William Shatner has just returned from a work tour that took him to South Africa, France, and Nova Scotia.
"I'm really tired," he admits, when I catch up with him back at home in southern California. Old age is the final frontier for the former Captain James T Kirk of the Starship Enterprise — he's 88 — but, he says, "I'm flying out to Washington DC tomorrow, and then to Cannes." He could retire, but the idea is "not intriguing to me", he says.
So would he do a new Star Trek series?
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"Patrick Stewart is apparently doing that," he notes, in those familiar sonorous tones. Stewart, who played Capt Jean-Luc Picard on television and in films from 1987-2002 will return in Star Trek: Picard in January, but Shatner won't follow him.
"I'm not interested in doing another television series. My life is in the last throes of creativity and physical ability and I want to spend my time doing other things."
He's spreading his talents wide, as ever: this year alone he has hosted a TV show for the History Channel — The UnXplained, which investigates the paranormal; he's appeared in a horror film about a cursed relic, Devil's Revenge; made a guest appearance on sitcom The Big Bang Theory; and, he informs me, has been recording a new album.
"I'm in the midst of doing a blues album, trying to understand the blues and do my version of the blues."
Shatner has quite an unusual musical career, of which more later, but he's also been planning a major US and European tour (which reaches London in March), where he'll be live on stage recalling his years on the bridge of the Enterprise, after a screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). The low-budget follow-up to the semi-flop Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) is the most admired of the spin-off movies from the original TV series, which ran from 1966-69.
Shatner took over the role after the original pilot but, he confesses, nearly didn't take it at all.
"I was in New York and [director] Gene Roddenberry called me from Los Angeles — the network didn't want to buy [Star Trek] but were interested in making another pilot." He agreed to star in it, but by the time the show was greenlit for a series, six months later, he was in a play in Salt Lake City that was headed for Broadway.
"I was torn. This unknown thing called Star Trek had sold, but I was in two minds because it was a great play, and I wanted to do it." He boldly went and did Star Trek instead.
It was during a period in his career when his early promise seemed to have dissipated. Shatner had trained as a classical stage actor in his native Canada, made his Hollywood debut opposite Yul Brynner in MGM's big-screen adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov as early as 1954, and starred on Broadway in the same decade.
For a time, he was mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries such as Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, but his big break didn't happen. His role in the 1961 stage production of A Shot in the Dark, for instance, was rewritten for the 1964 film to accommodate Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau in his place.
Shatner gained a reputation for taking any role that came up. Today they'd call it "diluting the brand". His Kirk, though, was a wonderful creation — imperious, vain, unruffled; Shatner's own theatrical hauteur (displayed most entertainingly on his 1968 cult album The Transformed Man, in which he recites famous theatrical speeches, such as Henry V's St Crispin's Day call-to-arms, to the sound of some very Sixties music) translated well to a starship captain spreading suave masculine certainty to distant planets in the 22nd century.
Kirk shares "elements of majesty" with Shakespeare's heroes, Shatner tells me. He was wholly real, even when being beamed down to the surface of new worlds with the help of the aluminium glitter that provided the dematerialisation effect of the transporter. Some of the episodes he says were rather silly — "absolutely" — but there are ones he deeply admires, such as the time-travel episode The City on the Edge of Forever, from the first season, and Let That Be Your Last Battlefield from 1969, with its warring races of half-white, half-black aliens.
Shatner also performed the first kiss between a Caucasian man and an African-American woman on US TV, when his Kirk embraced Nichelle Nichols's Lt Uhura in an episode called Plato's Stepchildren.
In Nichols's account, director Roddenberry didn't know that Shatner would actually kiss her and was worried whether they could show it, so two executives were summoned to oversee the filming. I wonder how Shatner remembers it.
"Well, she's a beautiful woman. I look at Nichelle as eminently kissable. And being required to do it by the script gives you the permission, and it was a delight. As for the interracial aspect of it, I really didn't think of it. I was aware, but it had no significance to me."
Not all his relationships on set were so harmonious, however. More than one of his former crew have accused Shatner of being difficult and demanding. He rejects it.
"I've always prided myself on my professionalism. And there are some cast members who, for one reason or another, held a grudge. I don't understand it, because who in their right mind would hold a grudge, no matter what I did, short of killing somebody. What could I have done that would make somebody years later still talk about it as though it were happening now?"
Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, became a close friend over decades of visiting Star Trek conventions together. Yet Shatner revealed, after Nimoy died in 2015, that they hadn't spoken for five years, and later suggested it may have been because he filmed Nimoy for a documentary without his permission. Shatner released a book after Nimoy's death, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man.
I wonder if it's still a source of sadness that they had not spoken for so long? "Yeah, it's a total mystery to me." He takes some comfort in what a friend said to him, "that as you get deathly ill, you don't behave in the same manner you did".
Shatner's career has had its ups and downs since, with highlights being his years playing TJ Hooker in the Eighties and attorney Denny Crane in Boston Legal in the 2000s. He's experienced lows, too: "Failure is a body blow. You think you'll never recover, emotionally, socially and professionally. But some people survive for one reason or another — personality, talent, luck. And that seems to be the case with me."
His personal life, though, has been marked by tragedy. He's been wed four times: his first 13-year marriage, which gave him his three daughters, fell apart during the original Star Trek; his second lasted 23 years, but the third, to Nerine Kidd Shatner, ended when he found her dead in the swimming pool of their house in 1999. The autopsy revealed alcohol and Valium in her bloodstream. He later described her as suffering from alcoholism.
He tried to make sense of it in a spoken-word song, What Have You Done, on his 2004 album Has Been: "She was underwater / In the shadows /... Smaller and more vulnerable than in life". I ask him if he still feels traumatised. "Something like that never leaves you," he says. "I live in the house where she died, and the memory of Nerine never leaves me."
He married horse trainer Elizabeth Anderson in 2001. His musical career continued with albums such as Seeking Major Tom, in which he offers up spoken-word interpretations of space classics such as Elton John's Rocket Man and the Police's Walking on the Moon. He's written science-fiction novels, too.
Why does he think sci-fi fans were laughed at for so long? "Because of the we-don't-know aspect of science fiction, people tend to disparage it," he says. Creating it, he adds, "You just let your mind go as far as it'll go."