Keep on trekkin: William Shatner beams down to San Francisco

It was just after Hanukkah in 1958, and William Shatner was in the land of Israel.

He was in Bethlehem, along with Ralph Bellamy in a holiday vignette called “Light One Candle.” They played Roman tax collectors; their scene was part of “The Christmas Tree,” a Hallmark Hall of Fame special.

Not that NBC sent its actors to Bethlehem. Shatner was really on a television stage. Filming was in black and white, and often as not, live from New York City. Shatner was 27 years old and living in Queens. It had been several years since he had left Canada to find fame and fortune on Broadway. At this point, his phone had begun to ring — but he still didn’t have any money in the bank.

on the cover: William Shatner in “Shatner’s World”

Shatner didn’t know it then, but he was halfway through the first act of his career, eight years away from the role that would launch his second act and bring him worldwide fame: Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise.

This led the way to his third and ongoing act: Playing himself. The Internet Movie Data Base records 227 TV and film appearances in scripted roles (each of his television series counts as only one appearance in the list) and 356 as himself, whether as narrator for a documentary or as a celebrity contestant on the premiere episode of “Celebrity Bowling.”

As Shatner tells it in his 2008 autobiography “Up Till Now,” one of his many memoirs, behind these prolific credits is a desire to always work. And behind that is the voice of his father, Joseph, who ran a garment business and had hoped that his son Bill would join the firm.

Decline a chance to appear on “The Hollywood Squares”? No way. Shatner could just imagine his father’s rebuke: “You call that work? Sitting there and playing a game? I’ll tell you what work is!”

The actor will riff on episodes such as this on Saturday, Jan. 30 in his one-man show, “Shatner’s World,” at the Warfield in San Francisco.

It is Dec. 7, 2015, the first day of Hanukkah, and I’ve been given a 15-minute phone interview with my childhood hero.

“How are you, Larry?” There is the voice, the voice from the “Star Trek” shows I watched every afternoon after school, the voice from the Promise margarine commercials and from the commercials he made for stock options back in the heady days of the dot-com era.

I am transported back to a “Star Trek” episode that first aired when I was 2 years old. It was Stardate 1512.2, and the clock was ticking down to a deadline set by an alien space ship and the promised destruction of Kirk and his crew. Amid the pressure, Lieutenant Bailey snapped and had to be escorted off the bridge of the Enterprise.

I hope I don’t snap. So I ease my way forward, asking Shatner about Hanukkah.

“I come from a fairly Orthodox Jewish family out of Montreal,” he said. “We were keeping a kosher home, my mother and father.

“Hanukkah and its wonderful historical story was important,” he continued. “We told it at shul every year and it is a lovely, romantic story. As a young Jewish boy, you can take great pride in the way the Maccabees did their thing.”

Leonard Nimoy (left) and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk in a 1968 “Star Trek” promo photo/wikimedia commons

Shatner’s father was an immigrant, “born — probably — in Austria,” he said. “My mother Anne was born in Canada.” Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Ukraine.

Montreal was known for its warm Jewish enclave, home to the likes of A.M. Klein, Mordecai Richler and Leonard Cohen.

But that’s not the part of town where the Shatners lived. Young William was the rare Jew in a Catholic neighborhood in a Catholic city. Come December, “It was very much Christmas. Our family sort of went along with the Christmas thing, it being a cultural rather than a religious holiday,” he said.

I yearn to go where no “Star Trek” fan has gone before, so I ask about his bar mitzvah, hoping to spur new memories.

What does Shatner remember of the occasion?

“I remember getting taught by a severe Jewish teacher who wasn’t afraid to rap me on the knuckles if I didn’t pronounce the word right. I remember my uncle davening beside me, rocking back and forth with a tallis over his head, muttering very suspicious words underneath there,” he said.

It is Stardate 8454.1. Captain Kirk is at Yosemite, on Earth between adventures. With him are Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the third musketeer, Dr. Leonard McCoy. In one of the most cringe-worthy scenes in the worst “Star Trek” movie ever, the three sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around a campfire. “I haven’t sung around a campfire since I was a boy in Iowa,” Kirk says.

It’s fair to blame Shatner for the scene, since he was the film’s writer and director. And if that campfire did harken back to childhood camps, then the original campfire was at a Jewish summer camp.

In fact, much of Shatner’s youthful stage experiences, as he tells it in “Up Till Now,” take place within a Jewish context.

“The first time I stood on a stage I made the audience cry,” he writes. “I was six years old, attending Rabin’s Camp, a summer camp for Jewish welfare cases run by my aunt in the mountains north of Montreal. I wanted to box at that camp — hitting people seemed like fun — but my aunt instead put me in a play named ‘Winterset.’

“My role was that of a young boy forced to leave his home because the Nazis were coming. In the climactic scene I had to say goodbye to my dog, knowing I probably would never see him again. My dog was played by another camper, costumed in painted newspaper.

“We performed the play on parents’ weekend to an audience consisting primarily of people who had escaped the Nazis, many of whom still had family members trapped in Hitler’s Europe. So many of them had left everything they knew or owned behind – and there I was, saying goodbye to my little doggie.

“I cried, the audience cried, everybody cried. I remember taking my bow and seeing people wiping away their tears. I remember the warmth of my father holding me as people told him what a wonderful son he had. Just imagine the impact that had on a six-year-old child. I had the ability to move people to tears. And I could get approval. Something in me always wanted to perform, always wanted the attention that came from pleasing an audience…”

Shatner grew up in a fraught time for Jews. His father worked hard to bring over as many relatives to Canada as he could.

William Shatner telling stories in “Shatner’s World”

Closer to home, Shatner wrote, “There was always trouble between the Jewish kids and the Catholic kids, there was a lot of anti-Semitism. When I had to go to Hebrew school I’d walk on the opposite side of the street, pretending I didn’t even realize the synagogue was there — until I got in front of it. Then I’d look both ways and run for the door. I actually planned my strategy for getting there safely. Not that I minded a fight, I wasn’t a big kid but I never backed down from anybody. We had fights almost every day. My nickname was ‘Toughie,’ as in ‘Hey, watch out everybody, here comes Toughie Shatner!’”

That toughness has served him well over the years and throughout his career.

Shatner, who will be 85 in March, is as busy as ever and having fun with his one-man show. “It’s the benchmark of performing,” he said, “a couple hours of attempting to keep the audience without extraneous things like music and dazzling lights and smoke and mirrors, just by the art of storytelling.”

He’s done the show in Australia, Canada and now the U.S. “It has been inordinately successful for me in terms of audience reactions,” Shatner said, promising “a wonderful evening of laughter and tears and entertainment.”

Shatner latest book, “Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man,” has just been published.

I pivot toward that to try to get more Jewish details.

I ask Shatner about “doing Jewish” with Nimoy, a fellow member of the tribe. “We went to synagogue together,” he said. “He belonged to a shul and I did not. My wife and I joined him and his wife on several occasions to celebrate one thing or another.”

Many of Shatner’s plans for this year revolve around “Star Trek’s” 50th anniversary. “A lot of people are making plans,” he said. (This may be an allusive reference to a rumored cameo in “Star Trek Beyond,” the movie coming out this summer.) “I too am making appearances around the country.”

I ask if he has any thoughts of retiring.

“I don’t even understand the word retire,” he responded. “This is what I want to do. I feel sorry for people who retire. It means they re-tire, which means losing strength.”

He turns the question around.

“Do you enjoy your work?” he inquired in the voice of Captain Kirk.

Do I ever!

“Do you want to retire?” he continued.

Part of me thinks: After this it is all downhill. I have spoken to William Shatner, and Leonard Nimoy is dead, and are there any other childhood dreams left to fulfill? Maybe I should indeed retire at the top?

Then Shatner’s voice seeps in and I want to shout, “No sir, Captain! Sign me up for another five-year mission, sir. Let the voyage continue.”

In the end, I recognize the question as rhetorical. I remain silent — and make a note to see “Shatner’s World” when it comes to town.

A version of this story first appeared in the New Jersey Jewish Standard, where Larry Yudelson is associate editor.

“Shatner’s World” 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 at the Warfield, 982 Market St., S.F. $39.50-$180.