If you're a longtime reader of my blog, you know that I refer to the first bald captain of the Enterprise as WILLIAM FUCKING SHATNER. The origin of this charming name was first published in my book Dancing Barefoot.
Because my "Star Trek: The Experience" story from Barefoot received such a positive response back in January, I'm going to share the WFS story for the first time online, in two parts.
I first met William Shatner on the set of Star Trek V back in 1988. I was 16, and had been working on TNG for two years at the time. We were enjoying some success with our show, and I was very proud of the work I was doing. When I found out that the original series cast would be working next door to us for two months, I was beside myself.
Gene Roddenberry was still heavily involved with the production of TNG back then, and he and I were good friends. When I'd pass by his door, it was not uncommon for him to throw an executive out of his office and ask me in for a visit. He knew that I was a fan of the original series, and he knew that I was more than a little intimidated by these actors. He offered several times to make introductions, but I always declined. If I was going to meet these legends of Science Fiction, I was going to do it on my own.
Every day, I tried to get up the nerve to introduce myself. When I would walk from the stage to my dressing room or school room, I would do it slowly, looking at their stage door, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mister Spock, or Doctor McCoy, or even the legendary Captain Kirk. The few times they did appear, though, I could never find the courage to approach them.
This went on for about six weeks.
Word got around our set that I was too chicken to introduce myself to the original series actors. It became something of a joke, and the crew began to give me some good-natured ribbing about my reluctance. Next Generation was immensely popular at the time, and I was still riding high on the success of Stand by Me. They couldn't understand why I was so intimidated by these actors My face was splashed across the cover of every teen magazine in print.
Why was I so intimidated? I was a 16 year-old geek, with a chance to meet The Big Three from Star Trek. You do the math.
One afternoon, while I was sitting outside stage 9 talking with Mandy, my costumer, they opened the huge stage door across the way, and I could see right into the set of Star Trek V. It was a large area, like a cargo bay, filled with extras and equipment. It was quite different from our set, but it was unmistakably The Enterprise. Standing in the middle of it all was William Shatner. He held a script open like it was a holy text. The way he gestured with his hands, I could tell that he was setting up a shot and discussing it with the camera crew.
I waited for the familiar rush of nerves, but it didn't come. Seeing him as a director and not as Captain Kirk put me at ease. I knew that this was my moment. If I didn't walk over and introduce myself right then, I would never do it.
I was wearing the grey "acting ensign" space suit. That costume was quite uncomfortable, so I'd take the top half off whenever I got the chance. Because it was a jumpsuit, I would tie the sleeves around my waist, and wear a lightweight fleece jacket, zipped up to cover the embarrassing muscle suit the producers had me wear.
We all wore those muscle suits, but I think I was the most traumatized by it. I've always been a very slight person without much muscle mass (even now, at age 30, I weigh 145 pounds at 5'10") and having to wear all that thick padding did little to improve my fragile teenage self esteem.
I turned to Mandy, and took off my fleece. I asked her to zip up my spacesuit, and fasten the collar. If I was going to meet William Shatner, I was going to do it looking as "Starfleet regulation" as I could.
She made sure my costume looked good enough for camera, and wished me good luck. I got a high-five from one of the teamsters as I confidently walked across the street and into the cargo bay of the Enterprise 1701-A.
It took about eight steps for my confidence to evaporate. Surrounded by extras in Starfleet dress, standing next to a shuttlecraft, William Shatner the director, was immediately transformed into Captain Kirk, the intergalactic legend. I was transformed from Wil Wheaton, fellow actor and film industry professional, into Wil Wheaton, the drooling fanboy and Star Trek geek.
I looked around. I guess I blended in well, because nobody had noticed me. I turned to make my escape, and bumped into a still photographer who had worked on TNG the first season.
"Hey, Wil. What are you doing here?" he asked.
I swallowed, and looked at the stage door.
"Oh, uh, I just came over to, um, look around, and, uh, stuff." I said. I shuffled my feet, and began to move back toward the familiarity of my own spaceship.
"Well, as long as you're here, you should meet Mr. Shatner!"
Mr. Shatner? Who was Mr. Shatner? Is he talking to Captain Kirk?
He turned toward them, and called out, "Hey! Bill! Come here a second!"
My heart began to beat rapidly as he turned toward us. Captain Kirk looked right at me. I froze. He gave his book to someone, and began to walk in our direction. I involuntarily straightened my back, and sucked in my stomach. My muscle suit felt tight and awkward around my arms and chest.
Within seconds he was standing next to us. He was about my height, and looked heavier than he did on television.
Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise said, "What can I do for you?"
"Well, Bill, this is Wil Wheaton. He's part of the cast of The Next Generation, and he'd like to meet you."
Captain Kirk looked at me for a long time.
"So . . . you're the kid on that show?" He seemed annoyed.
My throat and mouth were dry, and my palms were sweating. My heart pounded in my ears, as I answered. "Uh, yes, sir. My name's Wil."
He continued to look at me. I carefully wiped my hand on the hip of my spacesuit, and extended it. "Nice to meet you," I said.
He didn't take my hand.
"What is that, your spacesuit?" He said, and made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a cough.
"Oh? This? Yeah. It's not as cool as yours, but it's what they tell me to wear." I put my hand down. I really wanted to leave. I felt a little light headed. Why wouldn't Captain Kirk shake my hand? And why didn't he like my spacesuit? Could he see the fake muscles? Maybe he didn't like the color. I became hyper-aware of the spandex, clinging to my body, and longed for the comfort of my fleece jacket.
"Well?" He asked.
Oh no. He'd asked me a question, and I'd missed it.
"Excuse me?" I replied.
"I said, what do you do over there?" he asked. There was a challenge in his voice.
"Oh, uh, well, I'm an acting ensign, and I sometimes pilot the ship." Maybe he'd be impressed that I'd already logged several hours at the helm of the Enterprise D, all before the age of 16.
"Well, I'd never let a kid come onto my bridge." He said, and walked away.
Captain James Tiberius Kirk, of the Starship Enterprise 1701, and Enterprise 1701-A, the only person in Starfleet to ever defeat the Kobiyashi Maru, the man behind the Corbomite Maneuver, the man who took the Enterprise to the Genesis planet to return Spock's katra, the man who I had admired since I was eight years old, was immediately transformed into WILLIAM FUCKING SHATNER.
I bit my lip, and turned to say good-bye to the still photographer who had made the introduction, but he had vanished as well.
I walked back to my own stage with my head down, avoiding eye contact the entire way. When I got to the entrance, I found Mandy, and asked her to unzip my costume, so I could put my fleece back on.
As she unzipped the back, she said, "did you get to meet William Shatner?"
"Uh-huh." I didn't want to let on that I was upset.
"What's wrong?" she asked, as she handed me my fleece jacket. There was concern in her eyes.
"Well . . ." I hesitated. Saying it out loud would make it real. "He was kind of a dick to me."
Her eyes widened, and she gasped. "What?! Why? What happened?!"
I fought back tears, and recounted our introduction.
"What an asshole!" She said, "Oh, Wil, I am so sorry!"
I nodded my head, and she gave me a hug. I drew a deep breath, shrugged my shoulders, and walked back to my trailer, where I sat down and cried. I had spent weeks getting up the courage to meet this man, and in less than five minutes he had insulted and humiliated me. With just a few words, he had reduced me from peer to peon. I had worn my stupid costume, because I thought that it would impress him, and he'd made fun of it.
15 minutes later, an assistant director knocked on my door, and told me that they were ready for me on the set. I stood up, wiped my face off, and told him that I'd need to make a quick stop at the makeup trailer on my way. He radioed this information to the 1st AD, and told me to hurry.
I walked to the makeup trailer, taking great pains to look at the ground, the walls, the sky . . . anything that would keep my head turned away from the Star Trek V stage.
I sat in the chair, and my makeup artist, Jana, began to touch me up.
"I heard about what Shatner did to you." she said. "Fuck him. He's a jerk, and has been for years. He's probably just jealous that you're younger, better looking, and more famous than he is."
I sighed. I didn't want him to be a jerk, and I didn't think that he was jealous of anything. I was certain that I'd done something wrong.
"I guess so." I said, as noncommittally as I could.
She put down her makeup sponge, and turned the chair away from the mirror, so I was facing her. She looked me in the eye, and said, "Don't let him upset you, Wil. He's not worth it."
"Okay," I lied. I knew I was going to be upset about this for a long time, and may even write a two part story about it some day.
"Okay," she said, and dusted my nose with translucent powder.
I walked into the stage, and took my seat at the conn, next to Brent Spiner.
"I heard about Shatner," Brent said.
Jesus, was this on the news or something?
"Yeah," I said.
"You know he wears a toupee, right?"
I giggled. "No, I didn't know that."
"Yep. He's balder than old baldy up there." He tossed a gold thumb over his shoulder at Patrick.
I giggled some more, as the stored up adrenaline coursed through my veins. "Boy, that's pretty bald."
"Yep." Brent put his hands up on his console.
The first AD said, "This will be picture," and we all focused.
"Picture is up! Very quiet please!" He shouted, "Roll camera!"
"25 apple, take 1," the sound mixer said, "Sound has speed!"
The camera assistant clapped the slate.
"Action!" said the director.
Patrick entered from his Ready Room, and walked to the captain's chair.
"Mister Crusher, take us out of orbit, and lay in a course for the Ramatis system, warp 6" He said.
"Aye sir," my fingers danced over the CONN. "Course laid in, sir."
"Make it so, Mister Crusher."
The camera creaked back on the dolly track, as the Enterprise D went to warp speed.
"Cut! Great! New deal!" the director said.
"Wrong set! We are moving to the Observation lounge for scene 55!" said the 1st AD, "The actors can relax for about 10 minutes."
On my way back to my trailer, the DGA trainee stopped me. "Gene Roddenberry would like you to call his office, Wil."
I changed direction, and walked to the stage phone. My heart began to beat hard in my chest. Had Gene heard too? WILLIAM FUCKING SHATNER had known Gene for over 20 years . . . oh my god. Was Gene going to be pissed at me?
I passed the craft service table, setup behind the starfield that hung next to the Ten-Forward set. Michael Dorn and Jonathan Frakes were pouring cups of coffee.
"To hell with him, W," Jonathan said. I love it when he calls me "W."
"To hell with who?" Michael asked.
"Shatner took a shit all over the Teen Idol," Jonathan told him.
Beneath his latex Klingon forehead, Michael rolled his eyes. "You want me to kick his ass, Wil?"
"No, that's okay. Thanks, though." I said.
"I've got your back, man," Michael said.
I dialed Gene's office, and told his secretary that I was returning Gene's call.
"He's expecting your call. Just a second, Wil." There were two clicks, and Gene's soft, gentle, friendly voice was in my ear.
"Hi Wil, how are you?"
"I'm okay . . ." I swallowed hard. ". . . how are you?"
"Fine, fine. I understand that you had some words with Bill Shatner today."
Oh my god. Was he going to be mad at me?
"Uh . . . yeah . . ." I said.
"Wil, Bill Shatner is an ass. Don't you worry about him, okay? I am proud to have you on my show. Don't you ever forget that."
Did Gene just call WILLIAM FUCKING SHATNER an ass? And then he said that he was proud of me?
"Gosh, Gene, thanks," was the best I could do.
"Come by my office soon, okay?"
"See you then." He hung up.
I began to feel better. Although a childhood hero had kicked me in the nuts, a bunch of people who I cared about and respected had all made efforts to put it in perspective. I felt loved, and protected.
The next day, when I got to work, there was an envelope on my dressing room table. It was addressed "To Master Wil Wheaton" and was "From the Office of William Shatner."
I dropped my backpack, and tore it open.
Inside, there was a single three by eight note card. The Paramount Pictures logo was stamped into the top in blue, and "William Shatner" was stamped into the bottom in gold.
There was a message typed on the card, which said,
You are a fine young actor, and I would be honored to have you on my bridge any day.
He'd signed it in ink. Blue ink. My mouth hung open, and my hands trembled a bit. I held it up to the light, to make sure it was real. The phone rang.
"Wil? It's Gene," I recognized his voice immediately.
"Good morning Gene," I said.
"I spoke with Bill Shatner yesterday, and he should be dropping a note off for you today."
"It's already here," I said. I read it to him.
"Good. You are a fine young actor," he said. "See you later."
I couldn't believe it. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek and The Great Bird of the Galaxy, had called WILLIAM FUCKING SHATNER, Captain James T. Kirk and director of Star Trek V, and asked him to apologize to me, Wil Wheaton, the 16 year-old acting ensign and drooling fan boy. Of all the wonderful gifts Gene gave me over the years, that is one of the most fondly remembered, because I know that without Gene's intervention that note never would have been written.
Over the years, whenever I ran into WFS at a convention, he was aloof to me at best, downright rude to me at worst. I heard so many other stories from so many other people who had an experience similar to mine, I just accepted that WFS wasn't the nicest person in the world (or at least not the most personable) and what I once took personally faded into a funny-but-sad story.
Unlike a lot of Trekkies, I was able to separate the actor from the character, though, and I was able to still enjoy classic Trek, and Star Trek II - Star Trek IV, as well as many hours of TJ Hooker.
Heh. Just kidding. I only watched TJ Hooker once, and that was because I lost a bet.
Unlike a lot of Trekkies, I thought WFS's "get a life" sketch on SNL was hilarious, and I thought it was an interesting turning point for him; after that sketch, he seemed much more willing to laugh at himself, and though I continued to hear stories of him being kind of a dick to people in private, at least publicly he seemed to take himself less seriously. (See his brilliant performance in Free Enterprise for an example.)
Then, in 2001, I played on a special Star Trek edition of the game show Weakest Link, with members of every Star Trek cast, including William Shatner. I had a wonderful time, and in front of a national prime time television audience, I held my own with my peers. I didn't win, but I made the host, Ice Queen Anne Robinson, laugh three separate times (which strangely didn't make it onto TV.)
Before we began filming, I sat in the green room (a place where actors hang out while they get stuff ready. There's food, drinks and TV, usually) and watched the World Series . . . with WILLIAM FUCKING SHATNER.
Yeah. It was really weird sitting there, talking about baseball with him like . . . we were just a couple of guys watching baseball. We talked about Randy Johnson versus Curt Shilling, and discussed the various strategies employed by the teams during the few innings we watched. He was kind. He was funny. He was warm. He was genuine. He talked nerdy sabremetrics with me. He was just a really nice and charming guy. In fact, he was so friendly to me, I assumed that he'd forgotten that I was that kid from Next Generation, or had me confused with someone else he'd worked with who he liked. (It could happen; I've been mistaken for Heather Locklear so many times, I started getting my roots done regularly and bought lower heels.)
In retrospect, the whole experience felt too good to be true, so over a year later, when he did "Ask William Shatner Anything at Slashdot, I asked him . . .
- Seriously . . . are we cool?
Are we cool, or what? I mean, I always thought you didn't like me, but I had a good time with you at Weakest Link watching the World Series. So are we cool, or was that just pre-game strategy?
I was pretty sure I'd get some solid karma-whoring points, and maybe a +5, Funny, but I didn't expect an answer. I certainly didn't expect the answer I got:
We are so cool, we're beyond cool. We are in orbit man. I don't do pre-game strategy.
I look forward to some personal time with you.
Right there, in front of every geek in the world, WILLIAM FUCKING SHATNER told me we were "cool." Of course, the "personal time" he mentioned could be in a Turkish prison, and who knows if he really meant it, but he could have simply ignored the question (I've done two Ask Wil Wheaton Anything interviews at Slashdot, and the editors send about 40 questions to you, with the expectation that you'll answer at least half of them) if he really thought I was a dick, so I decided not to read too much into it and accept it at face value. Though he'd once pulled off my fake rubber ears and pushed me face down into a puddle while the rest of the senior class stood around and laughed, as of 2002, WILLIAM FUCKING SHATNER and I were cool.