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Review: 'William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill'

Most people would recognize William Shatner as his most enduring and beloved character, Captain Kirk from the Star Trek TV series back in the Sixties, or the Star Trek movie franchise that followed. 

He might also be remembered for his appearances on TV shows like T.J. Hooker or The Practice, or his appearances as a celebrity pitchman in numerous Priceline commercials, back in the day.

At age 92 when the interviews for this film were conducted, Shatner had enjoyed a long career in showbusiness, dating back to the early days when he starred in perhaps the most famous Twilight Zone episode of all time (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” 1963) as a paranoid, freaked-out flier on a passenger jet who is convinced that a gremlin is ripping the wings off the plane.

His signature style of acting with its quirky cadence became the fodder of comedians over the years.  Nevertheless, audiences embraced William Shatner and made him a bankable star.

He comes off as a good-natured guy who managed to avoid the pitfall of taking himself too seriously, unlike so many of his fellow actors.  On and off camera, he always seemed grounded and likeable.

All of that comes through in the new documentary William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe.  It is a stripped-down, intimate interview, filmed at an empty sound stage over the course of two days, in which Shatner shared details of his long life and the insights and observations gleaned along the way.  It is never boring or predictable. 

The movie opens with a painful chapter of Shatner’s life when, at the age of nine, he recounts tragically losing his beloved pet dog.  It is a shattering experience and an unexpected way to begin a story like this. 

But you soon discover that Shatner means to shine light on all the experiences that shaped him as a man, both the moments of soaring success and those of crippling defeat and soul crushing sadness and loss. 

We soon discover that he is a complex person with immeasurable curiosity who has done a lot of thinking over the years.  He’s a man with a lot to say and what he shares is deep, introspective and insightful.

He, of course, touches upon the details of his career, his musings about his profession including his influences (Marlon Brando and Lawrence Olivier) and acting technique. 

On a more philosophical level, he talks about our connection to each other, as well as nature in general, and our place in this vast, incomprehensible universe.  It’s what you hope to hear from a person who once portrayed a starship captain. 

Beyond that, Shatner has a lot to say on a range of interesting topics.  His comments are illuminating and interesting.  Like most of us, he ponders the big questions, about the creation of the universe, the evolution of human life and what happens to us when we die.

Shatner knows that he is in the final chapter of his life story.  It’s a great time for a person to reflect and try to make sense of it all, particularly when that person is mentally sharp and physically healthy.  William Shatner looks, acts, speaks and thinks like someone 20 years younger.  His mind is firing on all eight cylinders. 

He struggles to comprehend all the things that are beyond our limited ability to understand. 

He is a remarkable man who played a futuristic space traveler on TV and then famously went on to become the oldest man in space at the age of 90. His brief journey into space with Jeff Bezos is a great story-within-a-story including the flash of panic just minutes before liftoff as the gantry pulled away and the transformational moment of epiphany following the landing that overwhelmed him and brought him to tears.

The Star Trek television series was an inspiration for the real-life technicians working on the moon landing project in the mid to late 1960s.  It underscored our sense of purpose and adventure, as a nation. 

Sadly, Shatner recalls watching the moon landing, alone, in the desert, on a small portable TV in the trailer of his pickup truck which was his temporary residence.  At that point of his career, he was at an all-time low, unemployed, broke and emotionally shattered. 

Somehow, he managed to rebuild his career and return to the spotlight both as an actor and author. His books include. I’m Working on that: A Trek From Science Fiction to Science Fact, co-authored by Chip Walter.  It was a long, steep climb.

William Shatner: You Can Call Me Bill is an intimate, watchable, enjoyable experience.  It is the result of a privately funded project backed by Shatner’s adoring fans.  There is no reason to believe that it won’t be successful. 

Hopefully, it will inspire other similar labors of love.

This one is a shining example of what can be.  A modestly budgeted, heartfelt tribute to a pop culture icon who has much more to say than anything in any of the scripted lines he once delivered in order to earn a paycheck.  I’m referring to the days when his Kirk character had to occasionally fight adversaries wearing ridiculous green rubber lizard costumes. 



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