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

Photo: Everett Collection

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.

Photo: Universal Music Group

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.

Photo: Everett Collection

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.

Photo: Everett Collection

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.

Photo: Penguin Group

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 in 1998 and stars in a series of self-consciously ironic ads in which he croons melodramatically, backed by a cheesy lounge band.

Photo: Paramount/Everett Collection

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.

How William Shatner Went From Has-Been to Icon in […]