William Shatner’s Martial Arts Connection: When Star Trek’s Capt. Kirk Trained in Karate!

William Shatner’s Martial Arts Connection: When Star Trek’s Capt. Kirk Trained in Karate!

This article was published in the April 1974 issue of Fighting Stars magazine, a sister publication of Black Belt. That means it appeared just five years after the original Star Trek was canceled and many years before the sci-fi series became a staple of film and television. At the time, William Shatner was not the international superstar he's recognized as today. He was just an actor who'd had a good run on a series that happened to be set in space. And he was a martial artist.

When the USS Enterprise abruptly splashed down from its three-year trek to the stars, angry fans denounced the TV "high-thinkers" who chose to ground the space adventure with the hope of replacing it with an even higher-rated show. The industry captains never did find that higher-rated program, but the adventures of Capt. James T. Kirk and his Star Trek crew still delight science-fiction aficionados, even if only in syndication.

Life on board the Enterprise must have been something else. The crew traveled more space miles in prime time than the entire NASA program from John Glenn to Skylab. The adventures of Capt. Kirk made the void of space so convincingly alive that real astronauts in Houston and Cape Canaveral sheepishly confessed that they, too — like millions of collegians, housewives, doctors, lawyers and sci-fi fans — were addicted to the show.

For William Shatner, life during Star Trek must have seemed rigidly controlled and cautious. Capt. Kirk's adventures are not worth a moon rock compared to Shatner's off-screen exploits as a Shakespearian actor, an athlete and, lately, a karate practitioner.

While the 37-year-old does not present an image of a decathlon champ, the years before Star Trek saw him rise to just about every physical challenge offered him. Now that he's back on terra firma, Shatner's everyday activities range through a multitude of sports and, on any given day, he can be seen fencing, swimming, racing cars or even skydiving.

"Hell," he says with a satisfied-with-life grin, "I'll do anything once."

When he was still a novice at films — after having gained a good reputation in plays by the Bard — Shatner sent shivers up the spines of directors who found him to be an uncanny horseman and amateur acrobat during the making of Westerns and war pics. Even during the years Star Trek was on the air, Shatner always insisted on doing his own fight scenes.

"Looking back on the things I've done, I must be a little crazy," he reflects. "But I'm constantly testing myself, both in athletics and acting. I've always believed that if you don't define your limits by trying everything, you'll never know your capabilities."

Shatner has defined his limits, all right. He didn't set his sights on acting until after leaving McGill University in Montreal, where he majored in commerce. He then served a two-year stint as a member of the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival, where the roles he played made him begin to practice fencing. He co-starred with such noted English stage stars as Alec Guinness, James Mason, Anthony Quayle and Ann Todd. Shatner even had a starring role as Henry V.

He studied more advanced sword and shield techniques and started lifting weights while preparing for a role in Alexander the Great. His successes distinguished him as a creative actor in such notable films as Judgment at Nuremberg and The Brothers Karamazov. More recently, he won kudos for his stunning performance in The Andersonville Trial on TV.

Shatner followed his early film appearances with increasingly larger guest roles on top TV shows. He tested for the demanding part of Capt. Kirk and eventually landed it. Today, Shatner is reluctant to discuss the end of Star Trek, but he says he has fond memories of his years working on the series.

The actor is a veteran boxer who, when time permitted, spent many arduous hours in the gym working with punching bags and a sparring partner. He's respected as a man who is very able to handle his own action.

"In various movies I've made, I was able to get rid of a lot of hostilities by punching the air, which is what film fights are all about," Shatner says. "One always stops short of hitting the opponent. This requires a certain amount of knowledge. A screen fight is more exaggerated, but the mechanics of the fight remain the same."

Enter Karate

In part, it was the physical demands put on William Shatner during the filming of Star Trek that aroused his curiosity about karate. While the show never depicted any of the crew members as skilled martial artists, the action was considerably more sophisticated than old-fashioned fisticuffs.

"There were all types of things I had to be adept at — things like kicks and leg work," Shatner says. "And all these things were constantly landing me on my ass. This made me realize I had a lot more to learn about combat, even for staged action. Stunt and fight work in films has been always a pet preoccupation of mine. I know when to let the stuntmen and true experts take over. But if I think I can do something without ending up in the hospital for too long, I'll do it."

Shatner's introduction to formal martial arts training came at the hands of an associate screen writer/karate teacher named Tom Bleecker. "I did not run out and seek help immediately," Shatner recalls. "In fact, I had to be pushed into the martial arts. The arts were an entirely new area for me, and I was not about to underestimate what an endeavor like taking karate would mean. I'd had a passing interest in karate, both the physical and philosophical aspects, but I wasn't sure that the investment would pay off on-screen. And frankly, my time was limited, and I didn't want to approach it half-baked.

"My immediate concern was solely the Star Trek action. If knowledge of a sport enhances a film or TV segment I'm doing, I'm pretty quick to jump into it. But I'm not one to take uncalculated risks. If a leading actor gets himself hurt, he can cost the studio thousands of dollars in delayed shooting costs and put a lot of people out of work. But I thought I'd try it and at least start to pick up the basics of karate. I was also fascinated by the discipline."

In the two years he's studied with Bleecker, Shatner has gained knowledge of how real fights happen. "Aside from the boxing and stunt techniques, I'd only had a few lessons in judo many years before," he says. "I did not want to become a martial artist who would abuse karate's fine skills. I was more than aware a little knowledge of karate could be dangerous, but I rarely get into physical hassles. In fact, in any unavoidable fight, the only thing my opponent would most often see is my back."

Stimulation From an Active Life

Despite his interest in the sport, Shatner admits to having found karate more of a stimulant than a drain of energy required for his work. "There are times when I am so tired, it's an effort to even put on the gi," he says. "But in making an effort to get out there and work for at least a half-hour, I find I get a second wind and go back to my acting with renewed vigor.

"This might sound like a cop-out, but if I had the time, I would go for a black belt. I would put everything I have into the martial arts. I may have my own limits, but karate is an open endeavor for the ablest of athletes."

How does Shatner's teacher feel about the actor's progress?

"His memory is incredible," Bleecker says. "His discipline as an actor and his gift for total recall make him a prime student of karate. He is strong, coordinated and fast. If we miss a week of work, when he returns, he finds it easy to remember exactly what he has learned and where we left off. He's right on all the time."

It was that athletic ability that prompted Shatner to consider becoming a professional athlete. Equestrian riding, swimming and football were possible goals for the young man. "I was a bit small for a pro football career," he says, "but I was mean."

He may be mean, but he also has a passion for nature and the outdoors. He recently shot the rapids of the Salmon River in a kayak for television's American Sportsman. And Shatner loves to take hunting trips where he can use his archery skills.

"Hunting with a bow and arrow is a prime example of man's need to be in harmony with nature," he says. "I have to be one with my environment. Man is constantly violating the natural environment through pollution and a hectic pace of life. Though hunting has been 'out' lately, it really has been in for hundreds of thousands of years as the fundamental way of obtaining food. I think that when hunting as an archer, it gives the animal an equal chance with the predator, man. With a bow and arrow, hunting becomes a one-to-one relationship. With a gun, hunting is a completely different story."

Shatner amusingly recalls many hunting expeditions that yielded no game. He points to the impossibility of bagging game with a bow and arrow from distances where a gun would easily score a kill. "That is part of the limitation and challenge of hunting with arrows," he says. "The basicness of archery appeals to me. But many times I have gone hunting with cameras, too."

Shatner sees the popularity of the martial arts as potential cause for concern. "I once bred German shepherds, and the thing that made the dogs great was that only a few of them existed," he says. "Now, the shepherd has had its fineness overbred because the demand for them has increased and breeders have to mass-produce them.

"It may be the same with karate. With so many people taking it, the beauty that is karate may be lost. The millions of novices, possibly including myself at this point, may be reducing the arts to a point of compromise where the greatness is left to only those very few dedicated masters. That would be a tragedy, but I suspect it's what's happening."

While Shatner has every intention of pursuing karate when and if he's able, competition will play no part in his martial arts future. "There are too many accidents," he says. "I've heard of people getting killed in competition. Also, my interest is in self-satisfaction through self-mastery of the arts. I don't much care about proving that I can do someone else in."

Martial Entertainment

Despite his acclaimed dramatic background, Shatner admits to being just a plain old popcorn-munching fan when it comes to escapist entertainment. "I'd rather go see a double feature of karate films than many Academy Award winners," he says. "The cheaper, the better. It drives my wife up the wall. I love them!"

On a more serious note, he doesn't see much of a future in purely action-oriented martial arts films. And he says that the violence trend in movies may have reached its saturation point. "The arts can have a great future in movies if they are integrated into strong story structures," he says. "A movie about violence isn't a very lasting experience to behold. l think a film in which both the action and the serenity of the martial arts philosophy were blended would be a tremendous success with a wide-ranging audience."

Coincidentally, Shatner and writer-sensei Bleecker have just such a script that they're planning to produce. But at this stage, they're evasive about the details.

"Just as those studying martial arts must mature and hopefully explore the true depth of their endeavor, movies should do the same in their treatment of the arts," Shatner says. "Look at the Kurosawa samurai films. There's no reason why American moviemakers couldn't do that kind of justice to their subjects."

Shatner says he holds out the firm hope that the Eastern influence provided by karate's popularity in America may eventually prove beneficial to our violent society. "There's always the possibility of the opposite, but I like to think it may appeal to the better side of people. I hope the net result will be peace in the world rather than just an army of citizens with deadly hands."

Quick to recommend karate to other actors, Shatner goes so far — in a tongue-in-cheek vein — as to claim it could be more beneficial than actual acting classes. "Of all the things to study in terms of physical preparedness as an actor, karate is the best," he says. "You learn to give and take, to remember, to truly perceive — all the aspects of the ideal acting class. The essence of drama is conflict, as is the essence of the martial arts, whether it be internal or external."

Meaning Behind Experience

William Shatner has great regard for the enigmatic philosophies and morals inherent in the martial arts. "There are the apocryphal tales of the students who sit and wait in the rain for days, just to see the master for a moment," he says. "Then they have to do menial jobs like raking leaves for months in order to prove that they really want to study, like the opening segment on Kung Fu when Caine is a boy. That is an illustration of real dedication and desire, which is very seldom seen on any level in modern society."

He recalls that his sensei used similar psychology with him when his interest in the arts began to develop. "When I'd finally decided to study, Tom was very cagey about it," Shatner says. "And the cagier he was, the more I wanted to start studying. I found myself finally begging him to teach me. It was a good experience and just the kind of reverse-psychological kick I needed."

Although he enjoys Kung Fu as entertainment, Shatner finds flaws in the show in that Caine is never affected by his encounters with people in the Old West. He profoundly affects them, yet he's never forced to re-evaluate his attitudes.

"But on the other hand, I suppose the first time he got drunk in a bar and got into a brawl, that would be the end of the character," Shatner adds.

Although he doesn't recall having had any misconceptions about karate before he studied, Shatner, who's ranked as an orange belt, claims to have had pleasant discoveries in his current training. "The kata I found to be particularly intriguing in their rhythmic and symmetrical beauty," he says. "I have no formal dance training, but I greatly appreciate the dance-like kata. They're really open to interpretation and aren't just exercises to be done by rote."

Recalling his many physical endeavors squeezed into his busy life, Shatner is reflective. "I want to savor it all before I'm too old to do it," he says. "Some people might say that studying karate or even doing an occasional action film might limit my career — that afterwards, I'd be typecast in only those kinds of roles. I don't think that's a valid pitfall.

"I've never been typecast in the first place. If an actor can do only one thing, there is that danger. But if he's been fortunate enough to spread his ability around to a number of fields, he'll never be limited in what he does as an actor or as an individual.

"I may have spread myself too thin, and that is always a danger. I'm the kind of person who likes to advance and better myself in several things simultaneously."

The end result is the proof: William Shatner — athlete, martial artist, actor and ex-captain of the starship Enterprise — knows what he's talking about.

by Steve Jacques

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