Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Encyclopedia Shatnerica, by Robert Schnakenberg

Encyclopedia Shatnerica: An A to Z Guide to the Man and His Universe, by Robert Schnakenberg. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2008. Paper $16.95, 290pp. ISBN: 1-594-74230-8.

William Shatner, it may be said, is the biggest ass-grabbing, line-stealing, corset-busting vegetarian Western Civilization has ever seen. His career is summarized, in enjoyably malicious detail, in the most recent edition of Robert Schnakenberg’s little volume, expanded to include the memorably obese Denny Crane years, now sadly coming to an end.

Shatner, arguably the most boorish Canadian Jew ever, came up the hard way in early, live, black-and-white TV, playing everyone from “Ranger Bob” on Howdy Doody to Billy Budd. He had one big break in fifties Hollywood, playing Alexi Karamazov in the 1958 version of The Brothers Karamazov,1 but threw over the Tinsel Town scene to appear on Broadway as the male lead in The World of Suzie Wong, which, as Schankenberg tells it, would have failed but for Shatner’s determination to reshape the production from a tormented drama about forbidden sex (Suzie, played by France Nuyen, was a Chinese prostitute) into a crowd-pleasing comedy. Again, as Schankenberg tells it, both Nuyen and director Joshua Logan loathed Shatner, but the play was a hit, running for more than a year, and was made into a movie in 1960, even though neither Shatner nor Nuyen made the trip to Hollywood.2

After Suzie closed, Shatner seemed to accept his fate as a small-screen actor and worked endlessly on the tube, but never seemed to catch fire until he made contact with an ego as big as his own in the form of writer/producer/impresario Gene Roddenberry, founder/creator of modern nerd-dom, the four-eyed mama’s boy perennially dreaming of being a two-fisted ass kicker.

It’s doubtful that Roddenberry had the slightest idea of what he was doing when he put together that ever-bickering trio, Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy, the homoerotic equivalent of Newton’s three-body problem.3 Even the bitchy, prissy “Bones” was supposed to be a ladies’ man,4 while as for Spock, well, let Roddenberry tell it – “Spock is cool and calm on the outside, but on the inside he’s all man. And don’t the gals know it!5 Yet the two squabble endlessly, like rival cheerleaders fighting for the attention of the captain of the football team, who, naturally, can’t get enough of it.6 Schnakenberg’s book supplies hilarious on-set detail, including the fact that Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley were given special “high chairs” that allowed them both to sit and tower over everyone else on the set, who had to stand.7 Shatner sportingly referred to the rest of the cast as “the Seven Dwarves,” one reason why they’ve doled out endless disparaging comments about the big guy over the years.8

When he wasn’t rubbing his crotch up against his female co-stars,9 Shatner spent most of his time cutting out their lines, and everyone else’s, which explains why Sulu never says much of anything except “Yes, Captain” and Uhura’s dialogue is largely restricted to “I have Star Fleet Command, sir!” To top it all off, back in those incredibly primitive, pre-digital days, there was, almost unbelievably, only one telephone on the entire Star Trek set, that one telephone hogged, of course, by William Fucking Shatner.10

Star Trek buffs claim that there is a pattern to the original episodes, mostly a descending one, as falling ratings begat on-set dissension which begat further falling ratings which begat further on-set dissension. Frankly, I’ve never been able to see the difference: all of the shows have that strangely irritating Roddenberry kitsch, an all-pervasive lack of imagination marinated in obtuse and obtrusive moral uplift, leavened, if that’s the correct word, with clumsy and inappropriate quotations from Shakespeare – though I confess a weakness for the frequent episodes set on “bad girl” planets, where all the chicks wear lots of makeup and feature navel-exposing wardrobes.11

Yes, the Enterprise crashed, and the impact threatened to destroy the careers, if not the lives, of all the crew. Shatner entered his “Lost Years” – “There’s a five-year zone that I simply don’t remember,” Shatner says – a time when Bill was literally living in a trailer, hitched to a pickup truck, which he drove across the country in a desperate search for gigs in regional theater. ABC, in the grand tradition of Hollywood, claimed that Star Trek, which was syndicated all over the world, still hadn’t made a profit, and was paying Bill residuals of $40 a year (not a misprint).

When he wasn’t doing regional theater, Shatner appeared in a hilarious collection of bad films, some big screen and some made-for-TV,12 including the infamous Big Bad Mama (right), which gave Shatner the luxury of three nude scenes with Angie Dickinson, and the equally infamous The Devil’s Rain, in which Bill has his eyes gouged out by, yes, Ernie Borgnine.

Disaster films were very big in those days, and Shatner made a specialty of appearing in the made-for-TV versions. He played Charles “Toughie” Tobias in The Crash of Flight 401 (1978), opposite the mammacious Adrienne Barbeau (Maude), Ron Glass (Barney Miller), Sharon Gless (Cagney & Lacey), and bandleader Artie Shaw, whose recording of “Begin the Beguine” was number one way back in 1939. In Disaster on the Coastliner, Shatner played a con man who redeems himself in the company of Raymond Burr, Lloyd Bridges, E. G. Marshall, and Yvette Mimieux. Most bizarre of all was The Land of No Return, which paired Bill with Mel Tormé. The two crash land a plane filled with circus animals in the frozen wastes of Utah and, naturally, must struggle to survive. The only other members of the cast to receive billing are Donald Moffet (“Air Traffic Controller”), Caesar the Golden Eagle (as “Baby”), and Romulus (as “Romulus the Wolf”).13

Thanks to the fanaticism of Star Trek fans, Shatner survived the seventies to inflict his unique brand of bad acting on Generations X, Y, and Z, who are surely all grateful for the experience. As Schnakenberg tells it, the Star Trek flicks, like the original TV series, were plagued with tight budgets, bad scripts, and bad karma on the set, and the franchise, which proved far from bullet-proof, repeatedly threatened to collapse of its own weight. While most of the films are in fact dogs of the darkest hue, one has to admit that Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home (1986) is a very funny film and that, amazingly enough, Shatner himself is very funny as well.14

Despite his A-list salaries from the Star Trek film series, it wasn’t enough for Shatner. He continued to rumble and crash through the forests of American popular culture like an obese, drunken15 T. Rex with a toupee, and many were those crushed beneath his lumbering toes. He spent four years starring in the grotesqueT. J. Hooker, along with big-screen crap like Visiting Hours (Michael Ironside stalking Lee Grant) and cheesy, made-for-TV crap like Secrets of a Married Man(Bill cheating on his wife with whore Cybill Shepherd).

When Captain Kirk was finally killed off in the seventh Star Trek film, Shatner entered his second “Lost Years,” though this time around he didn’t have to live in a trailer. Despite the pile of cash he received from the revived Star Trek, Bill had an insatiable desire for work, and he began an endless round of self-parodying appearances that has yet to end. One of the casualties of this period was his twenty-year marriage to Marcy Lafferty, who had helped pull him from the depths of his first “Lost Years.” The divorce, in 1994, cost Shatner $8 million, which, combined with several palimony suits (the result of affairs that, naturally, helped break up the marriage), probably gave Shatner plenty of financial incentive to keep busy.

Marcy would return to Shatner’s life in 2003 when she sued him for supplying her with frozen horse semen, instead of “fresh cooled,” as specified in their divorce settlement (both Bill and Marcy were enthusiastic horse-breeders). To an actual horse-breeder, the difference between frozen and fresh-cooled is probably like night and day, but to the rest of us, well, we can’t get past the horse semen. Bill came out on top this time around, as he so often did when the subject was semen.

It was a 2003 gig, the made-for-TV A Carol Christmas, yet another reworking of the Dickens shtick, with Tori Spelling as Scrooge, Gary Coleman as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Shatner as the Ghost of Christmas Present, that revived his career once more. David E. Kelley, creator/writer of first The Practice and then Boston Legal saw the show – a very desperate and lonely David E. Kelley, one would guess – and decided that he needed Shatner.

Kelley proved to be a second Gene Roddenberry, a self-inflating windbag who found in Shatner’s egomania the perfect vehicle for his own. Kelley invented the character of Denny Crane for Shatner, borrowing heavily from both Kirk and Bill in doing so. Denny and Shatner were a huge hit, but Bill continued to pump out dogs on the side, doing films like Lil’ Pimp (2005), “the first film made entirely with Flash animation,” which linked Bill with Bernie Mac, David Spade, and Jennifer Tilly. The man just cannot stop working.

Kelley stuffed Boston Legal with fat, old stars like Shatner, Candice Bergman, and John Larroquette. ABC, tiring at last of catering to the Depends crowd, finally canceled the show in 2008. Fittingly, Kelley’s final episode included a bit in which someone somehow sues a TV network for not putting on enough shows starring fat, old actors. Where all this leaves Shatner is anyone’s guess, and I’m not guessing.


There’s a near-endless amount of Shatneriana floating around on both DVD and the Internet. As I’ve already indicated, I’m a big fan of Shatner’s performance in Star Trek IV, while Schnakenberg pumps for The Andersonville Trial, a 1970 “Broadway Theatre Archive” TV production, directed by George C. Scott, about the trial of the commandant of the infamous Confederate prison camp. Shatner plays Union prosecutor Lt. Col. Chipman.

Unless your tolerance for “George Takei sucked my cock”16 jokes is a lot higher than mine, you won’t enjoy the 2006 Comedy Central Roast for Bill, but comic Jeffrey Ross does get off one good one: “Last year we saluted Pamela Anderson, and this year we chose another bad actor with big tits.”

See below for Shatner’s legendary 1978 riff on “Rocket Man,” followed by the Chris Elliott version, followed in turn by “Stewie,” the sardonic infant on The Family Guy.

Chris Elliott


  1. I’ve never seen this version of the Brothers. In the book, Alexi, the saintly younger brother, is the moral center of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, while Ivan (Richard Basehart in the film) is the tormented nihilist who has the famous confrontation with the Grand Inquisitor. Bizarrely, the film made Dmitri, played by Yul Brynner, the most important brother, though in the book he’s the least important one, a natural, spontaneous fellow accused – unjustly, of course – of murder, probably because he’s the brother with the most active sex life, struggling to choose between Grushenka (Maria Schell) and Katya (Claire Bloom). []
  2. Instead, William Holden and Nancy Kwan got the leads. America’s addiction to wars with Asian nations created a small but persistent number of parts on Broadway and Hollywood for Asian women – usually sexy but not quite respectable – that were actually filled by Asian actresses, like Nuyen and Kwan. But since they could only play “exotics,” they couldn’t achieve real stardom. []
  3. The three-body problem has never been solved, and probably never will be. Even modern chaos theory throws up its hands in despair. []
  4. In real life, DeForest Kelley’s primary emotional attachment appears to have been to his pet Chihuahua. When little Pepe bought the farm, Kelley showed up on the Star Trek set in tears. Shatner burst out laughing, and Kelley refused to speak to him for two years. []
  5. From Star Trek and Me, a book Roddenberry published back in the early seventies, after the original series tanked. []
  6. I find this analogy compelling, but acknowledge its limits. A chick fight between Spock and McCoy is one thing I would not like to see. I developed this cheerleader/quarterback thesis more extensively – well, for three whole paragraphs – in a review of Master and Commander. I strongly suspect that author Patrick O’Brian based his characters Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin, who appear throughout his endless seafaring saga set during the Napoleonic Wars, directly on Kirk and Spock, just as Margaret Mitchell based Rhett Butler on the screen persona of Clark Gable and Scarlett O’Hara on Bette Davis. The first book of O’Brian’s series appeared in 1969. []
  7. A similar situation prevailed at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. There were only a handful of chairs, and they were reserved for princesses. Once the Duchess of St. Simon had a fainting fit while pregnant and sat in a “princess” chair, provoking a huge scandal. []
  8. Shatner must have hated the woefully untalented Walter Koenig, hired during the second season as a rip-off of Davy Jones, who in turn was ripping off Ringo Starr on The Monkees, NBC’s infamous rip-off of the Beatles. Despite a Russian accent that compared unfavorably with Ernie Borgnine’s, Koenig proved popular with the fans, and he demanded, and got, a high chair, just like the big guys. []
  9. Shatner evidently fancied himself a master of the art of frottage, or else he simply didn’t give a fuck. Co-stars like Morgan Fairchild and a pre-blimp Kirstie Alley complained bitterly of the practice, to no avail. Alley, appearing in Star Trek II, was so pissed off by Shatner’s persistent nuzzling à la cock that she refused to appear in Star Trek III unless she received the same salary as Bill (so at least we know her price, eh?). Paramount decided she wasn’t worth it, and replaced her with Robin Curtis. Judging from Sandra Bullock’s unflattering comments re Shatner’s age and belly at the recent Comedy Central roast (see supra), he was still at it as late as the year 2000, the date the two appeared in Miss Congeniality. []
  10. A second phone was added, and Shatner hogged that one too, reserving it for incoming calls (for him). []
  11. Schnakenberg confesses a weakness for “The Gamesters of Triskelion”: “Kirk spends most of the episode in a revealing leather harness, and the mind-numbing scenes of hand-to-hand brawling (set to the pulsating Star Trek ‘fight theme’) make this the perfect episode to bring to your next Fire Island cookout weekend.” []
  12. The seventies and the eighties were the high point of the made-for-TV movie. With no competition from cable, not to mention the Internet, the three networks had more money than they knew what to do with, so they spent it on massive prestige flicks and mini-series, not all of which starred Richard Chamberlin and Jaclyn Smith. []
  13. Mel actually got more screen time than Bill in this one. The thought of the Velvet Fog struggling to achieve on-screen rapport with Caesar the Golden Eagle and Romulus the Wolf is a grim one. Mel certainly earned his paycheck on that gig, and it couldn’t have been a fat one. []
  14. I especially liked the scene where a smug, condescending Kirk explains the bizarre mores of late twentieth-century San Franciscans to a deadpan Spock – their addiction to swearing in particular – getting it all wrong, of course. Later, when a cabbie yells “Kiss my ass, buddy” at Kirk, he responds “Oh, yeah? Well, double ass on you!” []
  15. This is a bit unfair to Shatner, who did all his damage while completely sober. []
  16. Takei is present at the roast, with what can only be described as a cock-sucking grin on his face. “Autographs $10, blowjobs free!” []