Monday, December 28, 2009

Up Till Now by William Shatner (Audiobook)

In his biography 'Up Till Now' William Shatner admits that there's not a lot of work he's ever considered turning down (although he does draw the line at barmitzvahs.) That's possibly why he's been such a pervasive presence on our television screens for the last three decades.

Most of us know Shatner as the red-blooded, swaggering Captain Kirk - a character I first encountered at university, when my ex-girlfriend (one of precisely three beautiful, female Trekkies in the world - they're as rare as unicorns) introduced me to the old Star Trek series on video.

Looking back, though, I'm sure I'm not alone in realising that Shatner's been part of my life for a lot longer than that - in other defining roles, like tough, uncompromising cop T.J. Hooker, tough, uncompromising attorney Denny Crane and, of course, the tough, uncompromising 'Priceline Negotiator.'

But for all the different incarnations of William Shatner, most of us have never known William Shatner as an individual - just as the characters he plays on our televisions screens (or maybe that should be 'the character,' as they all kind of blend into one.)

That's an oversight I attempted to correct by carpooling with the big guy for the last week; listening to the audio book of his autobiography 'Up Till Now' on my XMp3.

I've always loved a good biography, but there's something even more special about one that's narrated by the author himself. Hearing William Shatner's distinctive voice over my radio was like having him sitting across from me in the passenger seat of my old Lincoln; regaling me with his fascinating stories and anecdotes (but never chipping in for gas, the cheapskate.)

Fascinating stories and anecdotes are pretty much all 'Up Till Now' ends up being comprised of; not so much a biography (which one would imagine tells a life story in roughly chronological order) but more a collection of disjointed, rambling, but wildly entertaining stories held together by a common thread.

Shatner's book does follow a rough time order, starting out with his childhood in the Jewish quarter of Montreal and moving onto his first acting gigs with the Stratford Shakespeare Company. However, in between this narrative, it flits carelessly between anecdotes as and when the author feels it's appropriate - so we'll be discussing civil rights in Mississippi one moment and the 'dot com' boom the next.

But that doesn't really hurt the book; in fact, in many ways it makes it more enjoyable. As I mentioned earlier, Shatner's audio book was almost like having him ride along on my drive to work. The way he tells his story is similarly personal - like listening to the ramblings of an entertaining family member you've never had a chance to talk to before.

In that respect, 'Up Till Now' paints a warm, informal and affectionate portrait of Shatner's life and is illuminating for a whole slew of reasons.

Firstly, it's fascinating to discover that this great 'action man' of film and television is actually a shameless 'luvvie' of the oldest order. (The stories he tells of sharing a stage with Basil Rathbone and Christopher Plummer involve namedropping at it's most shameless; and despite being mocked for his three decades of 'wooden' acting, it's clear Shatner is ultimately a dedicated thespian to his core.)

Secondly, 'Up Till Now' is genuinely funny - with most of the humor being supplied at Shatner's expense. He creates wonderfully elaborate self-deprecating anecdotes, in which he repeatedly blusters his way through shaggy dog stories, building his biographical counterpart up until he sounds as arrogant and insufferable as all those other actors have accused him of being - yet then Shatner will deliver the punchline to each story, showing him up as a buffoon and laughing uproariously as he falls victim to his own hubris.

Ultimately, 'Up Till Now' is everything a good biography should be - an illuminating portrait of William Shatner that balances amusing anecdotes with real emotional gravitas. Considering that 'Bill' is possibly the most over-exposed man on television, it's both surprising and rewarding how much more of this man's life his biography reveals.

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