In 1966, Montreal-born William Shatner was cast in the role that would change his life, Capt. James Tiberius Kirk in NBC's sci-fi drama "Star Trek." Shatner would go on to play the starship captain for three seasons before reprising Kirk in a Saturday morning cartoon and then in several "Trek" movies throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s until Kirk's demise in 1994's "Star Trek Generations." There's no argument that Shatner — who celebrated his 91st birthday in March 2022 — will forever be associated with his "Trek" character. And while Kirk will always be his signature role, the truth is that it's one of many for an actor who first made his way to Hollywood in the 1950s after performing Shakespeare with the famed Stratford Festival in his native Canada.
In fact, Shatner has amassed a whopping 250 screen credits over the years. His roles have run the gamut, ranging from Ranger Bob in the Canadian version of "Howdy Doody," to Alexander the Great (in a 1963 TV movie co-starring "Batman" icon Adam West), to a small role opposite Spencer Tracy in "Judgment at Nuremberg," to security mogul Walter Bascom in the "TekWar" franchise (which he also created). Obviously, those roles are merely the tip of the iceberg in an acting career spanning an extraordinary eight decades — and counting. With that in mind, set phasers to "nostalgia" for a look back at the 12 best William Shatner roles that aren't Capt. James T. Kirk.
Alexey Karamazov In The Brothers Karamazov (1958)
William Shatner had logged a few TV appearances, both in Canada and eventually in the U.S., when he made his film debut in "The Brothers Karamazov," the 1958 adaptation of the iconic novel by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Starring opposite Lee J. Cobb (as patriarch Fyodor Karamazov), Yul Brynner (eldest Karamazov brother Dmitri), and Richard Basehart (middle brother Ivan), Shatner played the youngest Karamazov brother, Alexey, a wannabe monk. Due to the character's vocation, Shatner's hair was styled into short bangs — which oddly presaged the 'do sported by his future "Star Trek" co-star Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Despite being something of a screen novice, Shatner holds his own among a cast of screen veterans in what, at the time, was the biggest project in which he'd yet to be involved.
While reviews for the 145-minute Russian morality tale were mixed, "The Brothers Karamazov" proved to be the golden key that opened the doors to Hollywood and further high-profile roles. According to Shatner, he felt he landed the role not necessarily because of his acting talent but because of his cheekbones. "Yul Brynner had big cheekbones, and a couple of the other brothers had already been cast," Shatner explained. "They were name actors, and I think the casting people at MGM saw my cheekbones and said, 'He's the guy that should play the younger brother.'"
Bob Wilson In The Twilight Zone's Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (1963)
Shatner's one-off guest-starring role in a 1958 episode of "The Twilight Zone" ranks among his most memorable performances. And why wouldn't it? In "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Shatner is jittery airline passenger Bob Wilson, whose fear of flying is compounded by the fact that every time he peers out the airplane window he sees a ferocious-looking monster attacking the plane's wing in the midst of a horrific storm, each flash of lightning illuminating the creature's destructiveness. Wilson's sheer panic is sent into overdrive when none of the flight attendants nor his fellow passengers are able to see what he does. Despite Wilson's multiple sightings of the beast, nobody believes him, coming to conclude that he's lost his marbles (something Wilson begins to wonder about himself).
While Shatner's performance is now considered a tour-de-force, and the episode itself one of the series' finest, Shatner himself admitted he's never been particularly fond of his "Twilight Zone" work. "What was amusing, of course, was the Czechoslovakian acrobat who was in a little furry suit on the wing of the [plane]," Shatner said, noting that "there were times I looked at it and I thought, 'This might be the worst thing I've ever done.'" In fact, during an appearance at the Paley Center for Media, Shatner said of the episode, "I never quite understood why it has been so popular …"
Marc In Incubus (1966)
The 1996 horror thriller "Incubus" ranks as Shatner's weirdest movie … ever. Shatner plays an injured war hero named Marc, who lives a quiet, solitary life on an island with his sister when he meets a seductive succubus (Allyson Ames), who preys on the souls of the men she seduces after leading them to their deaths. When she and her succubus sister summon an incubus (their male equivalent), Marc battles the demonic entity. The supernatural element, however, isn't what makes "Incubus" so strange; it's the fact that the entirety of the dialogue is in Esperanto, a fake, made-up language that some — including the film's producers — believed was poised to become the single international language that would overtake all others. Since neither Shatner nor the other actors were fluent in Esperanto, they learned their lines phonetically. When the film was screened for an audience of Esperanto speakers, however, "Incubus" was met with howls of derisive laughter due to the actors' terrible pronunciation (producers had cheaped out on having an Esperanto coach on hand to prevent that from happening).
While Shatner delivered a compelling and — for him, anyhow — understated performance, the producers were unable to find distributors in any countries other than France, which was the only place where "Incubus" actually played. Thought to be gone forever after the negative had been lost in a fire, "Incubus" was eventually released on home video in 2001.
Rack Hansen In Kingdom Of The Spiders (1977)
The years after the original "Star Trek" were tough for Shatner. At the time, he was a flat-broke, recently divorced father of three reduced to acting in summer-stock theater. Because he couldn't afford hotels, he explained, "I lived out of the back of my truck, under a hard shell." As Shatner's career gradually picked up again in the early to mid-1970s, he eagerly accepted whatever he projects he was offered. Among those was rural veterinarian Rack Hansen in the 1977 schlock-horror classic "Kingdom of the Spiders." As Rack investigates a plague of large animals apparently killed by spider venom, he discovers that pesticides have caused the local tarantula population to mutate and become increasingly poisonous and highly aggressive. When a plan to kill the spiders with more pesticide goes awry, the ticked-off arachnids strike back by embarking on a full-on rampage against the citizens of Rack's Arizona town.
For fans of Shatner's particular style of acting, "Kingdom of the Spiders" is something of a master class in committing to a ridiculous premise and running with it. Meanwhile, since 1977 was long before the era of CGI, Shatner spent a considerable amount of filming with live tarantulas crawling all over him. According to Shatner, the most challenging part of the film was pretending he wasn't legitimately terrified. He joked, "A falsetto coming from me, of great fear, a piercing scream, would not be within my character as publicly held."
Commander Buck Murdock In Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)
Leslie Nielsen reinvigorated his career by spoofing his dramatic leading man persona in pun-laden comedy "Airplane!" and William Shatner followed a near-identical trajectory in "Airplane II: The Sequel," when presented with what was, for all intents and purposes, a brilliantly pointed spoof of Capt. Kirk. Shatner portrays Commander Buck Murdock, who runs a U.S. government base beneath the surface of the moon, and he's charged with helping an errant space shuttle land safely. While Shatner is only in the film for seven minutes or so, he follows Nielsen's lead by playing it straight while deadpanning the most ridiculous dialogue.
As Shatner revealed in a subsequent interview, many of his lines in the film had been improvised on the spot, as he performed multiple takes — and multiple jokes — in his scenes. "You do something on the set and a year later you see it in a film," he explained. "I went to see 'Airplane II', and one of the lines that I'd ad-libbed, which I forget now, but which I knew when I did it I had timed correctly, got a huge laugh in the movie theater. So I felt terrific, warmed by the reaction to the delivery of that one line a year later."
Sgt. T.J. Hooker In T.J. Hooker (1982-1986)
The positive response to Shatner's comedic hijinks in "Airplane II" heralded a shift in Shatner's career toward more comedic roles. Before he could capitalize on that, however, he landed the lead in the TV cop show "T.J. Hooker." Shatner played the titular character, Sgt. Thomas Jefferson "T.J." Hooker, a police officer in an unnamed city who gives up his role as a plainclothes detective because he believes he can more effectively fight crime as a uniformed officer. Featuring a supporting cast including young up-and-comers Heather Locklear and Adrian Zmed, the show was devised as a star vehicle for Shatner, who brought enough Kirk-like qualities (including a certain rakish impulsiveness) to the part while also making sure the character was more than just a carbon copy of his most famous character.
"T.J. Hooker" proved to be an immediate hit and ran for five successful seasons until its cancellation in 1986. In fact, the show's enduring popularity even led to talk of a big-screen revival in 2009 that would reconfigure the property as a comedy (that plan, however, never actually bore fruit). Of particular interest for "Star Trek" fans was a 1983 episode in which Shatner reunited with Leonard Nimoy, marking the first time in ages the two actors appeared together in a project that didn't have the words "Star Trek" in the title.
Bill In Free Enterprise (1998)
If "Airplane II" represented Shatner dipping his toe into the comedy pool, the 1998 indie flick "Free Enterprise" saw him diving headfirst into the deep end. Boasting a "Trek"-referential title, the film featured Shatner in a role that only he could play: himself, albeit a ridiculously skewed version. The premise involves two hardcore "Trek" fans — Rafer Weigel and a pre-"Will & Grace" Eric McCormack — who wind up meeting their idol, Bill Shatner, who winds up befriending the pair and ultimately becoming a mentor. Any fantasies they have about Shatner, however, are put to rest when they realize he's not actually Capt. Kirk, but a narcissistic blowhard with a drinking problem and a dream to mount a rap version of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" — something that he actually does, both brilliantly and hilariously in the film's signature scene.
Shatner received rave reviews for parodying himself — something that he insisted wasn't actually his intention. "In 'Free Enterprise,' I was playing a character named Shatner, a vainglorious sort of tilting-at-windmills kind of character," he said. "But other than the name … If it hadn't been named Shatner, I wouldn't have recognized it as me, although other people may have."
The Giant Big Head In 3rd Rock From The Sun (1999-2000)
Buoyed by the rave reviews for spoofing himself in "Free Enterprise," Shatner continued down the comedy path with a series of hilarious TV commercials for Priceline. In 1999, Shatner further cemented his comedy cred when he made the first of five guest-starring appearances on the hit sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun." In the series, John Lithgow starred as the leader of a group of aliens who have come to Earth, where they've taken human form in order to study this odd species. Lithgow and his crew are all under the command of their superior, the Big Giant Head. While the character initially went unseen, Shatner played the Big Giant Head during Seasons 4 and 5; one episode even featured the Big Giant Head taking his first airplane flight, with Shatner slyly referencing his "Twilight Zone" role when his character complained about seeing something terrifying on the plane's wing.
While Shatner's earlier forays into comedy saw him sending up his "Star Trek" persona and even himself, "3rd Rock" took Shatner to a level that fans had never seen him go before: full-on wackadoodle. Viewers noticed, as did Emmy voters, who nominated him in 1999 for the outstanding guest actor in a comedy series category. "Playing farce with John Lithgow was dangerous," said Shatner of appearing on the show, "and it was the great joy of my career."
Stan Fields In Miss Congeniality (2000)
Shatner continued leaning into comedy for his supporting role in "Miss Congeniality," the 2000 film starring Sandra Bullock as an FBI agent tasked with going undercover as a contestant in a beauty pageant in order to thwart a terrorist threat to bomb the event. Shatner plays Stan Fields, clueless host of the Miss United States pageant, and although it's a fairly small role, Shatner handily steals every scene he's in. Clearly channeling longtime Miss America host Bert Parks, Shatner's take on a vacuous host trying desperately to hold things together as the live television broadcast goes off the rails is undeniably hilarious. In one scene, Stan asks Miss Rhode Island to describe her "perfect date," and she responds, "I'd have to say April 25th, because it's not too hot, not too cold, all you need is a light jacket." The expression on Shatner's face as it morphs from a wide grin to increasingly confused and then crestfallen is as subtle as it is funny, without him having to utter a single word.
Shatner returned for the ill-conceived sequel, 2005's "Miss Congeniality: Armed and Fabulous" — although the less said about that the better. Meanwhile, in a bizarre example of life imitating art, Shatner's role in "Miss Congeniality" saw him become an actual pageant host when he was tapped to emcee the 2001 edition of the Miss USA pageant.
The Dodgeball Chancellor In Dodgeball: An Underdog Story (2004)
It's true that Shatner's appearance in "Dodgeball: An Underdog Story" can generously be described as a glorified cameo, yet he certainly makes the most of his brief screen time in the 2004 comedy. In the film, Vince Vaughn stars as Peter La Fleur, owner of Average Joe's Gym, which caters to the kind of clientele its moniker would suggest. Facing steep competition from a slick new fitness facility owned by uber-fit White Goodman (Ben Stiller), the two competitors face off in a dodgeball competition, with Peter desperate to win the cash prize that will prevent his gym from going under. Shatner plays himself, who also happens to serve as chancellor of the redundantly titled American Dodgeball Association of America. The actor tapped into the faux version of himself from "Free Enterprise" and had become increasingly content to spoof his persona as a narcissistic attention hog.
That particular version of himself, he explained in an interview, was something that he embraced — initially reluctantly but eventually enthusiastically — when he realized he'd been saddled with it, and really didn't have a choice. "In most cases — and I think so in mine — that persona is thrust upon you by the audience and by the press," he said. "They see some characteristic and inflate it, and it becomes your character."
Ozzie The Opossum In Over The Hedge (2006)
Shatner is no novice to voice acting. He famously reprised Capt. Kirk in "Star Trek: The Animated Series," and has voiced characters occasionally in animated TV series and movies over the years. Never was this put to better use than in the 2006 hit "Over the Hedge," about a crew of critters who bust through the titular hedge that's meant to keep them out of a bucolic suburban neighborhood. Despite being part of an A-list voice cast that also included Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Wanda Sykes, Steve Carell, and Nick Nolte, Shatner stands out as an opossum named Ozzie. In Ozzie's signature scene, he literally plays possum by pretending to be dead — which includes a make-believe death scene that leaves Kirk's demise in "Star Trek Generations" in the dust when it comes to sheer Shatner-esque hamminess. "Mother, is that you? Beckoning me into the light?" Ozzie proclaims. "Must. Move. Toward. The light." As a bonus, Shatner also appears on the "Over the Hedge" soundtrack in the song "Rockin' the Suburbs," in which he reunites with his "Has Been" musical collaborator Ben Folds.
Interestingly, animation holds a special place in Shatner's heart. "'Snow White' was my first film," he recalled. "I still have a memory of seeing it in a dark movie theater in Montreal with my father and staying at least two if not three times. I hope kids have as good a time with 'Over the Hedge.'"
Denny Crane In The Practice And Boston Legal (2004-2008)
If one single character rivals Capt. Kirk in William Shatner's vast pantheon of screen roles, it has to be unhinged attorney Denny Crane. Shatner first played the character in 2004, in a five-episode guest-starring stint on David E. Kelley's legal drama "The Practice." The character — and Shatner's undeniable chemistry with "The Practice" star James Spader — proved so popular with viewers that the two reunited in a spinoff, "Boston Legal." In Crane, Shatner was given the chance to embody a larger-than-life character, a powerful and brilliant lawyer whose eccentric streak tended to mask the fact that his increasingly erratic behavior was brought on by Alzheimer's. Asked whether Kirk or Crane would make a better lawyer, Shatner quipped, "Well, if you want to be entertained in court and still win, that would be Denny Crane. If you wanted to win your case very quickly and get a decision efficiently, you'd want Captain Kirk on your side. Kirk would need an assistant lawyer, Spock. Crane would have someone by his side, but he wouldn't remember his name."
Crane ultimately landed Shatner six Emmy nominations and two wins, one as a guest actor for "The Practice," another as supporting actor in "Boston Legal." When he accepted his first Emmy (awarded during a pre-show ceremony), Shatner — then 73 — quipped, "What took you so long?"
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