Image Credit: Everett CollectionBefore Star Trek, William Shatner did everything. A peek at his IMDB page reveals a relentless array of guest-starring appearances, minor roles in major movies, major roles in TV movies — really, any role the young actor could get his hands on. It makes him an ideal subject for the PBS series Pioneers of Television, which looks back on the early days of TV and the people who were there. Season 2 of Pioneers hits DVD today, split into four episodes: Westerns, Science Fiction, Crime Dramas, and Local Kids’ TV. (Shatner, of course, did them all.) EW caught up with the iconic star — currently starring in CBS’s $#*! My Dad Says — to talk about working in the Golden Age, with a special focus one of his most famous pre-Star Trek roles: the extremely anxious flyer besieged by a gremlin in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” written by sci-fi icon Richard Matheson.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You starred in two classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. What was it like working on the show?
WILLIAM SHATNER: That’s a long time ago. I don’t know what I can tell you.
Anything. Make up some stories about Rod Serling.
Rod Serling was gay. He and John Frankenheimer had a partnership. No, no… That which I remember was work-a-day. I came in like any other show that I’d been doing over the years, and we filmed. The particular script by Dick Matheson was really inventive and very much a one-man show, really. This young actor was pleased with that, to get all that attention and screen-time. But it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Nobody realized the evocative nature of Twilight Zone and its appeal to the mystical in the human soul. So many of those stories were nightmares come true, dramatized. There was an appeal beyond just the drama.
[The episode] touches another universal in the human psyche, and that is the fear of flying. Buried somewhere in all of us when the going gets rough up there is: If God meant us to fly, we’d have wings. Why are we up here? We’re in the wrong part of the world. We should be on terra firma. That’s the only explanation I can come up with that makes that particular episode as popular as it is.
How does it feel, all these years later, to know that people still feel so affected by Nightmare?
It’s another lesson on how little one — and in particular this one — knows. You think you know something and then, suddenly, the audience turns around and says, “That’s not the way it is at all.” I’m seeing that happen in this situation comedy that I’m doing, where I think I know what’s funny in the script, and then the audience comes in on a Tuesday night, and they laugh at something I never thought of. There’s generally quite a difference in the perception of the performers and the creators and that of the audience. Who knew that 50 years later, people would still be talking about [The Twilight Zone]? I don’t know whether Rod knew. Maybe he went to his death with that knowledge, and the last thing he whispered, as he took his dying breath, was “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
What’s the experience been like working on $#*! My Dad Says? From what I read on your Twitter account, you don’t seem too happy with how CBS is promoting it…
[Laughs] I expressed myself last night, are you referring to that? I hope somebody at CBS got ahold of that. It was a direct message. The situation comedy is a whole entity that I never knew existed. It’s an entity unto itself. It’s a hybrid that has become a whole being. Doing a situation comedy, a four-camera show in front of an audience, is absolutely like nothing else. It’s not like stand-up, it’s not like doing a question-and-answer at a convention, it’s not like doing the theater, it’s not like doing a film, and it’s not like doing a regular television show. I was shocked, the first couple of shows, about the energy, and the intrusion by people who didn’t belong there. People are moving around on the floor. It’s like you’re doing a sketch at a party. People come up, “How are you doing?” I’m in the middle of a scene! It’s bizarre.
The Pioneers of Television series focuses on a time period when you were doing a lot of different television work. You were on The Defenders five different times, always playing a different character. What it was like day-to-day for a TV actor back then?
The working actor with a wife and ultimately three children can’t afford not to work. For the young actors who aren’t getting star salaries, the pay isn’t really that great. If you work, say, once a month, you’re not really making a living wage. Even today — or, maybe, more particularly today. So you need to work constantly in order to have a decent standard of living. And since people are looking at you, even though you may not be in the star category, people recognize you on television. There’s a certain standard you hope to maintain: A car, a home, eating at restaurants. And that’s expensive. For me, back then, I had to work all the time. If I didn’t, I was at a significant disadvantage. So I scrambled around with agents and things like that, and I just got lucky. I’d go from one job to another that didn’t pay very much money — $1000 or something – and then two weeks would go by, you’d get another $1000. You were eking out a living. During those years, with a family, you just made ends meet.
Has there been any point where you started to feel a little bit more secure?
Yesterday. No, you’re never secure. I’m never secure. But out of that insecurity comes an energy that I put into my work. I’m never satisfied about what I’m doing, and constantly working on it, and I think there’s a benefit in that.