William Shatner is a curious case of international super-stardom. He’s a man who spent his most active years in acting being regularly lumbered with naff effects and “testing” fight choreography, while himself being frequently guilty of chewing the scenery into a mush of cardboard and flashing lights. But of course, we all love him in spite of that.
In fact, you could probably argue that we love him because of that. He’s a science fiction icon who embraced the ridiculousness of the genre when the occasion demanded, accepting hammy over-emotional fare with open arms.
When he reined it in, Shatner was equally capable of turning in excellent performances. Hollywood legend has it that Nicholas Meyer (director of seminal Star Trek feature The Wrath Of Khan, as well as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) made him film his scenes over and over again until his ego, bravado, and overacting fell away. The result was an undeniably fantastic leading performance in one of the best-loved science fiction films of all time.
In his wider non-Kirk career, the mighty Mr Shatner has continued to deliver on both counts, with some unnecessarily hammy but nonetheless loveable shtick sharing the lines of his lengthy filmography with some genuinely terrific performances across straight-faced drama, stellar voice work and (often self-parodying) comedy.
Before we get to that, though, it would be remiss not to mention the – ahem – less-than-good section of Shatner’s extracurricular performances away from his main franchise. This Shatner sub-genre stretches from cheap sci-fi B-movies like Escape From Planet Earth to hugely questionable decisions like taking a role in the straight-to-DVD sequel to American Psycho. Yep, that’s a real thing…
He plays Professor Starkman, who says things like “spare me your psycho-babble bullshit,” stares at Mila Kunis’ boobs and falls out of windows. He’s the kind of character who wanders around a room slowly before noticing the dead body in it. Kunis kills a guy with a condom before dispensing a one-liner, though, so it’s not like The Shat is the only one having a strange time.
Shoot Or Be Shot is another bizarre one. It sees Shatner as an instruction manual author gone insane, who decides to hijack a film crew and force them to make his movie. The trailer is somewhat brilliant, though, in its own strange way…
Shatner often doesn’t seem to be fussy when it comes to taking a pay cheque, which has led to all sorts of strange anomalies like Shoot Or Be Shot over the years. As one last example, we’ll spare you from any clips of Miss Congeniality 2 and instead introduce you to Mr Shatner’s interesting attempt at a German accent in the Little Women TV movie…
The amount of times he says the word ‘German’ doesn’t really help, does it?
With those dishonourable mentions out the way, then, let’s kick-off our choice of William Shatner’s ten best non-Kirk performances…
“William Shatner stars as a gigolo named Matt Stone who seduces lonely women, bilks them of their savings via an investment scam, then kills them” may not be the most promising plot summary of all time, but Impulse does nonetheless offer some excellent Shatner moments.
Yes, the character is a creep, and the film may be poorly written, but it’s the fact that Shatner took on this role and at least tried to take it seriously which truly impresses. In many films (including Shoot Or Be Shot), the combination of Shatner and psychopathic tendencies just results in the man hamming it up as exaggeratedly as possible.
However, at points during Impulse, Shatner finds a rarely seen ability to send a shiver down your spine. The above clip is perhaps the best one available online, which sees Shatner as a coldblooded killer attempting to wipe out his own friend (played by Oddjob actor Harold Sakata for extra geek credibility). An honourable failure is better than a downright awful film, hence Impulse just sneaks onto this list.
9. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Although some of the films on this list see Shatner standing out as a uniquely loveable element in otherwise hard-to-like films, Dodgeballsees him join a comedy ensemble that was firing on all cylinders. The result is that Shatner perhaps doesn’t register as much as he does in other projects, but it’s a solid performance nonetheless.
As you probably remember, Shatner plays the Dodgeball chancellor, a role of suitable grandiosity for his particular set of skills. Dodgeball is doubtlessly Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller’s picture, with Chuck Norris, David Hasselhoff and Lance Armstrong’s cameos garnering the biggest surprise laughs (Armstrong’s is particularly cringe-worthy these days), but Shatner still does a fine job in the mix of comedy talent.
It’s a film that knows how ridiculous it is, which suits Shatner wonderfully well. His facial expressions are a delight, and he provides a great bouncing-off point for the main comedy stars. It’s a shame we didn’t see more of his character.
8. The Brothers Karamazov
Nuanced, softly spoken, timid – there are three terms that you wouldn’t traditionally associate with the actor who played Captain Kirk. However, those qualities are exactly what he brought to The Brothers Karamazov way back in 1958, in the role of Alexey Karamazov, the youngest of the eponymous brothers and a novice monk.
What surprises most is the young Shatner’s ability to embrace the subtler side of acting, helped perhaps by such a respected source material as Dostoyevsky’s final novel which deals with soulfulness, savagery and atheism with Shatner’s character near the centre.
Although the film wasn’t met by the most positive of reviews, and is hardly regarded as a classic, Shatner’s performance remains a highlight. It makes you wonder what might have become of Shatner if he hadn’t become so associated with Kirk. If you’re a hard-core Shatner-ite, this is a performance you will want to seek out and show off to prove your point that the man can actually act very well, and very differently..
7. Over The Hedge
It may not be the most common morsel of knowledge, but Shatner can bring his winning charm to the voice arena too. Although he’s far from the main character, his turn in 2006’s Over The Hedge springs immediately to memory.
Shatner plays an opossum going by the name of Ozzie, and joins the central crew of animals (including Bruce Willis and Steve Carell) on their quest to find food over the titular hedge.
Comedy timing is the core skill that Shatner offers in this one, embracing his silly side in an environment that certainly calls for it. Shatner is also given a host of movie references to make, namely a The Wizard Of Oz nod and two Citizen Kane Rosebud name-drops.
Knowing and delivering exactly what audiences expect from him is one of Shatner’s strengths here, too, as he delivers lines like “his house is like a fortress. Walls, so high. Doors, impenetrable. How will we get in?” and “must… move… toward… the light!” with his trademark ability to drag out a line but over-emphasising every single word. It’s a fun little side role in a family film, which probably gets forgotten by most when remembering Shatner’s career. A shame: Over The Hedge is an overlooked DreamWorks gem.
Just for fun, we’ve included a song from the soundtrack above (performed by Ben Folds) in which Mr Shatner drops a very odd verse about neighbourly rivalry at about the 2:20 mark. Enjoy.
6. Judgment At Nuremburg
Although we don’t like to claim that review aggregators are the be-all-and-end-all of what’s good and what’s utter tosh, the 90% ‘fresh’ that Judgment At Nuremburg has earned on Rotten Tomatoes speaks volumes. For anyone who claims that Shatner has never acted well in anything remotely serious and well-received, this is the perfect conversational come back. It’s also an excellent, excellent movie.
As you either already know or have probably guessed, Judgment At Nuremburg focuses on the aftermath of World War II, particularly the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis. Spencer Tracy plays the protagonist, Judge Dan Harwood, who is the chief Judge tasked with overseeing the trials.
Shatner factors into proceedings as Captain Byers of the American army, so thankfully he isn’t attempting another German accent this time. Instead, his character is assigned to assist the Judge in any way possible.
At this point (three to four years before the inception of Star Trek), Shatner was a relative unknown, and he blended into the sombre proceedings well with another subtle and serious performance.
Perhaps the young Shatner was inspired by the stellar cast surrounding him – which included Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland – as this truly is one of his best performances. Although it’s a minor part, it’s a fine turn. Above is his introduction to the Judge.
5. Big Bad Mama
Big Bad Mama is not, thankfully, the Big Momma’s House spin-off that it sounds like – it’s a crime caper set in the depression era where Mr Shatner plays a key role.
The film focuses on Angie Dickinson’s Ma Barker, a mother-turned-crook who ropes her daughters (played by Susan Sennett and Robbie Lee) into a crime spree of murders, kidnapping and robbery, with a bit of casual incest too. Don’t let that put you off, though, as Shatner’s turn as Ma’s new husband is one to savour for fans off his big screen exploits.
This was a while after Star Trek had kicked off, with 1974 Shatner bringing a little of his often-trademark overacting and chunks of decent character work together into a performance that promises a bit of everything for Shatner fans
Although he’s far from center stage, he brings plenty of his usual charm and gusto, with the familiar sights of Shatner drinking, fighting and, er, ‘procreating’ blending well into this fast-paced crime flick.
Above is a scene where Shatner’s gambling man William Baxter charms the title character at a horse racing circuit. It’s a character that suits him down to the ground, and a performance worth seeking out.
4. National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1
Although we’ve already covered some of Shatner’s more questionable work, his self-aware forays into deliberately over-the-top performances occasionally come up with winning results. Loaded Weapon 1 is one of these films, with Shatner’s silliness providing lots of laughs.
The film itself doesn’t quite work. It’s a Lethal Weapon spoof that asked a lot of Emilio Estevez and Samuel L. Jackson in the lead roles (as Mel Gibson once noted, how can you parody a parody?). But it’s a great film for fans of hammy Shatner though, as he really brings his A-game in that department.
He plays General Curtis Mortars, a mentally unstable villainous type with a creepy voice, a way with a monologue and a series of bizarre traits. In a film that features Estevez, Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Denis Leary, James Doohan, Tim Curry, Bruce Willis and Charlie Sheen, it’s a testament to Shatner’s comedy capabilities that he arguably comes out on top.
Above is The Shat’s standout scene, where his forays into fish-tanks, analogies and clichés craft a highly memorable character that couldn’t be much further from Kirk. Watch the whole film at your own risk, if you like, but you wont find much more enjoyable than Shatner’s General.
Serious Shatner rears his head again here, in a pre-Star Trek performance that thoroughly showcases his versatility. For reasons of creating an ‘eerie, other-worldly feeling,’ director Leslie Stevens chose to make the film in the constructed language of Esperanto.
This decision certainly achieved the intended result, with the crooked expressionistic horror of the piece accentuated by the bizarre experience of seeing William Shatner ‘speaking in tongues’ as the trailer eloquently puts it.
Such was the advertising campaign when Incubus was rediscovered in 1996, and it soon built an even bigger cult status than ever. This weird and wonderful feature focuses on a mythical land called Nomen Tuum, where many corrupt individuals regularly visit to claim the fluids of the local well, which promises wellness and beauty.
The convoluted plot comes to Shatner when his young soldier Marc is met by a blonde succubus (basically a female sex demon) named Kia. He is intended as her prey, but he soon falls in love with her and – in a non-typical-Shatner moment – tries to marry her. This all culminates in big demonic battles, lots of sign-of-the-cross making and a final fight between Kia and, um, a goat.
This is a must-see for hard-core Shatner-ites, as it blends his penchant for danger with heaps of horror, sachets of sleaze and plentiful naff fighting. See the trailer above if you somehow require more convincing.
2. Airplane II: The Sequel
In what is arguably one of the most underrated comedy sequels going, William Shatner makes one hell of an extended cameo. We’re talking, of course, about Airplane II: The Sequel, in which he appears in a handful of scenes as the hapless Commander Buck Murdock.
The script plays to Shatner’s strengths better than most, gifting him a role with authority, gags and space for self-referential humour. His arrival sets the tone brilliantly, as he complains about being kept unaware that his own base lacks a control tower and soon walks through a door that was assumed to be a communications screen (see clip above).
It gets better from there as he begins debating leaving the disaster to its own devices, voice activating doors and losing his mind over the amount of pointless flashing lights. He’s gifted with typical Airplane!-style dialogue, which he delivers beautifully (‘Until that day over Macho Grande’ / ‘Over Macho Grande, sir?’ / ‘No, I’m afraid I’ll never get over Macho Grande…’).
From Star Trek references to mixing-up phrases into ‘the head cheese’ and the ‘numero uno honcho,’ it’s a delightful little appearance that truly elevates the film. Bravo, Mr Shatner.
1. Free Enterprise
2009’s Fanboys reminded us that Mr Shatner was willing to centralise his skills in self-referential humor by fictionalizing himself for comedy purposes. It’s often forgotten, though, that Shatner had actually already played the leading man in a fictional comedy film about himself way back in 1998. We are talking, of course, about Free Enterprise.
Although it’s hardly high art (indeed, it would be unfair to judge Shatner films as such), Free Enterprise is the perfect film for fans of the sci-fi star. It both embraces his legacy as an iconic facet in film history and also sets his often-excellent comedy skills on the loose. The fact that he also stars as an imaginary version of himself in the filmmakers’ fantasies opens even more comedic doors.
Free Enterprise is, if you’re unfamiliar, the story of two filmmakers (Rafer Weigel and Eric McCormack) who are in something of a creative rut. They’re at their lowest ebb – trying to pitch a film (Bradykillers) that sees the cast of The Brady Bunch as the targets of a murderous rampage – when they suddenly meet their teenage hero, Mr William Shatner, who changes their perspective on life.
Highlights include Shatner hating on those who prefer Han Solo to Kirk, recognising his status as a popular ‘imaginary friend’ choice, explaining his stance on love scenes and eventually encouraging the central duo to overcome their ‘programming’ and see life with a little bit more imagination.
As a heightened portrayal of himself, Shatner shines of pure comedy gold. It’s telling of cinemagoers’ love for his wackier side that a performance based on Shatner’s own persona remains one of his highest-rated starring roles outside of Captain Kirk.
The plot sees Shatner’s Bill attempting to stage a one-man musical version of Julius Caesar – with rapping! – in a bizarre attempt to regain the respect of the world and reassert his status as an actor and performer. He needn’t have worried, though, as legions of fans have loved him all long, through all the bad films and every excellent performance.
All done? It seems only right we end with a Shatner sing-song…