By Daniel Horowitz
(PHOTO: Courtesy of William Shatner).
Upon meeting Montreal native William Shatner in downtown Toronto, it takes only 15 seconds before one thing is clear: No matter how long ago he left his Canadian homeland for the glamour of Hollywood, Shatner is still very much a Canadian at heart.
"I love Montreal. We used to go to Moishe's Deli all the time on St. Lawrence Street," enthuses Shatner, 75, recalling his childhood. "My father had his clothing factory on St. Lawrence, and we'd end up at Moishe's or this Chinese restaurant all the time - usually on a Sunday evening. Chinese food or Moishe's was almost a ritual with growing up Jewish in Montreal back then."
Even today, on the set of Shatner's popular ABC series Boston Legal,trays of Montreal smoked meat can often be found. "To this day, every so often, the company that bought my kidney stone, Goldenpalace.com, has given me the extraordinary gift of being able to order smoked meat and bagels from Montreal, which are then sent to the set in Los Angeles. And, I must say, the entire cast and crew of the show are now angling to become Jewish strictly because of the quality of the smoked meat, bagels, and coleslaw," he jokes. "This incredible bonanza of food arrives and it's as though you ordered it from the store as regular takeout. It's hot and fresh and absolutely delicious. Until they tasted it, pastrami was a foreign word here. Even James Spader, who is Irish Catholic, now wants to be Jewish in the worst way." (For the record, Shatner sold the aforementioned kidney stone for $75,000 to the online gambling site GoldenPalace.com in 2006. That money, along with an additional $20,000, paid for the construction of a house by Habitat for Humanity.) And although the bounty arrives fairly often, Shatner is still unclear about how, exactly, the food arrives. Could it simply be "beamed up?"
"No, it's not really beamed up in the sense you're thinking, but, rather, it arrives via the new beaming process, FedEx," he says with a hearty laugh. "However it gets here, it causes a great deal of excitement because people from other sets come running to our set when they smell its arrival and quite frankly, there isn't enough room in the local synagogues."
Born to parents Joseph and Anna, Shatner attended Willingdon Elementary School and West Hill High School in Notre-Dame-de-Grace. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in commerce from McGill University in 1952.
Unlike millions of Canadian children who grow up dreaming of wearing the blue and white of their beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, or the bleu, blanc et rouge
the Montreal Canadiens, Shatner's athletic prowess did not make him hopeful of achieving sporting stardom.
"I skied for my high school team," he says. "Then I tried out for high school football and I became part of a great high school football dynasty that won the city championships for several years. Westhill High School was the best then. I was on the second team and, quite clearly, I was, at most, second-best."
Shatner remembers that some of his fiercest battles were not necessarily on the football field.
"At the same time that I was trying to play football and trying to become an actor, I was also fighting off the antisemites," he says. "I was getting killed from every side; the football players thought I was a sissy because I was an actor; the actors couldn't believe that I wanted to play footbal; and the antisemites were beating me up because I was Jewish. All of it was a kind of childhood in chaos."
But Shatner found his niche when he began appearing on the radio.
"During those early years, I was on a radio drama of children's fairy tales. A radio producer by the name of Kaplan for CBC in Montreal began giving me small roles to play. In fact, I was Montreal's Prince Charming for a good run. So, between football and fighting, I was also on the radio. It actually helped me finance my college career."
Trained as a classical Shakespearean actor, Shatner performed at the Stratford Festival of Canada. His official movie debut was in the 1958 MGM film The Brothers Karamasov
with Yul Brynner. Of course, it was his role on Star Trek
as Captain James Tiberius Kirk that turned him from actor to icon. Although the landmark science fiction show only lasted from 1966 to 1969, his destiny was sealed.
Still, insists Shatner, his career was moving ahead quite nicely before he landed Star Trek
"I had starred on Broadway, been in big movies, and had even done a short-lived television series before Star Trek
came along," he says. "I was making a good living. In fact, I was just about to return to Broadway to perform in a play written especially for me when I got the news that Star Trek
had been bought. I decided to do it because an earlier pilot I had seen of the show interested me and I saw some of the magic the concept held. I also had certain ideas about how we could make the show better, which I shared with the producers. Then, after the show had become a moderate hit, it provided me with an income to buy a house and, later, to put my kids through school."
After hanging up his phaser gun at the end of the Star Trek
run, Shatner appeared in various films, television shows, and theatrical productions. Then in 1979, Paramount Pictures decided to produce the highly successful Star Trek: The Motion Picture
, which was followed by eight subsequent Star Trek
films. In the 1980s, he starred opposite Heather Locklear as a cop in T.J. Hooker, before going on to host the popular Rescue 911 from 1989 to 1996.
From his humble thespian beginnings on CBC Radio, Shatner has carved out one of the most impressive, varied, durable, and admirable careers in Hollywood. It's a career that has spanned five decades as an actor, director, producer, screenwriter, recording artist, and author. In fact, it could be argued, Shatner owns one of the most recognizable faces on the planet.
Today, with his career on warp speed, Shatner has become one of Hollywood's most prominent philanthropists. Combining his lifelong passion for horses with a desire to help children, Shatner turned his philanthropic attention to therapeutic horse riding centers across Israel in partnership with the Jewish National Fund (JNF).
The benefits of horseback riding for those with disabilities have been recognized for over 3,000 years, explains Shatner. Therapeutic riding has been widely used since the early 1950s as a tool for improving the lives of the disabled. Individuals with decreased cognitive, physical, or emotional disability can benefit from the horse's gentle and rhythmic movements. Riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in verbalization, flexibility, balance, muscle tone, motor development, and emotional well-being.
Shatner is the spokesperson for the William and Elizabeth Shatner/Jewish National Fund Therapeutic Riding Consortium Endowment for Israel, which hopes to fund the nearly 30 therapeutic riding programs that exist throughout Israel. The goal is to raise $10 million to support these unique programs and to maintain their accessibility for people of all economic backgrounds. "We want all kids - Jews, Bedouins, Israeli-Arabs, Jordanian, Palestinian, and Egyptian - to benefit from these therapeutic horseback riding centers," insists Shatner.
Shatner's partnership with JNF began over lunch at Factor's Deli in Los Angeles with his friend Marvin Markowitz. The two men shared a dream about helping physically and mentally challenged children with riding therapy. Markowitz, a member of JNF's executive committee, knew he could count on Shatner's support to build upon the JNF's longstanding relationship with the Red Mountain Riding Center at Kibbutz Grofit in the Negev.
"Successful people take passion as their guide, and it was the passion from Elizabeth and William Shatner that drove our relationship to where we are today," says Markowitz in typically modest fashion. In fact, to help jumpstart the JNF program, Markowitz recently made a $1 million donation to the therapeutic riding endowment fund.
For the past 20 years, Shatner has spearheaded the Hollywood Charity Horse Show, which features some of the best riders in the United States raising money for charity. In his spare time, Shatner enjoys breeding and showing American saddlebreds and quarter horses and owns his own horse farm, Belle Reve.
"Ever since I saw an exhibition put on by an organization called Ahead with Horses - where children who were so severely handicapped that some could not even hold their heads up yet were going through intricate exercises on horseback - I was smitten by this cause," says Shatner. "You can't watch these kids without knowing you have to help somehow."
Shatner advocated for these centers to be open to children of other nationalities in their respective areas. "I see it as a way to foster peace between nations, too. What better way to create a dialogue than by helping handicapped children from different countries feel good about themselves?"
With his new wife Elizabeth by his side, Shatner, along with Markowitz, made the trek to Israel this spring to assess the needs of these riding centers. Elizabeth had fallen in love with horses at the age of 5. By the time she was 14, she was teaching horseback riding and judging competitions.
"My wife was a professional trainer until she married me, and now she trains me instead of horses," jokes Shatner.
"I can say to you that horses have probably been the most important influence in my life," says Elizabeth. "I'm from generations of horse owners, and I've owned a horse myself since I was 8. I've also been a professional instructor for over 25 years, so I've seen and experienced firsthand what horses can do for a person - able-bodied and disabled."
Shatner is fairly philosophical about the motivation for his support of these riding centers. "I learned these words when I was in Israel: 'Sussim osim nissim - horses make miracles,'" says Shatner. "In addition to healing the minds and bodies of the people in the therapeutic riding program, we also seek in a small, tiny way to heal the nations of the area. We need help from every corner, from Israel and the world, especially America - that's what we're about."
Reprinted with permission from Lifestyles Magazine.