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Live Long, Prosper

Jim Kirk didn't die. Bill Shatner just got scared to death.

One day long ago--or not, because no one except he and a rare few know the precise date--an actor dove into the ocean to save a drowning boy. He did not want to do it, but he had no choice. They gave him none, those who gathered around and expected him to do it. After all, he was their valiant hero, their bold captain, and he could not refuse their pleas. They shouted his name, though it wasn't really his name. His name was, and is, Bill. Not Jim. Not Captain Kirk. But that's what they called him, and for a moment he believed them, believed he wasthat other man--that immortal icon, a rescuer of planets and galaxies and, yes, drowning little boys.

So he dove into the water and swam out to the young man, only to realize the child was too far out of reach. Bill had gone as far as he could, and it wasn't far enough--only far enough to realize he, too, would need to be rescued, lest he also choke on the waves and die not as a hero, but as a fool. On that day, William Shatner realized one thing: He was not Captain James Tiberius Kirk, no matter what anyone else said.

"But he had to try," says Mark Altman, who recounts this little-known and seldom-told story because Shatner himself does not like to tell it. "He had to. After all, he was Captain Kirk."

Mirror, mirror: Though Captain Kirk died in 1994, William Shatner keeps him alive in a series of Star Trek novels.
Mirror, mirror: Though Captain Kirk died in 1994, William Shatner keeps him alive in a series of Star Trek novels.

Altman knows this tale only because, as co-writer of the 1999 movie Free Enterprise, Shatner told it to him so it could be used in the movie, but only if it were dramatically altered. In Free Enterprise, Shatner plays "Bill," a fictionalized, exaggerated, yet wholly recognizable version of the captain of the Starship Enterprise--Shatner as narcissistic drunk, as clumsy womanizer, as self-aggrandizing ham, as bloated schmuck. "Vainglorious," Bill would call "Bill." It was he who demanded to be portrayed this way; he wouldn't act in the film unless he would be made to look flawed, fallible, real. Altman and Robert Burnett, who co-wrote and directed the movie, had grown up idolizing Captain Kirk and initially wanted to pay homage to the actor who played him, yet he'd have none of it. Shatner was too embarrassed to play himself as oracle, as idol. He'd play himself only as person and parody, but not as Kirk. Jim and Bill were not the same guy. At least that's what he kept telling himself, telling all those fans at conventions, telling anyone who'd listen and take him seriously.

In the script, Altman and Burnett altered Shatner's story. It became a tale about the time "Bill" tried to rescue a child from a burning house, only to wind up empty-handed and feeling foolish--"ridiculous," Shatner says in the movie, his eyes growing a little damp as he recounts the tale. But the scene never made the final cut after test audiences found it redundant: Burnett and Altman excised it at the last second, so upsetting Shatner he argued in vain for its restoration.

"It was meaningful to him, and it would have proved meaningful to anyone who knows Bill's work," says Altman, author of several books about Star Trek. "It's meaningful because those expectations--'Hey, you're Captain Kirk'--aren't just external. They've come to be internalized as well."

Though it had almost no theatrical distribution, Free Enterpriselaunched a second career for Shatner--one that finds him making fun of himself, whether he's sitting next to Conan O'Brien or Craig Kilborn, teaching T.J. Hooker moves to Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy in the movie Showtimeor introducing rock-and-roll One-Hit Wondersfor VH1 and Z-grade horror films for the Sci Fi Channel series Full Moon Fright Night. Representatives from the advertising agency pitching Priceline.com, the discount air-fare Web site, attended the Free Enterprisepremiere and hired Shatner to appear in TV commercials as a hipster lounge lizard croaking out tunes performed by members of Sleater-Kinney and Helium. He returns in a new series of Priceline ads this month--which "won't be in the comedic vein of the previous campaign," Shatner says now, "but they'll still be some fun while getting the message out."

So, yes, Bill knows he is not Captain Kirk. He knows what he is, better than anyone: has-been and comeback kid, laughingstock and legend, everything in between. He's been a Shakespearean-trained actor who began in the movies starring alongside Yul Brynner (1958's The Brothers Karamazov) and Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster (1961's Judgment at Nuremberg). A star of early television, having been part of classic episodes of The Twilight Zoneand Alfred Hitchcock Presentsand The Defenders, among so many others. The captain of the Enterprise. A cop named T.J. Hooker. A game-show guest in the 1970s, when no one would give him work. The star of Z-grade movies, including Kingdom of the Spidersand The Devil's Rain, when they would give him work.

At 71, Shatner is "running as fast as I can," he likes to say, sprinting from meeting to movie set to race-car track to horse stable to screening room to script conference. He doesn't know what to promote during this conversation, because he's got a dozen things to pitch: two new books (including I'm Working on That, about how Trek's technology exists in the everyday world), a paintball charity fund-raiser, TV shows, movies, a DVD called Mind Meldin which he shares Trektales with Leonard Nimoy.

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