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The Age of Shatner

From ‘Star Trek’ to ‘the greatest TV star the medium has yet produced.’

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Last year, a man named Justin Halpern started posting the irascible mutterings of his own father on Twitter, followed by the phrase “s— my dad says.” Within weeks, a million people were “following” Halpern’s Twitter feed, and the publication of a collection of these sayings has been on the bestseller list for weeks now in preparation for the launch of a new CBS sitcom slightly more euphemistically titled $#*! My Dad Says.

The Age of Shatner

I have no idea whether the show is good or bad, though it is likely to score huge ratings upon its premiere, since it follows television’s second most successful sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. What I do know is that the premiere is a landmark cultural moment, because $#*! My Dad Says will enshrine its leading actor as the greatest TV star the medium has yet produced.

His name is William Shatner, and stop laughing.

How can I make such a claim about William Shatner, of all people? What of Bill Cosby? Or Lucille Ball? What of James Gandolfini, Jerry Seinfeld, Andy Griffith, even Dick van Dyke? He is not taken seriously as an actor, even though he won two Emmys for his work on the shows The Practice and Boston Legal. In truth, he’s something of a joke, the pitchman for Priceline.com, the fat old guy with a toupee who happily performs numbers from an embarrassing and self-serious rock-folk album he recorded back in the 1960s.

Here’s my case. No other television presence has endured longer as a leading performer—across five decades now. He held the spotlight on long-running shows in radically different genres from 1966 to 1969, from 1982 to 1986, and from 2004 to 2009. He is now bidding for another major hit in 2010, as he pushes 80, his first time as a regular in a half-hour format. They advertised Polaroid on Star Trek, Atari on T.J. Hooker, the Xbox on The Practice, and will be advertising the iPad on $#*! My Dad Says. And he was then and is now the draw.

What’s even more striking is that no other TV actor has succeeded both in inhabiting and transcending the shadow of his most significant and iconographic role as completely as Shatner has. He will always be James T. Kirk, the captain of the Starship Enterprise, as he was on Star Trek from 1966 to 1969 and in a series of seven hugely successful movies based on the series made between 1979 and 1994. But he is also T. J. Hooker, L.A. cop, from the series of the same name that ran from 1982 to 1986; and he is Denny Crane, the wild and occasionally senile powerhouse Boston corporate lawyer on The Practice and Boston Legal.

From Star Trek onward, Shatner has demonstrated that he was an actor of great intensity, no range, and a colossal propensity to overdo. A Canadian Jew, Shatner is a walking contradiction, a kosher ham. But he also has, oddly enough, a sense of humorous modesty. He knows he’s a joke, and he’s in on it, and people cannot help liking him for that. He decided he would be good-humored and good-natured about poking holes in his own reputation for grandiosity and vanity, and that proved essential to his longevity. He does a glorious comic turn in a winning little 1998 movie called Free Enterprise in which he plays an insanely vain version of himself intent on filming a version of Hamlet in which he plays all the parts.

He didn’t have to wrestle with the intolerable shadow of James T. Kirk, the way most television actors who create famous characters have, and have failed at, because at some point he realized he was a human cartoon no matter what part he played and he was fine with it.

The difference between television stars and movie stars is scale. Movie stars stretch out before us; television stars fit on the dressers in our bedroom. Shatner is a bite-sized hero, who acts larger than life but is comfortable being smaller than life. By embracing his two dimensionality, he transcended it. Plus he made hundreds of millions off Price-
line, making him one of the most successful TV pitchmen in history. And for his unique role in unifying broadcast television’s real purpose (the selling of commercials) with its purported purpose (making programs), Shatner is the perfect representative and creation of the age of the small screen.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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