Friday, December 7, 2018

Shatner Claus is Coming to Town

You’d better not shout, you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout, I’m telling you why—William Shatner is coming to town! Yes, Captain Kirk himself has just  released a new holiday recording, with the unlikely title of Shatner Claus:-- The Christmas Album. Though he was not exactly raised as a Christian, Shatner has gathered established folk and pop musicians to help him celebrate the Yule season by way of Christmas songs, among them both kitschy secular ditties and such religious classics as “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Silent Night.”  Of course, no one accepts William Shatner as a serious singer. But his spirit is fully committed to this enterprise. As he puts it, “Every song – good or bad – has my interpretation with the desire to bend it a little or fulfill more fully its original desire.”

I’ve been interested in Shatner for years, largely because of his longstanding Roger Corman connection. Roger was my boss for nearly a decade, and when scholars wrote to ask about his gutsy production of The Intruder (1962), I handled the correspondence. As spelled out in my biography, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, Roger was disturbed enough by the issues surrounding the desegregation of schools in the Deep South that he veered away from his usual horror fare to film the story (based on actual fact) of a rabble-rouser who descends upon a small Southern town to rile up the citizenry for reasons of his own. To play the charismatic but nefarious Adam Cramer, he chose Shatner, then a young Canadian actor best known for his stage work. The production company ran a real risk by shooting on location in southern Missouri, close to the Arkansas border, where the emotions of the citizenry were already raw. For three weeks cast and crew dodged sheriffs, eluded threats of violence, and sidestepped accusations that they were communists. Crowd scenes were shot in such a way that Shatner made his most incendiary speeches after the majority of locally cast extras had gone home. Shatner, whose performance won high praise from critics, emailed me years later that as a director, Roger was “wonderfully quick and efficient. He knew exactly what he wanted.” He recalled the making of The Intruder as “harrowing, stimulating, enabling, and frustrating. Because we shot the film on location in the South, we weren’t able to do a lot of the controversial things contained in the script.”

Shatner enjoyed himself less in 1974 when he co-starred with Angie Dickinson in a Depression-era cops-and-robbers romp, Big Bad Mama. His role is that of a con artist bubbling over with Southern charm, one who wins Angie away from the younger and more obviously virile Tom Skerritt. Though Skerritt’s nude sex scenes with Dickinson are genuinely sexy, Shatner was clearly panicked by the thought of performing in the altogether. Director Steve Carver has told me the lengths to which Shatner went to protect his modesty. (He tried covering his privates with gaffer’s tape, looking like, in Steve’s words, “jungle boy.”) He was also vain about his toupee, which led Skerritt (with whom he feuded) to find creative ways of knocking it askew as the camera rolled. He also antagonized Angie and everyone else, partly by playing fast and loose with his scripted dialogue.

All this, of course, was after the first three seasons of Star Trek aired, but before the series became a true cult legend.  And it was also long before William Shatner decided to teach the world to sing, in perfect Shatnerian harmony.

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