For years, William Shatner wanted no part of the convention scene, had no desire to appear in front of the Trekkies, fanboys and obsessive sci-fi geeks who all craved a piece of Capt. James Tiberius Kirk.
"That's very true," says Shatner, whose stance was perfectly captured in a 1986 "Saturday Night Live" skit, in which he urged a convention of costumed "Star Trek" fans to "get a life, will you, people!"
But that was then. Today, Shatner is at peace with Captain Kirk — and, more important, with Captain Kirk's fans. On Aug. 3, he'll be in Hunt Valley for the 35th annual Shore Leave sci-fi convention, chatting, answering questions, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
"There are some wonderful fans out there, large numbers of them," says Shatner. "I'm very grateful."
So why the change of heart?
"The vast numbers of people coming to these conventions," Shatner says simply, suggesting it would be ridiculous for any actor to ignore such an adoring fan base.
"I realized," the 82-year-old actor says over the phone from his California offices, "that I was ignoring a large segment of the population. … They were the people I should pay the most attention to."
If the old William Shatner seemed uncomfortable with his pop-culture fame and shied away from the spotlight that came with starring in a TV series beloved like few others, the current Shatner has no such qualms. He speaks freely of life as (or should that be with?) Captain Kirk, happily relates stories of filming "Star Trek" and its movie sequels, understands how lucky he is. After some six decades in show business, he's still a TV mainstay (although these days more for his Priceline commercials than for his acting in shows), and he still brings out the crowds.
He even understands why the fans still show up, 47 years after he first put on a Starfleet uniform, 19 years after he last played the part (in the film "Star Trek: Generations"). He and Kirk, Shatner suspects, are more than just actor and character. And that makes him very happy.
"It's part of a mythology," the Canadian-born actor says. "People who go to conventions are participating in the ritual. … Human beings are hard-wired to get a story, to try and eke out some understanding of our existence, of what our future will be, what the past is. That's what science fiction is all about."
But beyond all that, Shatner notes, such attention is flattering — and, he says, "never gets old." Even when comics poke fun at his characters, or exaggerate his deliberate mannerisms and speech patterns — hey, at least they noticed.
"In a way, there's a compliment involved there," he says. "If you took anybody in television now — I don't watch a lot of television, so maybe I'm missing something — but are there any characters around now that you could spoof? Is there anybody where you could say, 'We want to do a sketch about that'?"
In a resume that dates to 1951, Shatner has played all sorts of memorable parts — some of them even earthbound. He had a key role in the Oscar-winning 1961 film "Judgment at Nuremberg," starred in two key "Twilight Zone" episodes (including "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," in which his character watches helplessly as a gremlin methodically destroys a plane in midflight), played high-octane cop T.J. Hooker for five seasons on ABC in the mid-1980s and won a pair of Emmys for playing the egotistical (and occasionally addled) Denny Crane on "The Practice" and "Boston Legal."
But it's for playing the supremely confident Capt. James T. Kirk that Shatner will always be best known; the good captain even showed up at this year's Oscars ceremony, "explaining" to host Seth MacFarlane how poorly he was doing.
Not bad, Shatner says, for an acting gig that seemed like nothing special when he took the role in 1966.
"I had no idea. Nobody had any idea of what was going to transpire," says Shatner. "I had 10 pages to learn today, then get ready for tomorrow, which was another 10 pages. I was totally consumed with what I had to do, what my responsibilities were as an actor. … I had no knowledge. I just had my nose to the grindstone, trying to grind those hours out."
These days, Shatner remains busy, in no small part because he has become an active participant in furthering the "Star Trek" franchise. He has written or co-written 10 "Star Trek" books, including one in which he brought Kirk back to life (he had died at the end of "Star Trek: Generations"). He has written a book of "Star Trek" ruminations and reminiscences titled "Get a Life" (implying that fans have gotten over any lingering hard feelings from that 1986 "SNL" skit). And he wrote and directed 2011's "The Captains," a documentary in which he chronicles his own career and interviews the five other actors — Patrick Stewart, Scott Bakula, Kate Mulgrew, Avery Brooks and Chris Pine — who have played Starfleet captains on television or in the movies.
Among his most recent projects is an extension of the "Captains" interviews, titled "The Captains Close-Up."
Although "Star Trek" itself has been rebooted under the guidance of director J.J. Abrams, Shatner wasn't invited to participate (unlike Leonard Nimoy, whose Mr. Spock plays a key role in both films). While conceding that he would "love to have been part of it," Shatner insists there are no hard feelings. "I don't know how you put the aging captain into something like that," he says.
He wishes the new franchise well. "J.J. Abrams is a terrific director who's brought a life force to the franchise," Shatner says. " 'Star Trek' will continue for a long time to come, because of him."
At 82, Shatner's still working it. In addition to the conventions and the commercials, he's still showing up on TV occasionally (most recently in a guest spot on "Hot In Cleveland"). He has an album coming out next month, with music by Billy Sherwood of Yes. He also shows horses in competition, often several at a time.
"People get exhausted, just riding their one or two horses, and I'm riding several and not tired," he says. "That's a marker for me, as to how I'm doing physically."
Coming to Baltimore, Shatner says, should bring back nothing but good memories. Some 20 years ago, suffering from the debilitating effects of the constant ringing-in-the-ears condition tinnitus, he came to Johns Hopkins Hospital. After being treated there by Dr. Pawel Jastreboff, Shatner says, he learned to live with the condition — there's no cure — and was able to resume his career.
"It was a last resort, before I committed suicide — it's really awful," Shatner says. "In the ensuing years, I have talked many people down from doing themselves harm because they couldn't stand it. I'm an example of how you can survive tinnitus.
"So yes, Baltimore has not only a warm place in my heart," Shatner says with a laugh, "but in my ear."
If you go
Shore Leave 35 is set for Aug. 2-4 at the Hunt Valley Inn, 245 Shawan Road in Cockeysville. William Shatner will be appearing Aug. 3 only. Tickets to the convention are $20-$85. Information: shore-leave.com.