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At 91 years old, William Shatner is well aware that he'll one day venture into that undiscovered country from whence no man returns. That knowledge underlines his new memoir, Boldly Go, which finds the Star Trek icon ruminating on life, the universe and everything. And when Shatner does cross the final frontier into the next plane of existence and comes face-to-face with a deity, he already knows what he'll say to her. Or him. Or them.
And those words are? "'I didn't know that,'" Shatner tells Yahoo Entertainment, previewing his opening lines to God. "Or, more succinctly: 'Wow.'" (Watch our video interview above.)
One thing that he definitely won't say is "Oh my." After all, that's how his Starfleet alter ego, James Tiberius Kirk, met his maker in 1994's Star Trek Generations, which marked Shatner's last on-screen appearance as the Enterprise captain. And it's a line reading, the actor admits in his book, he would love to take back. "I ad-libbed 'Oh my,' because I thought that since Kirk had looked at all these monsters thinking, 'I think it's gonna kill me,'" he explains to us. "So I thought he might look at Death coming at him and have this, 'Oh my,' reaction, you know?"
But Boldly Go doesn't dwell on death. The book is first and foremost an opportunity for Shatner to look back on his life, from his childhood in Montreal in the 1930s to his 2021 space flight courtesy of Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos's aerospace company. In an expansive, illuminating interview, the actor and author opened up about the peaks and valleys of his life and career, and the various things that have occupied his mind along the way, from the nature of the soul to the necessity of failure.
I like the descriptions of your childhood in Boldly Go. I have to imagine that it must feel like a different planet when you think back to the 1930s now.
I vaguely remember the innocence of Montreal during the Second World War. My dad worked hard, and took care of us during that time. We didn't have a great deal, but we weren't at a loss. That's an interesting aspect that you talk about, from our youth to old age. So many things happen and so many things don't happen. I don't think you acquire wisdom: a 5-year-old might have more wisdom in something they say innocently than a 95-year-old might have saying something they think is wise.
So I don't think you acquire wisdom through age — you acquire wisdom through intent and through, or at least pondering your experience. Maybe that's what writing a book is all about. You ponder your experience and see what you can extract from that. That's what this book is: my feelings that the unity we have with the universe, and the crazy things by which we're unified are too numerous to begin to mention. And all this begs the question: How do you harmonize with the universe? Is it prayer? Is it meditation? Is it yoga? If you can do any of those things and tune in, I think the universe takes care of you. And I give examples of that in my own life in the book.
Some people resist change as they grow older, but you seem to embrace it.
Change is just part of the world. It's an interesting dichotomy: We resist change because it's unfamiliar, and we're afraid of it. Yet change is inevitable; your cells are changing, the earth is tilting, the tectonic plates are shaking. Change is the nature of the universe. And that's difficult to comprehend because if you're comfortable in one moment moment, you resist the possibility of discomfort in the next moment. On the other hand, change can also alleviate things you're not even aware need changing. So it's a double-edged sword, but we need to accept change. As we talk, the universe spins and is changing right under us.
You write in your book about when you first told your parents that you wanted to be an actor. Did they live long enough to see your success?
[When I told them], they looked at me like, "Who are you? Where did you come from? What's acting again? Isn't that what a minstrel does?" [Laughs] I think my father must have thought, because he came from Europe to Montreal when he was about 9 or 10 … that his son wanted to be on a horse and wagon roaming across the country.
My father was around when Star Trek began [in 1966]. He died in 1968. I don't how much of a success I was then, but I was making a living. My mother lived until a few years ago, so she saw that success. The success part wasn't as [important to them] as long as I could make a living. And that varied as time went on, and as more and more children arrived. The definition of what a living was increased.
You do say in Boldly Go that you're glad none of your daughters or grandchildren have gone into the acting business. Why wasn't that a life you wanted for them?
You know, it's because success is so spare. It can happen because you're talented or not, and it can happen because the lightning struck at the moment you were under the tree. In the entertainment industry to a large degree — but not completely — experience doesn't matter. You could be a child out of acting school, and because you're in the right place at the right time, you become very popular and you make some money. But then that's the only thing you're going to do. That's why I didn't want my kids to be a part of it, and for the most part they're not. Everybody's doing something else.
I suppose that's true — I haven't seen it. There's no reason to think that somebody whose parent is in the business shouldn't be in the business. They've been brought up with it all their lives, so they're doing something in entertainment. I don't know why that would be [an issue]. Only if they weren't talented, only if they didn't deserve to be where they were, would it be an offense to me.
You write a lot about spirituality and your evolving notion of faith. I think people often forget that you were raised Jewish. How has your relationship to Judaism changed over the years?
I haven't been to temple in a long time, but being Jewish is almost a cultural thing. Today is Yom Kippur, and I'm not doing what I did as a kid, which was not eating and not working. But this evening my family is going to meet for Yom Kippur dinner. And I woke up this morning and I greeted the people [in my life] who are dead. There's a beautiful prayer, "Kol Nidrei," that's sung in temple. I didn't do that, but I was aware.
You grew up at a time where anti-Semitism was prevalent in America and, I imagine, Canada as well. Did you have any personal experiences that you remember?
Well, yeah that was my background. My childhood was kids pounding on me, because they didn't understand. They thought that being Jewish was like witchcraft or something, not realizing that the difference between all religions is so minimal that there's essentially none, you know? So I had to defend myself many days; I'd fight one or two guys at a time a lot. That inculcated certain thoughts and attitudes that I discuss in the book, and which I write about in songs as well.
Did it ever stand in your way when you got into acting?
Oh, no. On the contrary, because Jewish people have this intrinsic knowledge that they may be asked to pick up and leave at any moment, they find ways of carrying [their work] with them. And with acting, you don't have anything to pick up! [Laughs] Show business was a welcoming place. And I've never understood anti-Semitism. If you think something terrible happened thousands of years ago, isn't it time you forgave them?
It's not lost on me that the Star Trek film you directed, The Final Frontier, explicitly deals with faith and searching for God. Was that film part of your spiritual journey?
Yeah — I thought, "What a great plot it would be to have this familiar group of people go in search of God and what they find is the devil! Then they have to wrestle with the devil and escape." Everybody was like, "Wow that's a great idea!" And then somebody at the studio said, "Well, whose God is it? We'll alienate someone if you choose a God... we can't do it." And then somebody else said: "What about an alien who thinks he's God." And I thought, "I can save my premise if I can do that." What I didn't realize is that I had weakened it.
You write about your singing career in Boldly Go. You went from being ridiculed for your singing to people really loving it. Is that something you've appreciated?
I look at that with great pride. My first album was called The Transformed Man, and it was an interesting concept, but it was mocked to some degree. But then Ben Folds, this wonderful musician, picked it up some years later and it resulted in this musical career. Ben and I made an album [2004's Has Been], and the arc of that success is part of what that book is about. I went from essentially failure to, a few months ago, entertaining at the Kennedy Center! I did songs that Robert Sharenow and I wrote, ending with a song called "So Fragile, So Blue," which delineated by my experience up in space. I'm now suggesting that we make a music video for "So Fragile, So Blue," which can be a rallying cry for the last attempt at solving global warming. My wish is that video will be a rallying cry to save the world.
You make a point of saying that you'll try anything once. What have you learned about failure in that regard — trying something once knowing that you're not always going to succeed?
Failure is a bitter pill. You can be in grief over failure. Failure is the death of something. We presume that what you're failing at is something you wanted to do or be or create, and it doesn't work. But the thing is, you can't know what works without knowing what doesn't work. Scientists pose a thesis, and then they bring facts to support their thesis. But how many failures did they have that presuppose that? Without knowing what doesn't work is one way to find out what does work, and failure is part of the process. The problem is people don't wanna accept failure as a learning step, and that's something we've got to do.
You write very movingly of your friendship with the late Leonard Nimoy, and how you felt like you didn't reconcile with him at the end of his life. I don't know if you're someone who thinks about regrets, but is that a regret for you?
I'm morally against regret. If you are faced with a branching road, it's either left or right. Say you choose right, and you fall through the sky and as you're falling you think, "I should have turned left!" But you didn't know that you should have turned left when you turned right. Once you've made a decision, you're a different person. You can't regret it. We were just talking about failure, and it's the same thing. You didn't know you were going to fail, you have to try again. It's another split in the road that will take you to a different place.
So regret for Leonard, yes, I tried very hard to understand what was wrong [between us] and I didn't understand, so it never resolved itself. But not so long ago, his daughter [Julie Nimoy] came up to me, because I had written about how I wished I had been able to connect with this dear friend of mine. And she said, "He loved you," and that gave me a great deal of peace.
When you pass on, do you think that you'll see him and the other people you've lost again?
It's such a ridiculous notion, and it has no logic in it. I'm an old man somehow. I don't feel like an old man, but I'm an old man! I don't want to go to heaven as 91. I want to be 32 or 27! 18 was a great year for me! I don't mind trying this all over again. [Laughs]
But there's no logic in the idea that you're going see your parents [when you die]. That means they're old, and they don't want to be old! They want to be lovers before you were conceived. So that whole thing doesn't make any sense. What does make sense is the renewal and the evolution of the connection between us and the universe. The story as we know it is that our bodies return to the stars, but happens to this beautiful thing inside us?
I had this great horse. He got lame in all four feet — he was an old horse. I led him down to the place where we had dug his grave. I was with him, and he was feeling [my presence] even though his legs were sore. Then the vet came and gave him an injection, and within a count of one, the horse fell over and went in the hole that we had dug. And I thought, "Where did this incredible life force that was this stallion go? It's gone? What do you mean gone? Where did it go?" How do you eliminate some loved one's soul, for want of a better word. It's an entity. We think that it's in our heads, but maybe it's in our gut or a combination of both. But where does that thing, that energy, that life force go when you die? That's a mystery.
— Video produced by Kyle Moss and edited by Jason Fitzpatrick
Boldly Go is available now at most major booksellers