The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'Has-been' Shatner is a 'transformed man'

December 16, 2004
By Franklin Harris

Don't call William Shatner a has-been. That's just the name of his new compact disc.

At 73, Shatner is arguably only now hitting stride. He stars as fading legal legend Denny Crane on the hit ABC television series "Boston Legal," continuing in the role that won him an Emmy for "The Practice." He is doing the rounds on the late-night TV circuit, trading witticisms with Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. His TV and radio ads for Priceline are everywhere. And his recently released sophomore album, "Has Been," a follow-up to Shatner's much-maligned 1968 effort, "The Transformed Man," has shocked the world by earning favorable reviews.

And, of course, Shatner still has that "I used to be James T. Kirk" thing going for him.

Shatner has embraced his image as a geek hero and, in so doing, turned himself into a pop icon for geeks and normals alike. No longer must you be a Trekkie (or Trekker, or whatever) to appreciate the genius of Shatner. As Capt. Kirk, Shatner was the square-jawed hero. He always saved the day, and he always got the girl, even if she was green. Now, however, Shatner is a master of kitsch.

Who, back in the '60s, would have thought that the young Canadian actor whose "Star Trek" and "Twilight Zone" performances made him a cult figure among sci-fi fans would eventually find his calling in comedy? More now than in '68, Shatner is a transformed man.

As for when Shatner's transformation began, it started with his 1987 appearance on "Saturday Night Live." Everyone recalls the (in)famous "Get a Life" sketch, in which an exasperated Shatner tells an audience of stereotypically nerdy Trekkies to "get a life!" (Shatner now admits that the sketch was unfair to "Trek" fans.) But fewer remember his equally hilarious "Little Blue Riding Hood" sketch, in which he pokes fun at himself and the character he played for four seasons on the cop show "T.J. Hooker."

A decade later, Shatner starred as himself in the 1998 comedy "Free Enterprise," written by lifelong "Star Trek" fans Mark A. Altman (former editor of Sci-Fi Universe magazine) and Robert Meyer Burnett (who also directed). Altman and Burnett originally wrote Shatner as a kind of flawless, god-like character. But Shatner wanted nothing to do with the film until they rewrote his character as a "messed-up guy."

The fictionalized Shatner of "Free Enterprise" is certainly a mess. Among other things, he is obsessed with producing a musical version of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." And he'll play all of the roles.

When reminded that playing all of the roles in "Julius Caesar" would require that he stab himself in the back, Shatner deadpans, "I've done it before."

With "Free Enterprise," Shatner's transformation was complete. Shatner was no longer just the guy who portrayed an icon, but an icon in his own right, fearlessly mocking his own, bizarre celebrity status. Now, he was ready to capitalize.

Which brings us back to "Has Been" and Shatner's distinctive, spoken-word renditions of songs old and new. He plays up the kitsch factor on songs like "You'll Have Time," a gospel-style meditation on death, and the title track, a response to his critics reminiscent of the theme to "Rawhide." But he really surprises us with his catchy, radio-friendly cover of "Common People," which improves on the original version by the British pop band Pulp.

"Has Been" shows that Shatner may not be a singer, but he can indeed act. He infuses every line of every song with just the right emotion, using even his oft-mimicked staccato delivery to ... great ... effect.

It's quite a turnaround for an actor who, in the 1970s, languished in films like "Kingdom of the Spiders" and "The Devil's Rain." But now, even they are part of the Shatner legend. We all laugh, and Shatner, more than anyone, is in on the joke.

With his Midas touch, Shatner can turn anything into gold.

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