Hollywood’s Irreverent Movie and TV Star Waxes on Wine, Cheese and the Life Well Lived
William Shatner is clearly accustomed to being in charge. The former captain of the Starship Enterprise strolls into the 1920s-style Hollywood mansion where his cover shoot is about to take place and proceeds to take command of the situation. “This won’t take long,” he informs the photographer, who has no choice but to agree. And true to his word, the Canadian-born actor emerges from the dressing room twenty minutes later and announces he’s ready to roll.
Looking at Shatner, sharply dressed in a bright blue blazer, crisp white shirt and denim jeans, it’s hard to believe he’s 82 years old. In fact, mention his age to anyone who knows his work — and let’s be honest, almost everyone is familiar with at least one of his legendary roles on shows like Star Trek, TJ Hooker, and Boston Legal — and you’ll see collective jaws drop in disbelief. Sure, the geek God may be carrying a few more pounds on his 5’10” frame than when he began playing Captain James T. Kirk almost half a century ago (Did your jaw just drop again?), but the perpetually magnetic thespian’s energy and stamina are that of a much younger man.
Perhaps it’s his curiosity that fuels Shatner’s youthfulness. Mention any of his many passions — wine, breeding Doberman Pinchers, horses — and the Priceline spokesperson’s hazel eyes light up with enthusiasm. And much to the editors of this magazine’s delight, Shatner recently added cheese to his lust list. While this relationship is still fresh, he demonstrates loyalty to his burgeoning interest in aged curds and whey, and he isn’t afraid to let others drive his knowledge of this delicious subject.
In fact, during breaks in the photo shoot, Shatner would disappear into the kitchen where Bryan Bergmann, a Certified Cheese Professional and a local cheesemonger from Whole Foods, was preparing sumptuous samples of exceptional cheeses that Whole Foods had sent over, all for the two-time Emmy-winner to try. In addition, Alberto Minardi of Principe Foods USA had brought both prosciutto di Parma and an antique red Italian slicing machine. And from the look on Shatner’s delighted face, each sample of cheese, and each taste of prosciutto, was a mind-blowing morsel.
In between bites, the infamous poet and recording artist (he’s currently working on his fourth CD) pondered topics from his 360-acre horse farm in Kentucky to the very meaning of life. He also confessed the real reason he was so keen on being on the cover of Cheese Connoisseur, besides the obvious opportunity to taste a wide range of cream-based delicacies, is a thirst for knowledge, an intellectual drive for self-improvement and a special interest in wine and cheese. His participation might be the very impetus it takes to give Shatner the cheese authority he now craves.
Cheese Connoisseur: Mr. Shatner…may we call you Bill?
William Shatner: But of course.
CC: Well, Bill, we’re so excited to have this opportunity to speak with you and that you’re going to grace the cover of our magazine.
WS: I’m delighted to be a part of this and have been looking forward to doing this shoot. I love learning about new things and had no idea of the complexity of cheese.
CC: You were raised in a Jewish household in Montreal, Canada. What was your diet like growing up?
WS: Montreal was always a foodie town because of the French influence, but I wasn’t aware of that as a child. My family appreciated good meals but we ate a lot of smoked meats and brisket or what you would call pastrami here. But it had a taste that is specific to Montreal. There’s also our bagel, which is different from the New York style bagel: First it is boiled, then baked in a wood-fired oven, then toasted. The dough includes egg and honey, and extra honey is added to the water used to poach the bagels before they are baked.
CC: That sounds delicious, like a Canadian delicatessen. You must miss those old home flavors.
WS: I like to go back to see family, and I’ve hosted some of the comedy festivals there. Whenever I visit Montreal, I make a beeline to those restaurants and stores where you can still get that kind of food.
CC: Was specialty cheese a part of your diet growing up?
WS: To be perfectly honest, no. It’s not something that children appreciate. It’s one of those things that are an acquired taste, which is a topic I’m very interested in: The whole idea of how taste is developed and becomes sophisticated.
CC: You explore that theme in your web series, Brown Bag Wine Tasting, which is such a charming approach to a blind taste test. What inspired you to do these interviews with normal folks?
WS: A lot of people aren’t wine drinkers, and they’re really missing out on something wonderful. I feel the highbrow way that wines are rated and described in reviews may be intimidating to the average person. My idea is to take a bottle of wine, wrap it in a brown bag and go to the person on the street, share a glass together, and then talk about it. The show shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I just hope it extracts some of the snobbery out of wine-tasting.
CC: The same thing applies to cheese. Too many people feel it’s all about how much a cheese costs, and they don’t realize some of the best cheeses come from local stores, including supermarkets! It really is about your own personal preference, not what other people think. Do you have any plans to do something similar with cheese?
WS: Why, yes! I already have Brown Bag Cheese Tasting as an intellectual property or trademark. I’m interested in combining the cheese and the wine. I want to answer the question: How do we acquire tastes for fine wine and smelly cheese? What cells are at work in the front, side, and back of the tongue? It’s antithetical to human nature. It’s like oysters. Who was the first person to pick up an oyster and eat it?
CC: Good question. Obviously someone very brave and curious.
WS: There’s also a factor of economics involved with the tastings. Good wine and cheese don’t have to cost a lot.
CC: That’s true. In Brown Bag Wine Tasting, you say you could be serving a $20 bottle of wine or a $200 bottle.
WS: Exactly. I do that deliberately. I want people to know that you can find good wine at discounted prices if you shop correctly, and that goes for cheese, as well.
CC: When you and your wife, Elizabeth, are having guests over for a party, how do you choose what you’re serving?
WS: My wife is pretty darn good at shopping for cheeses. She’s more of a wine drinker than I am, and usually makes those decisions. But one of the integral parts of enjoying cheese for me is the bread. You need a great, crusty baguette.
CC: Do you have a favorite bakery in Los Angeles?
WS: I don’t need to advertise them but the place that makes excellent baguettes here is La Brea Bakery.
CC: We hear that you also appreciate a good beer.
WS: Oh, I love beers from all over the world, especially ones that are dark, heavy, bitter, and chocolaty. All I need is a beer, a baguette, some cheese, sitting at a curved table in the sunshine… sounds a lot like Paris, doesn’t it? When I was on tour last year with my one-man show, Shatner’s World, we were in 40 cities in the United States, and everywhere we went, we tried to find local breweries, cheesemakers and bread manufacturers. They’ve got extraordinary ones in places you wouldn’t expect like Detroit and Cincinnati. Artisans from around the world have settled in these towns and have brought their skills with them.
CC: Have you ever taken wine- or cheese-tasting classes?
WS: No, but my friend is a wine sommelier and he’s been doing a number on me with the series, teaching me so much. And my kids are also wine connoisseurs.
CC: We’re talking about a lot of rich foods here. Are you conscious of the amount of calories you’re consuming?
WS: Absolutely, I worry about calories every single day! For example, today in lieu of lunch, I’m eating cheese. That should be the title of your piece: In lieu of lunch! But, yes, the calories…you’ve got to be aware of how much you’re eating. For some, the tendency is to take the baguette with a huge hunk of cheese on it, and jam it into your mouth like a sword-swallower. But that’s just bad manners. The best way to eat it is, the bread and cheese should be about the same size, so that the rim of the cheese just covers the cylinder of the bread. So it’s like an umbrella and you lift the umbrella slowly to your mouth.
CC: In terms of staying fit, we know you ride horses, which is a great form of exercise. What else do you like to do?
WS: I swim in the pool almost every day.
CC: What’s a day in the life of William Shatner like?
WS: I’m up at sunrise, to either work or swim or ride horses. I have an office — my hours are from ten to six — and that’s where I write. I’m currently working on a book called Hiring Yourself, about the unemployed over 55. I’m also writing scripts, films, and doing animated features. I’m working on my fourth record, Ponder the Mystery, with Billy Sherwood from the group Yes, which is coming out at the end of the summer. And I’m making a documentary called Wacky Doodle, about the first two years of production on the series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was such a crazy situation so that’s what I named it.
CC: Where on earth do you get the energy to do all of these projects? Whenever I mention your age, no one believes you’re in your 80s.
WS: The key to longevity is being lucky. And I have my health. Without that, you have nothing. I know it’s a cliché, but the truth of the matter is — and I know the truth of the matter — if you’re not healthy, you have no energy for love, for learning,
for appreciation of life.
CC: Did your parents live to an advanced age?
WS: 70 or so. But ask anyone over 50 how his or her parents died, and nobody really knew. Was it cigarettes, fried foods?
CC: Did you ever smoke?
WS: Sure, everyone did back then, but I quit. And I had no problem giving it up, either. One day my children said to me, “Daddy, you don’t smell good,” so I stopped.
CC: That was obviously a smart decision to make at an early age. What other life lessons have you figured out over the years?
WS: I’ve been able to maintain a career and earn good money for a long time, through a myriad of circumstances, but the most important reason, again, is being lucky. If I could say something to that younger guy just getting started, I’d say, “You don’t have to be scared, because it’s going to work out alright.” Of course, it could just as easily have not worked out. A lot of actors don’t get jobs after a certain age.
CC: What do you think you’d be doing if your luck had, indeed, run out?
WS: Cleaning up horse manure, I guess. Anything to pay the rent.
CC: You’ve spoken eloquently about your most famous role, Captain Kirk, and we know you’re not in the new film that just came out this summer. Would you like to appear in the next one, if possible?
WS: I’d love to but I just don’t see where they could fit in the old Captain.
CC: Would you like to see J.J. Abrams continue directing the series?
WS: He’s doing a great job. I’m looking forward to seeing Star Trek Into Darkness soon.
CC: You’ve had such an illustrious career and currently have almost 1.5 million Twitter followers. When fans see you on the street, do they just fall at your feet in awe?
WS: (laughs) That’s right! In fact, I haven’t walked on the sidewalk in a long time because I’m stepping on all of the bodies before me!
CC: Does this feel like the best time of your life?
WS: That’s certainly possible, but it’s also overshadowed by the thought that I’m not going to be around for much longer.
CC: Those kinds of thoughts can lead to great enlightenment! In your infinite wisdom, Bill, have you figured out the meaning of life?
WS: (laughs) No, I haven’t. I do know that the journey is the important part and the search is what drives me. There must be a meaning — but we’re conscious that there is no meaning — so there must be a meaning. The irony is we never find the answer. My only hope is, just as I’m expiring, I say, “Of course!” And I know.
CC: Well, we hope that you’re here for a long, long time. What would this world be without you? Do you have any other tips to share on how to live such a long, energetic life?
WS: Find your source of joy. For me, that’s food. People who say, “I eat to live, I don’t live to eat,” are missing one of the greatest pleasures of being alive.
CC: And right now you’re favorite food is…
WS: Cheese! Especially the Parmigiano-Reggiano we just cracked. That truly is the secret to youth! CC