William Shatner is a man in a hurry. He has just signed an astounding 260 books in 25 minutes, leaving the assembled publicists slack-jawed with awe. Having agreed to an interview about his new autobiography, he is planted inside Jackie Collins’ cavernous tour bus, the quietest available spot on the busy floor of the recent Book Expo America.
“Let’s get this done,” he says, to kick things off.
If he’s rushed, it’s understandable. For one thing, promoting “Up Till Now” today has interrupted a day on horseback with his wife. For another, “Up Till Now,” Thomas Dunne Books ($25.95) is that rare celebrity autobiography that’s as entertaining as it is self-revealing, a genuinely fun read. He bristles at the suggestion that anyone should have expected less.
“Well, I wrote my book because I was asked to, and I’m busy,” he says. “And I thought, ‘I have to very carefully delineate my time’” But he decided, “This is a good opportunity to write something that was in effect a legacy for my children and grandchildren and give them a taste of what my life was about.”
And what a life the 77-year-old has had. He grew up Jewish in a Catholic section of Montreal, where he earned the nickname “Toughie.” He rose from the Canadian National Repertory Theater to Broadway to Hollywood and some of the most memorable roles in TV history. Along the way he has paddled a canoe from Montreal to New York, been fondled by Koko the gorilla, killed a bear with an arrow, and arranged to sell his kidney stone for $75,000 for charity.
Shatner says he dictated stories “that I saw as tiny mirrors of incidences in my life” to co-writer David Fisher, who did the book’s first draft. On the second draft the actor “tried to find some meaning behind the series of incidences.”
What kind of meaning? He says he became aware of the ripple effect of small choices one makes. He writes in the book, for example, how his decision to record the 1968 album “The Transformed Man,” with its unearthly version of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” became the favorite of an advertising copywriter decades later. That led to his commercials for Priceline.com and his 2004 album “Has Been” - “which I look at with great pride” - which was staged by the Milwaukee Ballet, which he shot as a documentary, “Gonzo Ballet.”
His life, or at least his book, is like that.
“I became aware of these unconscious decisions you make all your life, which lead to very conscious results,” he says. “The lesson I’ve tried to learn from looking at my life was trying to be more conscious of spending the time with you instead of my wife on horseback.”
Really, Mr. Shatner, we’re sorry.
“Not at all,” he says, smiling. “You’d think if there’s anybody, Dallas would understand.”
The need to be working constantly is also a thread in the book. For much of his career, he had a simple definition for success: having $1,800 in the bank. Is that what drives him to take on so many projects?
“Well, I think that’s gone. This isn’t my bus,” he says, looking around Collins’ studio apartment on wheels. “But I could buy it, I suppose.”
But if his track record indicates he’ll rarely say no to a project, he doesn’t see himself as a hustler.
“The way I see it, from my point of view, it isn’t hustling. It’s, the opportunity is there. And why not avail oneself of it? Like a guy says, ‘Would you like to write a book?’ And I say, ‘OK, I’ll write the book.’ A guy says, ‘I’d like to give you a lot of money if you’ll stand with me and have a picture taken.’ Click, it’s over. A lot of money goes to some kids who could use it. Well, I’m not hustling for that.”
(Although in this case, Shatner was researching the offer to make sure it wouldn’t damage his reputation.)
“But if I’m passing a kidney stone, and the guy’s going to throw it out, and someone wants to buy it, I’ll bargain with him for how much it’s worth, and give the money to charity. I’m not hustling.”
Although his book is poignant at times - he writes openly about his failings as a husband with his first two wives and extensively about the alcoholism and drowning death of his third - the book is punctuated with great storytelling. And certainly, as many have written, he has an ability to laugh at himself. And have fun. And that’s the point, he says.
“I don’t have much time left,” he says. “So if I’m hustling at all it’s because ... it’s the football hustle. ‘Let’s move at a double pace because the yards are giving out. Double time now because there isn’t that much time.’ You may interpret it as a hustle. I’m thinking, ‘let’s get some stuff - let’s get it all done.’”
One thing he does not have time for: Elaborating on the ill will expressed toward him by other Star Trek cast members, for example in “Up Till Now,” Shatner acknowledges having been self-absorbed as he was playing Captain Kirk. But without mentioning anyone by name, he says that part of the book is “getting more attention than it deserves,” and any problem anyone has with his behavior in that long-ago era is theirs, not his.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with somebody who holds a grudge for 40 years,” he says. “I don’t even know what the grudge is about. It certainly hasn’t occupied my time. My reverence is the fact that I have a great friend in Leonard Nimoy that started there. And I cherish that more than most things.”
And with that, it’s time to head back to his wife, Elizabeth, and his horses, which they are preparing for an arena competition the next day.
“So I was on two horses this morning, came down here, and I’m gonna go back there right now and get on some more,” he says.
Sounds like time well spent.