William Shatner recalls his 'magical' Stratford days as he accepts award in Toronto
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, October 22, 2013 10:45AM EDT
TORONTO -- Freshly bestowed with the Stratford Festival's prestigious legacy award, stage and screen actor William Shatner is demurring any suggestion he's reached the pinnacle of show business, slyly insisting he's merely "a legend in the making."
The "Star Trek" hero regaled a Toronto audience with tales of his early acting days at the southern Ontario theatre company as he accepted the annual honour from actor Colm Feore.
Before Shatner became known as Captain James T. Kirk, the Montreal-born performer was a member of the Stratford Festival company for three seasons, beginning in 1954.
His tenure included a celebrated turn as understudy for Christopher Plummer in "Henry V" in 1956.
Despite the glowing reception, Shatner says he was foolhardy to walk onto the stage when he was suddenly called upon to replace an ill Plummer. But he calls it "a magical time."
Last year, the award was presented to Dame Maggie Smith, who was a festival company member for four seasons between 1976 and 1980. The first recipient, in 2011, was Plummer, a member of the company for 12 seasons, beginning in 1956.
"This is really good, giving awards to living legends but there's a problem, there's a problem -- I'm a legend in the making, OK?" the 82-year-old Shatner said to applause from a crowd including filmmaker Barry Avrich and Stratford staple Cynthia Dale.
"You don't applaud for a legend in the making, maybe one clap. When he becomes a legend, then you applaud. So it's great that you're giving it to me. Because Chris Plummer is a legend. What an actor, what a man, what a buddy, he's fantastic. And Dame Maggie Smith, come on ... These are legends."
Shatner's tenure at Stratford included roles in "Measure for Measure," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Julius Caesar," "The Merchant of Venice," "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "Oedipus Rex."
His fellow actors during those early seasons included Douglas Campbell, Lorne Greene, Don Harron, William Hutt, Frances Hyland, James Mason, William Needles and, of course, Plummer.
At Monday's awards gala, Shatner recalled being asked to step in for Plummer a mere week after "Henry V" had opened. When asked if he would go on that night, he says he thought: "Go on? To what?"
Although he knew the lines cold, he had never spoken them out loud, and he joked that he barely knew the names of the other actors.
"What in heaven's name was I thinking?" Shatner said of his decision to go on stage, which nevertheless made him a theatre sensation.
"It was a magical time. I look back on that and I think I would never do that now. Are you kidding me?"
In the ensuing years, Shatner would go on to conquer the worlds of television and film, as well as become an author, recording artist, philanthropist and accomplished horseman.
Aside from playing Kirk in "Star Trek," his indelible TV roles included the titular cop hero in "T.J. Hooker," as Denny Crane on "The Practice" and "Boston Legal," the Big Giant Head on "3rd Rock From the Sun," and his corny pitchman alter-egos for Priceline and All-Bran.
Shatner's accolades include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an honorary degree from Montreal's McGill University, where he graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Commerce. He was bestowed with the Governor General's performing arts award for lifetime achievement in 2011.