A Dish Best Served Cold
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Meeting my childhood heroes, part two.
This wasn’t to be the first or even second time that I’d met my captain, o’ captain. It was, however, the first time that we’d meet offstage, in private, and without a weapon between us. Ever since I’d heard that he was coming to the Middlesex County College campus, I presumed a certain prerogative. And now, as designated interviewer/reviewer for “An Evening With William Shatner” it was time to claim my due.
I’d worked hard to prepare for a one-on-one with my hero, re-reading everything that I could find in several paperbacks that had been issued about the show and its fandom. But at age 18, I still had a very tenuous idea of what was going on in other people’s minds and hearts. I was book smart but far from street smart. I was clever enough to suss out how things worked, but too inexperienced to understand why anyone would live their life differently than my own.
I remembered our second meeting, where me and a few close pals were invited to sit in the front row on Geraldo Rivera’s late-night show and observe our favorite actor’s interview at close range. As long as we showed up in costume, of course. Mr. Shatner stammered through his assessment of the Trekkie phenomenon, making couched references to the multi-colored, pointy-eared folks in the audience. “You may not believe it, but those are highly intelligent creatures sitting out there.” He left it to Geraldo to take the cheap shots at “Blue Meanies” and “whip-wielding Amazons.”
(That’s “Andorians” and “Shahna, drill thrall of Triskelion” if you want to be precise.) We were used to it by now. But it was disappointing that the erstwhile captain of the good ship Enterprise didn’t quite get it. He didn’t believe that Star Trek could ever return. That it was a fluke! How could he be of so little faith? We’d have to discuss this, one-on-one.
On November 15, 1976, I arrived at the college performance center, proudly pointed to my name on the list of guests for the evening, and was shown to a door at the end of the hallway. A young woman clutching a clipboard to her chest asked if I was here to interview Mr. Shatner. I said I was and she asked me to wait a moment. Glancing up and down the hallway, I shifted my weight from one leg to the other, gently swaying with impatience.
I considered my opening line, how best to break the ice. We’d begin with a reference to his early days as a struggling actor in Toronto. I knew Bill was Canadian (as was James Doohan—not many folks knew that.) I’d read that in those “salad days” he pinched pennies by eating at the lunch counter at Kresge’s and developed a distaste for cottage cheese and cling peaches. I was no fan of that stuff either. We would bond over this.
After a few minutes, I asked the young woman with the clipboard when we could begin. She seemed strangely inattentive to my time pressure. Bill was, I presumed, just on the other side of the door. The show was scheduled to start in less than an hour, which didn’t leave much time for a proper chat. “We’re just waiting for the other interviewer. Oh wait, maybe this is them.”
Other interviewer?! What was happening here? My carefully prepared evening suddenly lurched to starboard. I turned to face the approaching footsteps. Four of them. A tow-headed boy, gawky in a Catholic school sweater, leads the way, followed closely by a middle-aged woman with her purse gripped in both hands. “Are you the boy from Immaculate Conception?” asked the young woman. “Good, you can go in now.”
I shuffled to one side and tried to regain my balance as we stepped into the makeshift dressing room. A standard vanity, ringed with light bulbs, served as the centerpiece for the star. The glamorous effect was undercut by a pile of cardboard boxes in the corner behind him, partially hidden by a folding screen. Still sitting, makeup applicator in hand, William Shatner turned to face us and flashed a familiar grin. His assistant made introductions and Mrs. Callahan demurred “Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just here to watch my son, Danny. And to meet you, of course.”
“A pleasure to have you with us. Join the party.” Already, he was turning on the charm. But now I’m just one third of the audience. Maybe less. The top of my head tingled as my young rival produces a sheaf of questions and stammers out his first one. Something about the success of the TV series. Something Bill has heard a thousand times before. And yet, he directs his full attention, with barely a hint of condescension.
It’s disorienting to meet someone in person after becoming acquainted in two dimensions. There’s something about film that magnifies every bit of a personality, making it feel more intimate, more intense. Yet here, in person, Bill seemed more opaque, harder to understand or connect with. It’s as if the third dimension of reality blurs my vision, creating a weird fizz in the air between us. It’s hard to stop staring as I try to reconcile the two realities. At the very least, it really gets in the way of normal conversation.
I have to snap out of this hypnosis and save my interview.
I get in a couple of questions. Did you always want to be an actor? What was it like starting out? Again, the answers are familiar, practiced but I’m trying to make a connection. I bring up Kresge’s and get nothing but a blank stare. Damn, I’ve botched my line. My rival in the blue cardigan asks an agonizingly obscure question about warp speed travel. I feel a little dizzy. The interview is getting away from me. Is Shatner flirting with Mrs. Callahan??
I don’t know anything about managing group dynamics. Especially if I’m not in charge. What would Captain Kirk do at a time like this? When all seemed lost and no options remained? He’d risk everything. Like in “The Corbomite Maneuever” when it looked like his ship and crew faced total destruction—and he bluffed his way through. I could do that. I could take a big swing (even though I suck at sports.)
My subject was chuckling with Danny’s mom when I took my big swing. You’ve been to a few conventions, haven’t you? “A few, yes. They’ve been quite remarkable, filled with very interesting and erudite people of all types.” He smirked. I reminded him of the convention from January of 1975. “That was my first. I admit to have been a little apprehensive, but everyone made me feel quite welcome.” He smiled at Mrs. C and she nodded understandingly. Danny crumpled his paper and cleared his throat.
This was it. My sure-fire gambit. I asked Bill if he remembered the Klingon with the big sword? He came right up to you on stage and got a big laugh from the audience. “I think so, sure.” I’d take a deep breath, but I’m already about to hyperventilate. That Klingon was me. I jabbed my thumb into my chest for emphasis.
Shatner does a double take. “That was you?! I’d hardly recognize you.” He swivels again to the other adult in the room. “See what I mean? Fascinating people.” They both chuckled. Danny looked at me quizzically.
ZAP! I was stunned, and I didn’t even see him draw his phaser. There was no follow up to my question. The silence roared in my ears. An invisible barrier had come between us. There was no breaking through the deflector screen. I had made the rookie mistake of admitting to be a nerd, a geek, a fanboy first class. Shatner had seen plenty of those before, and he wouldn’t mistake me for a journalist now.
We talked for another ten minutes and I managed to change the subject to the rumors of a Star Trek motion picture. I got a few tidbits. Fifteen minutes after entering the dressing room, we were ushered out to take our seats.
I could hardly process the show that followed, 90 minutes of song, schtick and spoken word that demonstrated that there was so much more to our beloved Bill. I no longer felt any special bond, any claim to him. No more than any of the other fans in the audience. The man in the black turtleneck and silver jewelry sparkled and danced to his own drummer, and we could follow along—or not.
“You are BOISTEROUS!” he proclaims. “I just want to do whatever it takes to make you all happy...” The audience goes nuts. I sit fuming in my chair, angry with myself, the fans, and Shatner. For the time being, he is dead to me. As if he would notice, or care.
He was obviously more than Captain James Tiberius Kirk. He was most certainly a hard-working actor more concerned with building a lasting career than celebrating past glories. It would take another decade (at least) for him to grow into his new, larger-than-life persona as William Shatner, celebrity of the first order, whose appeal could cross over from Trekdom to a wider audience, comfortably including self-parody, self-promotion and meta-awareness. But he never slowed down.
I dutifully summarized the experience in 120 column inches for Quo Vadis and hand picked a couple of photos to round out my “evening in review.” I analyzed the audience reaction and tried to put a friendlier, more sympathetic spin on the adoring fans, because after all, I was one of them. The experience chastened me, tempering my enthusiasm with a couple hard knocks. I still love what I love, but I became a little more circumspect sharing those feelings. Especially with the objects of my affection.
It would take three decades to work out my frustration. And when I was ready, another hero would show up to help out.
To Be Continued...
Next week: From Darkest Day to Brightest Knight
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If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you would also enjoy my graphic memoir entitled When We Were Trekkies, now available online from Birdcage Bottom Books