William Shatner is a pop-culture icon, beloved by science-fiction fans the world over. His unique line delivery and sense of humor helped him forge a thriving career even after he stopped playing his most famous role: that of Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek. However, it’s well known that behind the scenes relations between certain cast members were fraught. The tension persists today and Shatner’s long-running feud with one co-star was recently reignited.
Considering the incredible cultural impact made by the Star Trek franchise over the years, it’s somewhat surprising that the original show only lasted three seasons. The extended universe of movies, spin-off shows, video games, books and comics all sprang from Gene Roddenberry’s original vision, though. A crucial element of the enduring success of the show was Shatner as Captain Kirk.
After playing Kirk for three years between 1966 and 1969 on the original series, Shatner would return to the role in 1973. Lending his voice to Star Trek: The Animated Series was a way to keep the character and franchise alive, but aside from this, Shatner struggled for work in the 1970s. Then, fans’ prayers were answered when the show was revived for the big screen in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The success of the film led to Shatner starring in six more movies, culminating in his final outing as Kirk in 1994’s Star Trek: Generations. This united the original series cast with the cast of new show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Though he would go on to win two Emmy awards for the role of Denny Crane on The Practice and Boston Legal, Shatner will likely forever be known as Captain Kirk in the eyes of the world.
Similarly, Japanese-American actor George Takei will always be synonymous with his iconic Star Trek role. Takei played Hikaru Sulu in the original series, animated series and six subsequent films. He even reprised the role in a 1996 episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in honor of the franchise’s 30th anniversary.
Unlike Captain Kirk, Sulu didn’t appear in every episode of the original series. Takei portrayed the character in 52 out of 79 episodes, but Sulu is still seen as one of the core members of the U.S.S. Enterprise crew regardless. Aside from Star Trek, Takei was a prolific voiceover artist who starred in The Simpsons and Disney’s Mulan.
These days Takei has become arguably as well-known for his political and social activism as for his acting. He is prominent in local and state politics, and has gained recognition and awards for his campaigning on human rights issues, including relations between Japan and America. Significantly, in 2005 he took the brave move of revealing his sexuality publicly for the first time.
In an interview with Frontiers magazine, Takei talked about his homosexuality, saying he had been in a relationship with his partner Brad Altman for 18 years. He said, “It’s not really coming out, which suggests opening a door and stepping through. It’s more like a long, long walk through what began as a narrow corridor that starts to widen.”
Since that point, Takei has become an outspoken proponent of LGBTQ rights through his social media presence. Fusing his activism with his sharp sense of humor, Takei has harnessed Facebook and Twitter in such a powerful way that he has been reinvented as an internet celebrity in his 70s and 80s. In 2018 he told website The Daily Dot, “The power of social media is fantastic in developing a genuine community.”
Unfortunately, Takei and Shatner had been engaged in a bitter feud for over four decades at this point. The different flashpoints over the years have led to both men saying some very pointed things about each other. For example, in his 1994 autobiography To The Stars, Takei claimed Shatner would pretend he didn’t know who he was in the early days of Star Trek.
Takei also alleged that Shatner used his influence to change an important element of the script for the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The original plan was for his character, Hikaru Sulu, to take command of a starship at one point in the story. But Takei alleged that Shatner convinced the writers to change this, robbing his character of a potentially defining moment.
The bad feeling continued and then exploded again in 2008 when Shatner wasn’t invited to Takei’s wedding to Altman. In a bitter clip posted to his YouTube channel “The Shatner Project”, an angry Shatner ranted that, “It’s so patently obvious that there is a psychosis there. I don’t know what his original thing about me was. I have no idea.”
Shatner went on to declare he had never actually read To The Stars but was aware of Takei’s claims in the book. He said, “I didn’t read his book that was printed many years ago, but apparently I didn’t let somebody have a close-up. I literally don’t know him. I didn’t know him very well on the series.”
Doubling down on the idea that he never truly knew Takei very well, Shatner said, “He would come in for a day or two, as evidenced by the part he played. Then on the movies, there occasionally. I didn’t know the man.” He then waded into some dubious territory concerning Takei’s sexuality.
Shatner ranted, “He has continued to speak badly about me for all these years. Obviously, hiding his homosexuality – talk about festering and not living the truth of your life and feeling badly about yourself? And being fearful somebody would find out this terrible, terrible secret, so he thought.” These controversial comments may account for why the video was later pulled from YouTube.
“Finally, at the age of, I think, 70, he decides to come out of the closet and say, ‘I’m gay,’” continued Shatner. “Like, who cares? Be gay. Don’t be gay. That’s up to you, George. You would think there would be an epiphany at some point, where George might have said, ‘Poor Bill Shatner. He’s such a lonely, desperate, unhappy man that he did all these terrible things to me.’”
Shatner maintained he couldn’t remember doing anything to hurt Takei. He said, “I presume he can remember all these terrible things I must have done when I said, ‘Hello’ or something to him. You would think he’d have this epiphany and say – because he and I don’t have many years left in this world – ‘I wish him well. I’m so happy that I wish him well.’”
“But instead what he does is he makes this big deal about not inviting me to his wedding,” continued Shatner. “If I was such a terrible force in his life – even some 40-odd years later, because I’ve not seen him – that I affect his marriage where he has to isolate it, what kind of sickness is going on in the man? Why would he go out of his way to denigrate me?”
Shatner’s emotional diatribe continued with, “There must be something else inside of George that is festering and makes him so unhappy that he takes it out on me – in effect, a total stranger.” He added, “It’s sad that the man can’t find enough peace in his life to either say, ‘Be positive’ and say, ‘I forgive him, whatever those hurts were,’ or to shut up about it.”
Overall, Shatner’s take on the situation was, “It’s sad. I feel nothing but pity for him.” In response to his shocking video, Takei countered Shatner by saying he did invite him to the wedding, but never received a response from the sci-fi icon. Takei told his side of the story in 2015 to the New York Times Magazine.
“Two months after my wedding, he went on YouTube and ranted and raved about our not sending him an invitation,” lamented Takei. “We had. If he had an issue, he could have easily just phoned us before the wedding, simple as that. But he didn’t. And the reason he raised that fuss two months later is because he was premiering his new talk show Raw Nerve.”
Overall, Takei believed that Shatner’s motivation for the YouTube rant was not any kind of real emotion. He thought it was little more than Shatner utilizing scandal for self-promotion. He said, “It’s not tension, it’s all coming from Bill. Whenever he needs a little publicity for a project, he pumps up the so-called controversy between us.”
A 2010 appearance on The Howard Stern Show then saw Takei dish the dirt on Shatner’s diva behavior. He said that, at a 1994 event honoring James Doohan, who played Scotty on Star Trek, Shatner refused to go up on stage with the rest of the cast. Takei noted that, at this time, Doohan was in poor health and it had the potential to be the cast’s last time together.
“It was shocking,” admitted Takei. “This is the usual thing that happens, on the set, whether it was the TV series or the movies, or at conventions. This was another convention where he decided he was not going to do what they wanted him to do, and he walked out.”
A year later, the memoir Shatner Rules: Your Guide to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large was published and, within its pages, Shatner took another couple of shots at Takei. Firstly, he insinuated that Takei’s wedding was a publicity stunt. Having Star Trek stars Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols as best man and maid of honor, respectively didn’t sit well with Shatner.
Secondly, Shatner claimed Takei’s dislike for him grew from being unwilling to play second fiddle to him on the show. Shatner wrote that Takei “says that I have a ‘big, shiny ego!’ Well, actors have big egos. If mine is shiny, it’s because I tend to it very carefully and lovingly. Perhaps George’s needs a good polish.”
Fast-forward to 2016 and a series of letters, handwritten by Shatner, were being auctioned. Some of the contents were publicized, including private musings Shatner had on the ill-feeling between himself and Takei. He had written, “I had never really got to know him. He would come in every so often during the week while we were shooting Star Trek. I was busy learning lines and dealing with my life, so I really can’t remember a meaningful conversation.”
However, Shatner then seemed to accept some responsibility for Takei feeling aggrieved. He wrote, “I’m sure that would be my fault… my lack of attention. Nevertheless, when we all wrapped that last day of shooting it was all meaningful for all of us – Star Trek was cancelled.” However, he did add, “Not so long after that very friendly time he began to say very mean things about me. Why?”
The feud hit the headlines again when, during an August 2020 appearance on Doctor Who star David Tennant’s podcast, Takei once again made some claims against Shatner. He claimed that the entire Star Trek cast were friendly with one another, except for Shatner. In fact, Takei said it often felt like “William Shatner versus the rest of the world.”
Takei’s belief was that Shatner wasn’t happy about another character on the show being more popular than his Captain Kirk. This allegedly led to him becoming increasingly antagonistic towards the rest of the cast. Takei told Tennant, “It got more and more intense,” before adding, “There was one character whose charisma and whose mystery was like a magnet.”
Takei continued, “It was Spock, the strange alien with pointy ears.” He alleged that Leonard Nimoy’s Spock generated more fan engagement than Shatner did as Captain Kirk. Takei claimed, “That intrigued the audience and women thought, ‘I’m the one who can arouse him.’ His fan letters were this many, and Leonard’s were that many, and that created an insecurity.”
“Movie-making, TV-making, theatre-making is all about collaborative teamwork,” explained Takei, insinuating that Shatner’s instinct was the opposite. “A good actor knows that the scene works when there’s that dynamic going on with the cast. Some actors seem to feel that it’s a one-man show. That’s the source of some tensions.”
Interestingly, Takei’s claim that Shatner felt uncomfortable about Spock’s popularity was actually confirmed a few years earlier by the man himself. In a 2016 interview with newspaper The Hollywood Reporter Shatner revealed that he had even broached the topic with producers of the show while it was on the air. He was worried that Kirk could become sidelined.
“I remember going to the producers and wondering whether they were going to change the thrust of the show as a result of the popularity of Spock,” admitted Shatner. “So, my anxieties were never directed at Leonard per se, it was about, ‘How was the show going to go?’” However, even though this worry over Spock’s popularity was not disputed by Shatner, he did take issue with Takei’s fan-mail claim.
Taking to Twitter in the wake of the podcast being published, Shatner struck a vicious blow by writing, “George needs a new hobby. Now he’s making things up. We never saw fan letters. That’s why there’s so many secretary-signed photos. We barely saw George. He was in once a week at most. How would he know anything? The only person with jealousy is George.”
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that the feud will ever be settled. But, for what it’s worth, William Shatner is not the only Star Trek cast member with whom George Takei had a problem, though this other beef had a happier ending. In 2012 Takei told Mother Jones magazine that he initially hated Walter Koenig, who played Ensign Pavel Chekov from Season Two onwards. However, it simply stemmed from Takei’s professional anxiety.
Between Season One and Two, Takei was cast in the John Wayne movie The Green Berets. However, he explained, “We ran way over schedule and I couldn’t be back in time for the beginning of the second season. Walter Koenig was brought in to essentially say the words that were written for me. I had already memorized them because I was so excited.”
“When I came back, I hated Walter sight unseen,” confessed Takei, before reassuring fans that they soon settled any differences. Takei said, “We worked it out. As a matter of fact, we had a shortage of dressing rooms, so they asked me to share my dressing room with Walter – a person who had stolen my part! But he turned out to be a really good friend.”
As for Shatner, he has also rubbed several other Star Trek cast members the wrong way. Nichelle Nichols once revealed she was close to quitting the show due to his antics, which allegedly included stealing other actors’ lines and bossing around directors and guest stars. In her autobiography, she revealed she chose to stay because civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. told her she was a role model for young black women and girls.
Shatner also had an ever-evolving relationship with Nimoy. At different points in time they were professional rivals, bitter enemies, but also close friends. In fact, Shatner once described Nimoy as “the only friend I ever had.” Sadly, their relationship ended badly, with Nimoy cutting off all contact in the final years of his life. Shatner told The Hollywood Reporter, “I don’t know why he stopped talking to me.”