William Shatner reflects on his new film, 'Star Trek,' space travel and not attending Leonard Nimoy's funeral

William Shatner, seen here in a 2016 NASA video.
William Shatner, seen here in a 2016 NASA video. (Image credit: NASA via collectSPACE.com)

By any standard of measurement, William Shatner has led a wonderful life. 

The 91-year old actor who gained fame by gallivanting around the galaxy as Captain James T. Kirk in "Star Trek" for three decades chronicles it all in the new documentary "You Can Call Me Bill," which premiered March 16 at the SXSW festival.

Produced by XYZ Films and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, this revealing portrait has Shatner musing about mortality, nature, space travel and more. It covers the span of his prolific career, from early days aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise on TV and in feature films, and his popular small screen runs with series like "T.J. Hooker" and "Boston Legal."

On the eve of the documentary's world premiere in Austin, Texas, Variety connected with Shatner to learn more about his take on life and death, his legacy, Leonard Nimoy's funeral, a favorite role and rocketing to space with Jeff Bezos' spaceflight company, Blue Origin.

Related: William Shatner launches to space on Blue Origin's New Shepard (photos)

Just Call Me Bill

'You Can Call Me Bill' premiered March 16, 2023. (Image credit: XYZ Films/SXSW)

Here are select excerpts from that recent Variety interview:

"I've turned down a lot of offers to do documentaries before," when asked about his reasons for making the documentary. "But I don’t have long to live. Whether I keel over as I'm speaking to you or 10 years from now, my time is limited, so that's very much a factor. I've got grandchildren. This documentary is a way of reaching out after I die."

"Time and time again, I've come across some interesting thought or idea," Shatner said regarding any new insights gleaned from the new film's creation. "That can be because of a thoughtful interviewer sparking something in me. In the movie, I didn't just want to go on about 'I did this or that when I was 7' or 'this is my favorite color.' I'm trying to discover something I've never said before or to find a way to say something I've said before in a different way, so I can explore that truth further. 

"The sad thing is that the older a person gets the wiser they become, and then they die with all that knowledge. And it's gone. It's not like I'm going to take my ideas or my clothing with me. Today, there's a person going through some of my clothes in order to donate or sell them, because what am I going to do with all these suits that I've got? What am I going to do with all these thoughts? What am I going to do with 90 years of observations? The moths of extinction will eat my brain as they will my clothing, and it will all disappear."

William Shatner as James T. Kirk in Star Trek

William Shatner as James T. Kirk in "Star Trek." (Image credit: Paramount)

"When Leonard Nimoy died a few years ago, his funeral was on a Sunday," Shatner recalled when his controversial absence from the ceremony is brought up. "His death was very sudden, and I had obligated myself to go to Mar-a-Lago for a Red Cross fundraiser. I was one of the celebrities raising money. 

"That event was on Saturday night. I chose to keep my promise and go to Mar-a-Lago instead of the funeral, and I said to the audience, 'People ask about a legacy. There's no legacy. Statues are torn down. Graveyards are ransacked. Headstones are knocked over. No one remembers anyone. Who remembers Danny Kaye or Cary Grant? They were great stars. But they're gone and no one cares.' But what does live on are good deeds. If you do a good deed, it reverberates to the end of time. It's the butterfly effect thing. That's why I have done this film."

Related: William Shatner says Earth looked 'so fragile' from space on Blue Origin flight (video)

Leonard Nimoy forms the Vulcan Salute at 2011 Phoenix Comicon.

Leonard Nimoy forms the Vulcan Salute at 2011 Phoenix Comicon. (Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

On the subject of whether or not Shatner has a favorite role over the course of his career, the legendary icon responded by saying that he just tries to have fun on set. 

"I just did a commercial for a watch that I designed," he said. "It has a face with a telescope, a sun, the Milky Way. And the watch company did this whole science fiction background for me to talk about it. Well, there's a part of the commercial where they use CGI to have a meteorite land next to me. I ad lib, 'That’s a lot of meteorite.' That was a pretty funny improv. I did that on Monday, and that's become one of my favorite moments."

Actor William Shatner holds up a postcard he wrote for Blue Origin's Club For The Future that will fly in space on his New Shepard rocket.

Actor William Shatner holds up a postcard he wrote for Blue Origin's Club For The Future that flew in space on his New Shepard rocket.  (Image credit: Blue Origin/Club For the Future)

Shatner's spaceflight aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft back in 2021 was an emotional reckoning for the actor, author and director.

"When I came out of the spaceship I was crying, just sobbing, and I thought, 'Why am I crying? What’s going on?' I'm in grief. What am I grieving about? Oh sh*t, I'm grieving about the world, because I now know so much about what's happening. I saw the Earth and its beauty and its destruction. It's going extinct. Billions of years of evolution may vanish. It's sacred, it's holy, it's life and it's gone. It's beyond tragic."

Click here for the full revealing (and slightly somber) Variety interview with William Shatner to celebrate the debut of "You Can Call Me Bill" at SXSW on March 16. 

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.