OShatner, our Shatner!

For more than 30 years, William Shatner has floated through the stratosphere of pop culture like a balloon with a big, grinning Shatner face painted on the side.

Up there he floats, from decade to decade, from "Twilight Zone" to "T.J. Hooker," from "Star Trek" convention to feature film to Priceline commercial. He is untouchable, high, high, high above the rest of us. The ground-bound carpers pathetically launch their darts, then watch as they arc harmlessly back to earth.

Ham!

Kitsch!

Cheesy!

Piffle. Tom Arnold is a ham. Wayne Newton is kitsch. Barry Manilow is cheesy.

But Shatner -- Shatner has elevation. Shatner has staying power.

Shatner is the man standing onstage here in the Genesis Center in downtown Gary -- this desolate Rust Belt carcass -- preparing to host the Miss USA pageant, a contest that urges contestants to demonstrate their intelligence through their walk.

It's early March, a day before the Friday night broadcast, and Shatner is working hard, dressed in a sport shirt and blazer and holding a wireless mike.

You smile just looking at him, half expecting he'll have a flashback and break into spoken-word song at any moment.

Mr. Tambourine maaaaan!!!

Instead, he simply reads from the teleprompter attached to a boom camera, hovering in front of his face.

"Hold on a minute, I need a reality check here," he says, reading from the script. "In the movie 'Miss Congeniality,' I played the host of a beauty pageant. Now I am the host of Miss USA 2001. This is truly a case of life imitating art."

As it always is with Shatner. He has so conflated the lines between life and art, between self and self-parody, between reality and surreality, that he exists in a singular orbit around Planet Celebrity.

He once told actor Kevin Pollak, who does the definitive Capt. Kirk impersonation: "At 'Star Trek' conventions, I do you doing me and it kills!"

Years ago, on a late-night talk show, Shatner told a story about taking his kids trick-or-treating. Naturally, he dressed in costume, donning not one but two Kirk masks.

"They'd open the door, and there I was," Shatner said. "I'd take off the first mask, and it was Captain Kirk! And I'd take off the second mask -- and it was Captain Kirk!"

Somewhere within this joke lies the meaning of Shatner.

Hoosier Captain? There he sits in the front row of folding seats during rehearsal, waiting to spring back up the stage stairs, two at a time. He's 70, but doesn't look or act it.

And surprisingly, he speaks much like the rest of us. Not at all with the Shatnerian delivery you've come to expect.

This is the man, after all, who built a career treating sentences like Slinkys, or wrapping them around sticks of linguistic dynamite. He blasts through punctuation that would stop mere mortals. Then he . . . pauses. He runswordstogetherand . . . hepauses. Sometimes, he EMPHASIZES a word, then ANOTHER, sometimes FOR no . . . apparentreason!

At rehearsal, the Miss USA contestants cascade off the stage in front of him, a two-by-two waterfall of pert feminine beauty. Shatner knows what we think he's thinking. Capt. Kirk, after all, was a galactic shagger.

"You can't even say anything untoward here," he says. "It'll be taken the wrong way."

But it seems like a little Kirk can't help but seep out.

"Most of these girls lack a sensuality," Shatner muses. "They're so young, they haven't emerged into their sensuality yet."

Say . . . is it getting warm in here?

A dozen feet away, Miss Indiana, a tall, shapely blonde who wants to go into broadcast journalism, catches Shatner's eye. She tells him that friends of her family know him quite well, or something like that.

"Well, give them my best," Shatner says, leaning forward.

He pauses pregnantly.

"You're very pretty," he says, grinning a bit, with just an echo of his Shatnerian delivery.

"Thank yew," she says. "That's sweet."

Where No Man . . . A warp-speed history of our Canadian-born hero's career:

Lands his first U.S. film role in a 1958 version of "The Brothers Karamazov." First big TV gig is a part in a 1963 "Twilight Zone," in which he is the only passenger on an airplane to see a gremlin on the wing. Shatner eats up the role, appearing to invent the Seizure Method of acting. He is cast as James T. Kirk, the Hornbloweresque captain of the Starship Enterprise, in "Star Trek," 1966-69. Fame ensues.

Records "The Transformed Man," 1968 album of dramatic soliloquies and spoken-word renditions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," among others. Plays an L.A. street cop in "T.J. Hooker," 1982-87. Hosts "Rescue 911," 1989-96.

Stars in seven "Star Trek" movies until killed in "Star Trek: Generations" in 1994, spurring global mourning among fans. Writes a series of successful sci-fi novels about a futuristic drug called "Tek," which is made into a cable TV show in mid-'90s. Signs on as a pitchman for Internet e-tail site Priceline.com in 1998. Does a series of 24 television ads for the company and takes payment in 125,000 stock options. Cashes 35,000 of them in February 2000 for a cool $3 million before the stock tanks.

But that's not how Shatner became Shatner.

The Priceline ads -- in which the actor "sings" with a band -- illustrate just how his postmodern celebrity has circled back on itself.

Or telescoped out of itself.

Or deconstructed the paradigm.

Or something.

It wasn't serendipity that the New York-based Hill Holliday advertising agency came up with Shatner for its Priceline ads. One of the firm's writers owned a copy of Shatner's old album, it turns out.

It is "Mr. Tambourine Man" where Shatner started to become Shatner.

* While chewing scenery in "Star Trek" in 1968, Shatner performs "Mr. Tambourine Man" on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."

* In 1978 he continues on the spoken-word track. This time, he performs a version of Elton John's "Rocket Man" at a science fiction film awards show.

* By the early '90s, comedian Chris Elliott is doing an impersonation of Shatner's "Rocket Man" on "The David Letterman Show."

* In 1996 ultra-hip pop star Beck films a video for his song "Where It's At," which includes a homage to Shatner's "Rocket Man." Or maybe it's a nod to Elliott's nod to Shatner.

* In 1998 pop star Ben Folds -- who bought Shatner's "Transformed Man" album at a garage sale when he was 9 years old -- plays the piano in a Priceline ad while Shatner sings along. Shatner, in return, makes an appearance on a Folds album.

* In 2000 Shatner is cast as a beauty pageant host in "Miss Congeniality," if only to serenade the winner in a bombastic finale. Having seen the movie, a CBS exec gets the idea to ask Shatner to host Miss USA.

"He is one of our cultural touch points," says David Wecal, president of Hill Holliday.

But the linchpin of Shatner's appeal, Wecal adds, is his joyful kamikaze performance style. This is a man who, for three years on "Star Trek," had to act opposite some of the silliest alien costumes in television history.

"Even if he got onstage and made a fool of himself, which he did sometimes, you had to like the guy for trying," says Wecal. "So many celebrities are so guarded about how they appear, and you have this guy laying it all out there."

Shatner, it seems, is something of a cultural Rorschach test: Depending on your perspective, he's either a pathetic clown or a highly evolved parodist. Or both. Or neither.

Then Wecal raises the key question: "Was he part of the joke, or was he the subject of the joke?"

Laugh Lines So does he ever worry if people are laughing with him or at him?

"All the time," Shatner says, taking a break in his dressing room.

"I am very careful about choosing roles that don't lead into" -- and here he pauses for a moment -- "buffoonery. You have to make certain that your life doesn't become a parody."

"You ask me, 'Do I get the joke?' Yes, I get the joke," Shatner says. "The joke is: I know I can't sing. The non-joke is that I am trained in iambic pentameter, and I know rhythm and lyric and words that convey meaning. A good lyric is a piece of poetry and that's my milieu. The music is the joke and the poetry is its grounding."

Or, as Wecal says: "He is hammy, but there is a great subtlety in his performances."

He conceived "The Transformed Man," says Shatner, as a high-art project: He would take famous dramatic soliloquies and couple them with what he saw as compatible pop songs:

"You have the lines from 'Cyrano de Bergerac,' " Shatner says, beginning the recitation from memory. " 'Would I calculate and scheme? Live in fear? Make visits instead of rhymes? Meet all the right people?'

"Cyrano is a man who's lost everything. And then you've got 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' which is a drug song," Shatner continues.

[Author's note: This is where he loses us, but he's on a roll.]

"The song is about losing everything. So the two pieces work together.

"I went on Johnny Carson to do it and it's six minutes long. That's too long, they say. You've either got to cut the monologue or the song. Okay, I'll cut the monologue and do the song. So no one knows the context. So now, you've got some idiot deejay playing 'Mr. Tambourine Man' that ends with me screaming, 'Mr. Tambourine Maaaan!' and what am I going to do -- go on and argue with some idiot deejay who thinks it's funny?"

Herein lies the genius of Shatner. Maybe "Mr. Tambourine Man" was a bad idea. Except that, 30 years later, it helped make Shatner a dot-com millionaire.

Shatner: A Short Bio William Shatner was born in 1931 in Montreal, the scion of a wealthy clothing manufacturer. He picked up French on the streets of the Franco province and acted in children's theater. His high school yearbook lists his nickname as "Tough Guy." He is an economics graduate of McGill University (which eventually named its student union after him by student vote). He labored in Canadian repertory theater as a light comedic actor, and became estranged from his father, who wanted him to go into the family business. But he loved acting enough to live in cold-water flats for five years as he tried to get his career going.

He has three daughters and a son, and is on his fourth marriage. The first two ended in divorce, the third in a fatal tragedy.

In August 1999 Shatner returned to his Studio City, Calif., home and found third wife Nerine Kidd motionless in their backyard pool. Shatner dialed 911. Then, say police, he jumped into the pool to pull her out and attempt resuscitation. But it was too late.

An autopsy revealed that Kidd drowned after hitting her head on the pool's bottom while diving. She had a blood-alcohol content three times the legal limit.

Now, Shatner has an idea for a film he wants to direct, one tentatively titled "Shiva Club."

It's about a Jewish comedian whose wife dies. He is brought out of his grief only by returning to stand-up. It's not a story about Kidd, he says, though he did draw its inspiration from her death.

He calls it "a comedic look at grief."

A Style Is Born Shatner says he dreamed up his melodramatic delivery out of necessity, trying to save a sinking 1958 Broadway production of "The World of Suzie Wong."

Every day, he says, the play lost audience members after intermission. Things looked bad. Shatner took matters into his own hands. He began YELLING his lines, EMPHASIZING phrases such as "VEAL CUTLET!" He became a SPECTACLE. An acting style was born.

It worked on "Star Trek," he says, backstage at Miss USA.

"Every day, we'd have pages and pages of dialogue to learn, long monologues. And a lot of it was nonsense words, like 'Give me that thingamabob.' " He rushed his lines, he says, before he forgot them.

"I was just trying to find a way to remember all the [expletive] words."

The Transformation A side journey into the mind of "Star Trek" fanatics:

Wait a minute, the Trekkie realizes, we're inside the Genesis convention center. Genesis! Genesis was the secret project in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"! It created life on dead planets!

And, look -- Shatner's talking to Miss Iowa! James Tiberius Kirk was born in Riverside, Iowa, in March 2228!

Awesome!

Shatner is barely amused.

"You see," he chuckles, "I never think about that."

Whoa.

His indifference hits like a photon torpedo to the warp drive. But "Star Trek" must mean something to William Shatner -- we read it somewhere.

Over to the bookshelves. Let's see . . .

"Star Trek Memories."

"I Am Not Spock."

"The Meaning of Star Trek."

"Starfleet Technical Manual." Whoops! Now that one's embarrassing.

Wait, here it is: "Get a Life!" This is Shatner's 1999 first-person coming-to-terms with the "Star Trek" phenomenon. In true Shatner style, the actor donned a rubber alien mask, attended fan conventions and interviewed dozens of hard-core Trekkies who didn't know they were spilling their souls to their beloved captain. If they had, they would've soiled their Gorn costumes.

For years, Shatner says, he had treated the endless "Star Trek" promotional tours and conventions as necessary burdens and welcome paychecks. At conventions, his fellow cast members thought him high-handed, distant, even arrogant, something Shatner acknowledges.

But in 1996, Shatner's "Rescue 911" and "Tek Wars" television series were canceled. His marriage to his second wife, Marcy Lafferty, was ending. He eventually would pay her $23 million in the divorce settlement. He had hit bottom and needed a lift, he writes in "Get a Life!"

His agent booked him into a "Star Trek" convention in Alberta. Great, he thought. More freaks in pointed ears drooling over him. But when he stepped onstage, and the crowd cheered, Shatner says he felt a wave of love wash over him.

He began to understand that "Star Trek" had created a community of people who shared tips on building phasers while sharing pictures of their children, growing up from one year's convention to the next. "Get a Life!" fondly reflects this.

It was then, Shatner says, that he realized that no matter what happened to him, Kirk would live forever.

No. 4 Is No. 1 Shatner's fourth wife -- Liz, who is 42 -- shows up at Miss USA rehearsals. She's an Indianan; the two were married here in February.

Shortly after Kidd died, Liz sent Shatner a letter of condolence, addressed in calligraphy. The two are avid horse breeders and competitors, and knew each other casually. The letter caught Shatner's eye, and he asked Liz to dinner several months later. It turned out that her husband had died of cancer in 1997.

"We shared our grief," Shatner says.

Right now, Liz is as jumpy as a colt. A tabloid has set a bounty for the first photo of the newlyweds, so she declines to be photographed for this story. Instead, her husband says, they will sell their "love story" and photos to a tabloid and give the money to charity.

Liz is about 5 feet 9, with blue eyes and long, straight blond hair. She was her high school's homecoming queen. When she evaluates the contestants onstage, she has the hilarious and insightful habit of employing horse-breeding terms.

Elsewhere in the hall, her new husband is needling the show's scriptwriters, pushing a gag about two of the contest's judges, homemaker Martha Stewart and prizefighter Roy Jones Jr. He is "getting resistance."

He tries the joke on Liz.

"What do Martha Stewart and Roy Jones Jr. have in common?" he asks. Pause. "Martha's a sucker for a right cross."

If you don't get the joke, that's okay. No one else did, either.

"Hmmm, I don't know," Liz says, generously.

"Maybe I better punch it up a little," her husband says, winking.

"I think you should strive for quality, not quantity," she says.

"In this case," Shatner says, "I favor quantity over quality."

This pun thing is like a disease with him.

"You've just got to keep vomiting them out, puking them out," he says, gleefully grossing out Liz.

"Ewwww," she protests.

Someone else suggests: "Rewordgitating them."

"Hahahaha!" Liz laughs. "That's good!"

"Hey," Shatner bristles. "Why are you laughing at his joke?"

Is he kidding? Probably.

Probably.

On the Air and on the Mark Finally, it's Friday night and show time. The host delivers his lines with perfect comedic timing. Shatner seems well worth the fee CBS pays him, which, though he won't reveal the amount, is typically between $25,000 and $100,000 for such a show.

Shatner decides to skip the Miss USA Coronation Ball -- set for the nearby Merrillville mall, where the winner will pass under a sign that reads "FOOD COURT." But before he exits for the Radisson, Shatner rewinds the evening. Most of the women, though attractive, lacked a certain something, he says.

Then he pauses and raises an index finger.

"There was one girl who was very pretty," he says. Pause. "Miss Indiana."

A moment later, Shatner's very own Miss Indiana -- his wife, Liz -- arrives in his dressing room. He rises. They stand there, nose to nose, making low, sweet talk.

"Why are you staring at me?" she coyly asks.

Shatner flashes that half-grin of his, the one Kirk flashed at dozens of alien hotties throughout the galaxy, at generations of fans. Just how much mileage can you get out of that mack-daddy grin?

A lot.

"Because you're so beautiful," Shatner tells his wife.

Oh, captain!

The Final Frontier We didn't forget to ask about the Hair. We were afraid. After all, no one wants to catch one of Kirk's flying leg kicks to the chest. But two weeks after the Miss USA contest, and 2,300 miles away, it seems safer. We call him up in California:

The joke goes like this, we say: The worst toupee in Hollywood belongs to Burt Reynolds. The second-worst belongs to Bill Shatner. Yes or no, on the hairpiece?

A pause that could chill a Vulcan's green blood.

Then, Shatner speaks: "It's a question that I find like asking somebody, 'Did you have a breast implant?' or 'When did you get your lobotomy?' "

We have come too close to Shatner. We have removed the last Kirk mask and asked what's underneath. He does not answer the question. Instead, he simply floats away.

"I am very careful about choosing roles that don't lead into buffoonery," says William Shatner, whose career arc has stretched from "Star Trek's" Tribble-troubled Capt. Kirk, above, to Priceline pitchman, left, to pageant host.