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William Shatner: His 10 Greatest Roles, Reverse Ranked

There’s no question that the greatest roles of William Shatner have Captain James T. Kirk from the original Star Trek at the top of the list, but in a career that has spanned more than 75 years, he’s brought a great number of other parts to life as well.

Some of them you likely don’t know, such as the 1961 TV pilot for Alexander the Great that cast him in the title role opposite future Batman actor Adam West; or the Canadian actor’s first television appearance as Ranger Bob on The Canadian Howdy Doody Show in 1954. No doubt considerably more familiar are such characters as T.J. Hooker, The Big Giant Head on Third Rock from the Sun or Denny Crane on David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal.

Whatever it might be, one thing’s for sure: William Shatner — subject of the new documentary You Can Call me Bill and now 92 — will likely be creating more characters in the future. And why not?

“From my point of view,” he says, “I’m grasping opportunities because you never know when it all might stop. Some people have said to me that time runs out for all of us and I should slow down. But is time going to run out any sooner or slower if I don’t do this? In fact, people who slow down — people who retire, to use that word — die. But to me, I’m more alive and more sensual in the full meaning of that word — aware of my senses — now than I ever have been, because of all of the things that are going on.” Well, said, sir!

What follows is a look at 10 of the greatest roles of William Shatner from over the decades.

10. William Shatner (host, Rescue 911)

Admittedly he was playing host rather than a character, but Rescue 911 is a show that really allowed William Shatner to connect with the audience. Running from 1989 to 1996 and 186 episodes with two specials, it actually provided a wealth of information for viewers on what to do when confronted with an emergency, all using actual 911 calls as a launching off point.

Star Trek changed lives, Rescue 911 saved them,” said Shatner in the pages of Up Till Now: The Autobiography. “We know we saved at least 350 lives, but the true figure may well be thousands. What set this show apart from the reality shows currently on the air was that our stories were real. We didn’t create reality … It was a series dedicated to the men and women who saved the lives of strangers, often at the risk of their own lives, ranging from emergency medical technicians to good samaritans.”

9. Walter Bascom (TekWar): William Shatner Greatest Roles

The actor had a pretty good run with his own sci-fi concept, TekWar, set in the not-to-distant future and focused on ex-cop Jake Cardigan, who is framed for dealing with the brain stimulant/virtual reality drug Tek and sentenced to 15 years in suspended animation. When he is mysteriously set free prematurely, he finds that he’s obligated to carry out assignments for billionaire Walter Bascom’s Cosmos private security firm. What was so intriguing about Bascom is the fact that Shatner seemed to play him with a light touch, and yet without any histrionics he was able to convey a series of underlying threats.

“I’d been living in the world of science fiction for more than two decades,” William Shatner explained, “and this was my first opportunity to create something entirely new. There were bits and pieces I’d been thinking about for years, with brand new ideas tossed into the future.”

To give you a sense of how popular the Tek universe was, Shatner wrote (with ghostwriter Ron Goulart) nine novels between 1989’s TekWar and 1997’s Tek Net; 16 issues of a Marvel comic book called TekWorld frin 1992 to 1996; between 1994 and 1996 there were four TV movies and 18 episodes of a weekly series (all starring BJ and the Bear‘s Greg Evigan as Cardigan); a 1995 computer game and news of an adult animated adaptation in the works.

8. Captain Harrison Byers (Judgment at Nuremberg)

When he was offered the part of prosecutor Captain Harrison Byers in Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, Shatner was assured by his agent that this was the part that was going to turn him into a star. “Truthfully, that did seem possible,” he said. “This was going to be a big-budget, star-studded film about an unbelievably serious subject directed by Stanley Kramer. Abby Mann’s screenplay was based on the true story of the trial of four Nazi judges after World War II, but really the German people were on trial.”

It certainly helped to establish Shatner as an actor to be reckoned with, which is why, just a few years later, he was considered such a “get” for Star Trek. And in Judgement at Nuremberg, he found himself surrounded by the likes of Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximillian Schell and Judy Garland.

7. The Big Giant Head (3rd Rock from the Sun)

Airing between 1996 and 2001 was the sci-fi sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, about a group of aliens taking on human form and acting as though they’re a family so that they can observe our behavior. The comedy was pretty broad, but what an incredible cast, including John Lithgow, Jane Curtin, Kristen Johnston, French Stewart and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And Shatner? He portrayed their leader, The Big Giant Head, also in human form. His over-the-top approach to the part is evident in the clip above and serves as proof for why this is one of the greatest roles of William Shatner.

William Shatner in 3rd Rock from the Sun
William Shatner in 3rd Rock from the Sun©NBCUniversal/CoziTV

“I had a great time doing the show,” he enthused. “And apparently it was so popular that they brought the Big Giant Head back for several additional shows. To my great surprise and pleasure — and I’m not kidding here — I was nominated for an Emmy Award as the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy series. After working in television for 40 years, even considering the great success of Star Trek and Hooker and 911, this was the first time I’d been nominated for an Emmy.” He didn’t win, but … he really wanted to. “I’m not going to pretend I was satisfied with the nomination. I wanted to take home that little sucker.”

6. Commander Buck Murdock (Airplane II: The Sequel)

For a long stretch of his career, William Shatner was viewed as being overly serious, and not with much of a sense of humor when it came to himself. However, that seemed to change in 1982 when he was cast as Commander Buck Murdock, commander of a lunar base, in Airplane II: The Sequel (which was, naturally enough, the sequel to 1980’s Airplane — just to make sure we’re on the same page here). Suddenly he was in full parody mode and the audience loved it.

William Shatner in 1982's Airplane II: The Sequel
William Shatner in 1982’s Airplane II: The Sequel©Paramount Pictures/IMDb

“There have been a lot of articles written that claim the public embraced me because I finally learned how to laugh at myself, that I finally showed my sense of humor to the audience. If it’s true, it wasn’t a career decision, it’s because I was offered a job. My career in comedy began when I appeared in Airplane II: The Sequel, playing the role created in the original movie by Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The kind of commander who orders a profile on anyone who watched The Sound of Music more than four times. It was in that film that I first began poking fun at my serious image. But here’s the truth about that: I was acting funny. I’m an actor, this was a comedy, my lines were funny and the audience responded to it.”

5. ‘Bill’ (Free Enterprise)

Produced in 1998, Free Enterprise is the ultimate fan love letter to William Shatner. The film, details Wikipedia, “deals with the mid-life crises of its two main protagonists, Mark (Will & Grace‘s Eric McCormack) and Robert (Rafer Weigel), fictionalized versions of the film’s director and producer/writer. The two friends struggle with adult career and relationship problems, all the while defiantly clinging to the geeky science fiction pop culture of their youth and seeking advice from their greatest hero, William Shatner.”

The film’s producer and writer, Mark A. Altman, who is co-host of the popular Star Trek podcast, Inglorious Treksperts, explains, “The idea behind Free Enterprise was to do a film like Play It Again, Sam was with Humprhey Bogart being a fictional muse to Woody Allen. We approached Bill in the hopes he would be flattered playing a character that was such an inspiration to these young men and obsessed fans.

“But Bill was uncomfortable playing an icon and man who was a flawless, inspiration. Instead, he asked that we portray him as a real man with foibles and feet of clay. ‘Tear me down,’ he said, which, of course, we did with gleeful abandon in the vein of My Favorite Year. We were thrilled that he embraced the role with such gusto and verve. Bill became far more than just an inspiration, but a friend and we’re forever indebted to him for taking a leap of faith and being part of what was an incredible adventure.”

4. Dr. Bob Wilson (The Twilight Zone)

Two of William Shatner’s most successful guest star appearances was on The Twilight Zone, most notably in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which casts him as Dr. Bob Wilson, a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who continues to catch glimpses a gremlin on the wing of the plane he’s flying on, trying to destroy it. Naturally everyone thinks he’s crazy, but the final shot reveals that he was actually the most sane of everyone. Then, in “Nick of Time,” he becomes obsessed with a fortune telling machine to the point where he’s afraid to make a move without its “advice.”

“There are eternal truths in each of them,” he says. “Truths like the fear of flying, or someone who is superstitious and can’t get beyond the superstition. Or even L. Frank Baum’s truth in The Wizard of Oz of other people lurking behind the one that’s presented to society. That’s intriguing, and is perennial, because every child of three or four knows that you present one face to daddy and mommy, and another to Billy.”

3. T.J. Hooker (T.J. Hooker)

T.J. Hooker was a success for ABC, running from 1982 to 1985 with 91 episodes produced. In retrospect, the show — which stars William Shatner as the title character, Adrian Zmed as Officer Romano and Heather Locklear as Officer Stacy Sheridan — kind of gets a bum rap with parodies featuring Shatner jumping on to the hoods of criminals’ cars to bring them to justice. When he signed for the show, however, the premise seemed to be somewhat different.

“Hooker,” he explains, “was a veteran cop who’d quit the detective squad to get back on the streets after his partner was killed. He was a Vietnam vet, a former Green Beret, a divorced father whose wife left him, though she still loves him. When I brought T.J. Hooker to life, I focused on the one word that I thought best described him: angry. Hooker was a conservative cop placed in a liberal setting, and at its best we were able to successfully represent that conflict.”

Whatever the original concept, writer Stan Berkowitz, who became the story editor in the final season, notes, “When I got in, he had long been riding on the hoods of cars. At the same time, there are certain actors who are chameleons who just vanish into a part, but there are others who are movie stars or TV stars, and Shatner is is certainly one of them. When people turn on the TV, they want to see William Shatner, which is unfortunate in one way, because he has much more range in him than people know. But you did not see that range on T.J. Hooker. He has the kind of charisma like a John Wayne or James Garner, both of whom play the same guy doing different things. Steve McQueen was always Steve McQueen, right?”

2. Denny Crane (Boston Legal): William Shatner Greatest Roles

There are few who expected the comedy-drama series Boston Legal to have the impact that it did on William Shatner’s career, but it was massive. The show, a spin-off of David E. Kelley’s The Practice, stars James Spader as Alan Shore, introduced in season eight of the preceding series, who goes to work for the law firm of Crane, Poole & Schmidt. Near the top of the list of greatest roles of William Shatner is Denny Crane, a renowned attorney with 50 years experience who claims he’s never lost a case and tends to announce himself constantly. He connected with the audience in a big way, the actor bringing home the 2005 Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries, or TV Movie.

Appearing at Paleyfest at the time, Shatner reflected, “I feel as I walk through my life like I’m parting the ways and there are people on all sides saying, ‘Denny Crane.’ And it used to be, ‘Beam me up, Scotty.’ Now I’m educating them to say, ‘Beam me up, Denny Crane.’ It’s the most popular a public thing I’ve ever done, including Star Trek.The response from people on the street everywhere has been enormous. I’ve never been connected with something as popular and as dynamic. The passion that people respond to the show with is enormous.

“It combines the finest of humor and an intense meaning,” he added. “It’s about issues that are addressed by the authors, by these wonderful people who write the show to whom all credit belongs. It is that balance between issue and comedy that I think makes the show so popular and makes the show so good.”

1. Captain James T. Kirk (Star Trek): William Shatner Greatest Roles

Jeffrey Hunter had starred in the first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” but refused to come back to shoot the second ,”Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which led to the eventual series. The greatest roles of William Shatner are easily topped by the character who took his place, Captain James T. Kirk. “They showed me the first pilot and said, ‘Would you like to play the part? Here are some of the story lines that we plan to go with; you can see the kind of production we have in mind,’” he recalls. “I thought it was an interesting gamble for myself as an actor to take, because I’ve always been fascinated by science fiction. I liked the production; I liked the people involved with the production, and so I decided to do it.”

And we’re eternally grateful that he did. Shatner would play Captain Kirk on three seasons of the original series, voice the character on the Saturday morning animated version between 1973 and 1974, and reprise the role for the big screen in a total of seven films from 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture to 1994’s Star Trek: Generations.

When it comes to William Shatner, to have gone from the bridge of the starship Enterprise to outer space as the actor did a few years ago at the age of 90, it’s obvious that he truly has gone where no man (certainly no actor) has gone before.

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