh my God, that’s really good. Why didn’t they buy it?’ Yet [the actors] were a little ponderous. Like, [soberly] ‘Helmsman, turn to the Starboard.’ You’ve been out five years in the middle of space, wouldn’t you say, [casually] ‘Hey, George, turn left’? ‘There’s a meteor coming!’… ‘Well, get out of the way!’ So I added a little lightness. Then it sold. And that’s the answer.”

Shatner also said his worst “role” ever was one time when he attempted to give a stand-up comedy performance as Captain Kirk, with the joke being that Kirk would deliver cliche one-liner jokes and not understand why he wasn’t funny. Yet the bit bombed spectacularly. “It was probably the the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Shatner said.

League also asked how Shatner would deal with somebody talking or texting during a movie in a theater. “Shut the fuck up!” Shatner roared, then proceeded to talk about the benefits of the F-bomb for getting people’s attention.

During the interview, Shatner came across decades younger and sharper than his age might suggest, occasionally standing and energetically pacing the stage while telling an anecdote. At the end of the keynote, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

The 91-year-old Star Trek icon was also at the festival to support his new biopic documentary, You Can Call Me Bill, which chronicles his six decade as an Emmy-winning actor, author, recording artist and environmental activist. The film has its premiere tonight.

Shatner made global headlines last year by becoming the oldest person ever to go into space. The actor flew in a suborbital capsule piloted by Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin. In his memoir Boldly Go, he shared how the experience left him profoundly sad. “I wept for the Earth because I realized it’s dying,” Shatner wrote. “I dedicated my book, Boldly Go, to my great-grandchild, who’s 3 now — coming 3 — and in the dedication, say it’s them, those youngsters, who are going to reap what we have sown in terms of the destruction of the Earth…. I saw more clearly than I have, with all the studying and reading I’ve done, the writhing, slow death of Earth and we on it. It’s a little tiny rock with an onion-skin air around it. That’s how fragile it all is. It’s so fragile. We hang by a thread…. We’re just dangling.”

Shatner currently is the host and executive producer of The UnXplained on The History Channel, which “explores the world’s most fascinating, strange and inexplicable mysteries.”

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