Captain Awesome: How William Shatner Became a Pop Culture Treasure and Earned a Fortune
Captain James T. Kirk. T.J. Hooker. Denny Crane. The Negotiator.
Combined, they create the nearly mythical William Shatner, an actor caught somewhere between self and self-parody.
There’s no mistaking his voice and no escaping his charisma. Simply put, he’s a global treasure. So why wouldn’t you want to learn more about him? From captain of a spaceship to living in the trunk of his car, Shatner has lived an incredible life.
Find out more about the 87-year-old legend.
He Attributes His Work Ethic to His Dad
Shatner was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to his father, who owned a small men’s clothing manufacturing business, and his mother, an elocutionist with aspirations to be an actress.
While Shatner told the Guardian that neither of his parents had too much of an influence on him, he credits his father for his drive in his autobiography “Up Till Now.”
“My work ethic comes from my father,” writes Shatner. “His dream was that I would take over the business. So, as he had done, I worked in a factory packing suits. One my skills is good packing.
He goes on: “Had I not become an actor, I could have had a fine career in folding.”
He Sold a Kidney Stone for Charity (and it Was Expensive!)
In 2006, Shatner decided to drum up money for Habitat for Humanity in one of the most Shatner ways possible: By selling his kidney stone to a casino.
Initially the casino, GoldenPalace.com — that gambling site that paid for people to tattoo their forehead and to even rename themselves after their domain — offered $15,000 for the stone.
Shatner thought that was too low.
As Shatner told CBS, the stone was so big “you'd want to wear it on your finger,” and speculated that, “if you subjected it to extreme heat, it might turn out to be a diamond.”
Shatner finally punched up to a sales price of $25,000. It even included the surgical stent and string used to help pass the stone.
He’s Dealing With an Unusual Paternity Suit
In 2016, a man named Peter Sloan sued Shatner for $170 million, alleging that the actor was his father. Sloan accused Shatner of having a brief affair with his mother in 1956.
However, Sloan was put up for adoption after his birth. He began searching for both his parents in the ‘80s, and found his mother, Katherine Burt, who told him about a love affair with Shatner.
Shatner denied being Sloan’s father since first being confronted by Sloan in the ‘80s. Then, 30 years later, Sloan — who at one point went by Peter Shatner — decided to sue Shatner for $170 million.
That breaks down to “$30 million in compensatory damages, $90 million in punitive damages and $50 million for pain and suffering,” according to CNN.
And it’s Still Going On
If you thought a 60-year-old man seeking $170 million in damages from his alleged 87-year-old father in a paternity suit might sound excessive, so did the judge.
In early 2017, a judge tossed out Sloan’s lawsuit — in which Sloan had represented himself — and called it “a rambling recitation of various alleged meetings, letters, articles, radio transcripts and internet posts,” according to WFTV.
However, the judge gave him until the end of the month to refile the lawsuit as an updated complaint. And Sloan did. But this time, Sloan is asking for trial by jury. Compensation hasn’t been specified.
Sloan, an insurance broker from Florida, has written a book about his star-studded search for his parents.
“Star Trek” Didn’t Make Him Rich
Being Captain James T. Kirk on “Star Trek” didn’t catapult Shatner to fame and fortune. In fact, the show barely even paid.
“‘Star Trek’ was mostly perceived to have been an interesting and expensive failure,” he writes in “Up Till Now.” “It had lasted only three seasons; we had just barely made enough shows to allow it to be sold in syndication.”
None of the Original “Star Trek” Crew Earn Residuals
The original “Star Trek” aired from 1966 to 1969, several years before contracts included things like residuals, which would pay actors each time their show aired in reruns. As such, none of the original USS Enterprise crew would receive residual payments.
That must have saved the networks quite a bit of money, seeing as how the show is still airing on TV and streaming services 50 years later.
From Sleeping in Space to Sleeping in a Truck
After “Star Trek,” Shatner had a hard time coming across new roles; the show didn’t open up many new doors.
Shortly after the series ended, Shatner was broke and living out of his car, following the summer circuit of a play wherein he had landed a role. In his book he recalls this time, when he was recently divorced and struggling in the early ‘70s:
“To save money, I’d bought myself a ramshackle pickup truck, put a camper-shell in the rear bed, and drove it cross-country with my dog,” Shatner writes in his autobiography. “Each week I’d park the truck way in the back of the theater parking lot and live in it.”
He adds: “I was absolutely broke, terribly lonely, terrified of failure, and starring in a comedy. I’d starred in three failed TV series, and I was a divorced father of three children living in the back of a truck. That was a tragedy.”
Shatner would go on to take practically any role given to him (at least in his younger years). He amassed a prolific filmography.
He Co-Founded a Special Effects Production Company
In 1994, Shatner co-founded a computer generated imagery (CGI) animation company called C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures along with three other people involved in the special effects industry.
The company held CGI production credits on films like “Silent Hill,” “Saw 2,” “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and the 2000 “X-Men” movie. Based in Toronto, Canada, the production company was a success until the Great Recession pulled it under in 2010.
When it shuttered, the studio had around 150 employees and four divisions.
He Was a Priceline.com Spokesperson for 13 years
You probably remember Shatner’s memorable run as “The Negotiator” for Priceline.com. He played a crazed businessman and Shatner self-parody (of course, who can tell what’s parody and what’s the real thing with Shatner?) that appeared in numerous commercials over 13 years.
He says the personality behind the character came from him. As he told GQ in the most Shatner way possible:
"The Negotiator is an invention I had a big hand in. When they were writing it, they didn't quite know how to handle this new campaign they were doing. Yes, it started with the songs. But how to handle them? Then I realized: The Negotiator is insane! He's INSANE, Andrew! [That’s the GQ interviewer] His very life depends on his ability to convince you that you — you, Andrew — have to get this bargain!"
Priceline.com killed his character off by dropping him a bridge in 2012, but briefly brought him back to introduce his long-lost daughter.
No, Priceline.com Didn’t Make Him Mega-Rich
Shatner’s commercials for Priceline are memorable, but they didn’t earn him $600 million — a figure that had falsely been reported in 2010, drumming up rumors that the spaceman was swimming in cash.
Priceline.com CEO Jeffery Boyd set the record straight with CNBC, calling the figure an “urban legend.”
The CEO said Shatner was paid in equity during Priceline’s early days but then sold the stock, which meant he missed out on what could have been an even bigger payout.
A Spoken Word Album Changed His Image
In 1968, William Shatner changed the landscape of spoken word music. Well, no he didn’t. But he did release one of the best comedic music records of all time.
Intentionally? Unintentionally? It’s still a debate.
“The Transformed Man,” a 37-minute record, features Shatner juxtaposing Shakespeare and pop songs in spoken word. The most famous track: Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which Shatner dramatically recites, his signature dramatic pauses and flourishes on full display, until he reaches the song’s final chorus.
He repeats, with varying degrees of urgency, “Mister tambourine man?” Until finally, he lets out one final, desperate, guttural and utterly hilarious “MISTER TAMBOURINE MAN?!”
The interesting thing about this album is not how many albums it sold — with its cult following, it has been reissued in record as recently as 2014, and, of course, is available digitally. It’s how much it helped Shatner throughout his life.
Some might argue it’s what jump started Shatner’s comedy career, and led to his iconic status in pop culture.
Shatner Says Yes. So Should You.
Let’s all sit back for a minute and take some advice from Shatner:
“A career is a series of connected events,” Shatner writes in his autobiography. “So when I turned down an offer I wasn’t simply rejecting a job and a paycheck, I was completely eliminating the possibility that it might lead to something else. When you turn down an opportunity to work, you’re also turning down an experience, maybe even adventure, and a universe of possibilities. ‘The Transformed Man’ led to Priceline.com. Saying yes to possibilities has been the core of my career.”
Shatner goes on to say that a copywriter at Priceline.com loved “The Transformed Man” and led to the company seeking out Shatner for a long-running gig as “The Negotiator.”
So the next time you feel like saying no, just remember: “MISTER TAMBOURINE MAN!?!”
And oh, the places you’ll boldly go.
He Was Sued Over Horse Semen
Shatner owns and breeds a number of horses. It’s a lucrative business, which is why Shatner’s second wife, Marcy Lafferty Shatner, requested access to her ex-husband’s horse farm once a year.
During that time, she would be presented with some “fresh cooled” horse semen, which she would hopefully use to breed her own horses.
Except one day, in 2003, she was not presented with “fresh cooled” horse semen. Oh no. She was presented with frozen horse semen. This was unacceptable.
So she sued Shatner on the grounds that the actor had breached their 1995 divorce agreement (apparently, frozen horse semen has a less successful chance of fertilization).
A judge dismissed the case after Shatner’s lawyers argued that the divorce settlement didn’t contain any specifics on how the semen was to be delivered.
He Purchased His First Horse by Accident
Only William Shatner could end up buying a horse by accident.
According to his autobiography, Shatner was at a horse auction in California, chatting with a young boy. At one point the boy points to a horse being auctioned and tells him it’s the horse he should buy — Shatner puts his hands up “in mock horror” and cracks a little joke about not wanting to buy a horse at auction.
Then the auctioneer points him out and announces that Shatner had bought the horse.
Too embarrassed to say he made the hand motion unintentionally, he ended up with the horse. And that’s how his love for horses began.
He Runs a Horse Charity
Shatner and his wife, Elizabeth, run the Hollywood Charity Horse Show, which includes a horse riding competition, a music show (Ben Folds, Willie Nelson and others have performed), a live auction and even an online auction for those who couldn’t make it. Charity recipients change from year to year, but they’re often for children.
“The party is absolutely sensational and every dollar that we get goes to the children,” Shatner told American Cowboy. “No money gets taken off the top for administration or anything.”
A standard ticket costs $300.
He Bought a House for Sober Living
Shatner’s third wife, Nerine Kidd, died tragically in 1999.
Shatner found Kidd dead at the bottom of their swimming pool one morning. Kidd was an alcoholic, and authorities said she had dived into the pool and knocked herself unconscious. She had alcohol and sleeping pills in her system.
The event devastated Shatner. In 2001, Shatner bought a $775,000 house in Los Angeles, which he donated to the Friendly House, a multiservice facility which helps women cope with addiction.
The house is known as the Nerine Shatner Friendly House.
His Commercial Work Is Exhaustive
Other than Priceline.com, Shatner has lent his voice and his likeness to dozens of commercials over the years to a slew of clients.
They include (deep breath): Commodore computers, Oldsmobile, Promise margarine, Molson Canadian, Crest toothpaste, Microsoft, Kellogg’s, Wendy’s, Blockbuster Video, several law firms, DirecTV, Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, a children’s hospital, Canadian supermarket chain Loblaws, more law firms and Volkswagen.
Never stop saying yes, Shatner.