Book reivew: Up Till Now, The Autobiography

Up Till Now, The Autobiography
By William Shatner with David Fisher
Published by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York
ISBN: 0312372655

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

What can one say about Bill Shatner that hasn’t been said already by so many? Hero, ham, hack, has been, he’s been there, done that, and gotten the tee shirts. He was the first captain of the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE in the never ending story of Star Trek, whose five year mission was cut short by two years, yet who lives on in eternity through syndication. He was T.J. Hooker, a good cop who made Los Angeles a little safer every week and always managed to get in a chase scene, as well as a little gratuitous exposure of female flesh. He was the host of Rescue 911, true stories of people who survived disasters, who never dreamed that one dark night he’d have to live through one himself when he discovered his third wife had drowned herself. And most recently he was Denny Crane of Boston Legal, whose appetite for sex and guns could never equal his affection for his young protégé Alan Shore, who was his willing partner in legal mayhem every week, helping him to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Yes, Bill has been all that and more. From his beginnings as an aspiring actor in Montreal, Canada, who made his way to Hollywood, California via Broadway in New York City (he co-starred with France Nuyen in The World of Suzie Wong in 1958; a few years later she also appeared on an episode of Star Trek entitled Elaan of Troyius), to his latest role as the egomaniacal lawyer Denny Crane, he’s always done his best to be the most memorable actor you’ve ever seen.

Notice that I didn’t write “the best actor you’ve ever seen”. I think that every Shatner fan out there will agree with me that our Bill is no Lawrence Olivier. Sir Lawrence could act circles around him. Hell, Sir Lawrence could probably phone in his part and be nominated for an Oscar while Bill was still trying to get his lines out! Ever heard Bill trying to sing Mr. Tambourine Man on his first record album, The Transformed Man? He doesn’t sing the lyrics; he recites them, in a staccato fashion, with many pauses, as if he’s having trouble remembering the words. He used to say his lines on Star Trek the same way. Countless comedians and Shatner imitators have mimicked this rambling style of his whenever they wanted to “do” Shatner, and people always recognize it as a Shatner imitation. That’s what I mean by “memorable”; once you’ve seen his performance or heard his singing, you’ll never forget it. Like you’ll never forget the scream of anguish he emits at the end of Mr. Tambourine Man, which sounds like he’s being tortured by the Klingons.

How does a sensible woman like myself still feel affection for an actor who’s old enough to be my father, who wears more makeup than I do, along with a wig and a girdle (which I only wear to Star Trek conventions beneath my blue Original Series uniform dress), and who has an acting range from A to C? Believe me, I ask myself that every time I see him making a fool of himself in things like Third Rock From The Sun, where he played the Big Giant Head, as well as on second-rate game shows like Show Me The Money, where he demonstrated as much grace as a dancing bear as he danced alongside beautiful girls with scrolls bearing million-dollar questions. If he wasn’t so charming and gosh-darned lovable, I would have dismissed him as a no-talent boob years ago.

His co-stars on the original Star Trek certainly didn’t share my admiration for him. They weren’t fooled by his charm, either, especially Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura); while being interviewed by Bill for his book Star Trek Memories, she took advantage of the opportunity to tell him “I’m not finished yet. I have to tell you why I despise you.” It came as a big surprise to Bill that she and the rest of the supporting cast—Walter Koenig (Ensign Chekov), George Takei (Lieutenant Sulu), and James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery Scot, aka “Scotty”)–considered him so self-absorbed that “not only hadn’t I been supportive of the other actors, at times I’d even been responsible for them losing time on screen and even took lines away from them”. In his own defense, Bill admits that “I was so intent on telling the story that I never focused on their needs or desires. The only thing I could say in my defense was that I never intentionally tried to hurt another actor. Perhaps I was ignorant, but I was never mean.”

Sounds generous enough, doesn’t it? Yet one paragraph later, he finds a way to turn it around and make his co-stars look at fault: “The fact is that Leonard (Nimoy) and Dee Kelly (Doctor McCoy) and I worked full days five days a week, while the other members of the cast came in as they were needed. When the show ended, as far as I knew, everybody was satisfied. Then the conventions started and the actors would go… and get standing ovations. Slowly…the supporting players began to consider themselves lead actors and no longer wanted to take a backseat. In some ways their perception of reality changed. But even after being criticized I do think of the cast with affection on some level.”

Which is more than what his former Star Trek co-stars can say about him, I’m afraid; none of them but Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) can say after all these years that he really likes Bill Shatner. That’s because Leonard is a total mensch, a true gentleman who never has a bad word to say about anybody. What a shame that Bill had to reveal in this book that he was also an alcoholic.

That came as a real shock to me, that Leonard Nimoy, the cool, pragmatic Mr. Spock, who was always so together and so in control of his emotions, would show up on the Star Trek set hung over from drinking all weekend, that when he would go to college lectures in small towns the first thing he’d ask when he checked into the motel was how late their bar was open, that he had to have a drink waiting for him in his dressing room whenever he was performing in a play, and that even while he was directing Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (which, in my unbiased opinion, is one of the better Star Trek films, being an odd number as well as directed by Leonard), he had to have a drink waiting for him offstage.

In Leonard’s defense, he admits that while he was making Star Trek “my marriage had fallen apart and at times I was very despondent. So I would go home every day and drink.” And “I never allowed it to affect my work. And as long as I never drank while I was working I had this illusion of control.” But it took his second wife Susan (to whom he is still married, fortunately) to point out to him that he didn’t really need to drink. In 1989, he was talking to her about how different his life was with her and how happy he felt and she asked him, “Then why do you drink so much?” That’s when he realized “You know, she’s right. I don’t have to do this anymore,” and finally called Alcoholics Anonymous. He went to his first meeting the next night and hasn’t had a drink since.

I’m happy that one of my favorite Star Trek actors, whom I love as much as Bill, was able to get his life together. But I still think it was mean of Bill to reveal his alcoholism in his autobiography; I mean, Leonard never even mentioned it in either of his own bios. It was the sort of thing I really didn’t want to know and would have been just as happy not to learn. It also makes me understand just why Bill’s other co-stars despised him so much; what right did he have to reveal somebody else’s secret like that? Did he even bother to ask Leonard first? Talk about self-absorbed! Bill, I still love you, but when you do things like that I don’t like you very much. And if you made a habit of doing things like that over the years, I can understand how the people who have to work with you on a daily basis came to despise you.

And yet, despite everything I’ve read in this book, I still feel genuine affection for Bill Shatner. Why, I don’t know; his boyish charm, his joie de vie, his brutal honesty about events like his third wife’s death by drowning, as well as his not-so-honest recollections of what happened on the Star Trek set in earlier volumes like the aforementioned Star Trek Memories. I can read between the lines to see the vanity and self-deception he used to edit some of his memories. I can also see his genuine pleasure in acting and pleasing his audiences, who, after all, have made him what he is today. Perhaps I should end this review with one last quote from “Up Till Now”, where Bill comments on what Star Trek means to him:

“Star Trek was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I look back upon it as the miracle that changed my life. In fact, it has changed your life, too. All the extraordinary opportunities I’ve been given since that time can be traced directly to that series. So if I hadn’t done Star Trek none of the things that followed would have happened, therefore you wouldn’t be reading this book. To fill the time you’re spending reading it, you would have had to find other things to do. And your life would be different.”

Yes, Bill, you’re right. My life would be different without you. Duller, for one thing. Less joyful, for another. I wouldn’t be married to the same man (another Star Trek fan); I wouldn’t be a science geek or a writer of science fiction. In fact, to paraphase comedienne Sandra Bernhard, without you I would be nothing. So thanks, Bill, for everything.