William Shatner remembers early days in Montréal
Shatner doesn't recall individual teachers at Willingdon Elementary School and he says his memories of West Hill High School are almost as foggy. What he was most interested in then was football, and he does remember Mr. Chesney, the football coach and physical education teacher. “He put together a good team, and we won all sorts of city championships.”
Although there were few opportunities to call on his acting abilities, he recalls being allowed to read Shakespeare out loud. “I would read Shakespeare to the class, who didn't want to hear it to begin with, and I roused them into an acting fury. That was memorable!”
He describes himself as having been “in freefall most of my academic life, but what I did hold on to was acting.” That was an era when school curriculum didn't include drama. He suspects it was his mother's idea to send him to a private drama school. “The Montreal Children's Theatre probably had a bigger influence on my life than any educational facility, other than McGill University,” says Shatner. He attended the Montreal Children's Theatre, run by Violet Walters and Dorothy Davis, from roughly six to 12 years of age. “I was madly in love with Violet Walters. She had dyed black hair and violet lips, hence her name. She bore a striking resemblance, all of it manufactured, to some of the silent-screen stars.” He can't say specifically what dramatic skills he learned from her or if she recognized his talents. “She just gave me opportunity. She had a lot of girls there. I think she was desperate for any male to say the words.”
Shatner claims he played the same part over and over again: “Prince Charming, in all its many guises.” And he's been playing it ever since. Most recently on the ABC Television series The Practice, and now on its spinoff, Boston Legal, Shatner plays Denny Crane, a self-centred, womanizing, gun-collecting, conservative lawyer. The role has won him two Emmys and a Golden Globe Award.
“Now I'm an aging Prince Charming,” he says. “I just have to lie in my coffin and wait for the princess to kiss me, though usually it's the other way round!”
Violet Walters and Dorothy Davis, both dead now, ran the school until they were in their 90s. Shatner recalls seeing photos of Hollywood stars in the basement where they held rehearsals. “I remember fantasizing about my picture being up on that wall.”
The drama school still exists, now called The Children's Theatre. Sheila April ran the school until recently. She was a student there at the same time as Shatner. “He was skinny, gorgeous, and we used to faint just seeing him. He had a lot of self-confidence, a lot of guts. Now we hold him up as an example.” There is, however, no wall of fame, and no photo of William Shatner hanging in a rehearsal hall.
By the time he left the Children's Theatre, Shatner was a regular on a Saturday morning radio broadcast in Montréal. He did a lot of acting around town and went on to McGill. “I wrote, directed and acted in McGill's Red and White Review three out of my four years at university. That was my education really – that and a little office I had as a student, the Red and White Review office. It was underneath the staircase, and terrible things went on there!”
From McGill he went to the Canadian Repertory Theatre in Ottawa, the Stratford Festival and Broadway. He landed his leading role in Star Trek in 1966, and with it his reputation for dramatic camp and kitsch. He has made many films, starred in the T.J. Hooker TV series, written more than 20 books, and now does the witty Priceline.com commercials in addition to playing Denny Crane. And he's raised three children.
He has never attempted teaching. “I realize how little I know, and I'm overwhelmed by that,” says Shatner. But he does have advice for teachers: “Teaching is a noble profession and I have gone through the gamut of stern discipline and great leniency. I couldn't begin to tell you which is best. But I do think there's a great deal to be said for allowing the individual student to flower, and to bear in mind the uniqueness of that human personality. Easier said than done when you have a large classroom, but that's the ideal.”
Perhaps that's just what his English teacher had in mind when she let a teenage William Shatner read Shakespeare aloud.