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How William Shatner Went From Has-Been to Icon in Seven Self-Aware Steps

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1. In 1964, NBC rejects the pilot for Star Trek, claiming it’s too cerebral. Creator Gene Roddenberry revamps the show in 1966, canning the original captain (named Pike) and hiring William Shatner, a Montreal-born, Shakespearean-trained actor, to play Captain James T. Kirk, a swaggering charmer with a penchant for impassioned, staccato speeches and a weakness for foil-clad space babes.




2. In 1968, Shatner releases an album, The Transformed Man, featuring spoken-word covers of famous songs. (The record goes on to become a staple of worst-ever lists.) A year later, Star Trek is canceled after three seasons, and Shatner—now typecast as a space hunk—finds his career stalled. His wife leaves him. He survives on TV movies and regional theater, and he moves into a camper.




3. Star Trek reruns attract a cult following, prompting a Shatner return in a plodding, soporific Star Trek movie in 1979. However, a swashbuckling sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is a hit, thanks largely to Shatner’s ham-tastic showdowns with nemesis Ricardo Montalban. A scene in which Shatner screams “Khaaaaaaaaaan!” to the heavens becomes a running nerd in-joke, later parodied on Seinfeld.




4. Shatner’s rejuvenation leads to the title role in T.J. Hooker, a lamentable 1982 ABC cop show in which a paunchy Shatner slides across car hoods and mentors Heather Locklear. The network cans the series after three much-mocked seasons. But by now, Shatner has discovered the utility of spoofing his own iconic status: In 1982, he appears as a pompous space captain in Airplane II: The Sequel.




5. In 1986, Shatner cements his comedic bona fides during a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live; in one sketch, he barks at a group of Trekkie nerds to “Get a life!” Trek fans are horrified, but Shatner’s profile rises. After extending his brand with a series of best-selling sci-fi novels, he’s pegged as the spokesman for Priceline.com in 1998 and stars in a series of self-consciously ironic ads in which he croons melodramatically, backed by a cheesy lounge band.




6. In 2004, Shatner guest-stars on The Practice—a role that earns him the lead in a spinoff, Boston Legal, an Emmy win, and, later, a Golden Globe. The TV success coincides with raves for his cheekily titled album, Has Been, produced by indie star Ben Folds. In a gesture of playful defiance, Shatner, age 73, ends an L.A. concert with “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”—a nod to Transformed Man—then raises a fist. Then flips the bird.



7.To mark April 1, Spike TV airs Invasion Iowa, a reality series in which an entire town gets Punk’d into believing it’s the site for a film shoot. The star? Shatner, of course, whose own career reads like an audacious, brilliant prank: From sci-fi beefcake to self-conscious punch line to legitimately lauded icon.




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