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On William Shatner’s 90th birthday, a reminder of when he could laugh at himself

William Shatner, who turns 90 today, has lived long enough to see himself become a shonda.

Lately the actor — who will always be best remembered for his turn as Captain Kirk — has been dismissing Jewish converts of color and spatting with Trans Twitter that the word “cis” is a slur. In between, he’s also put out a series of novelty records and vocally defended his work with Autism Speaks, which was previously accused of propagating eugenics and being otherwise problematic. It hasn’t been a good look.

But this weekend, by chance, I found myself arriving at an appreciation for the notorious ham who, at least as late as “Boston Legal,” still had the potential to entertain. I rediscovered a time — long before his broadsides of costars and “snowflakes” — when he didn’t take himself so seriously.

On a Season One episode of “The Larry Sanders Show,” Shatner provided one of his best cameos of all time. Fittingly, given his unmistakable staccato, it was only his voice that made it onscreen.

In the scene in question, one of the writers from the eponymous late night show takes a call from Shatner about a proposed “Star Trek” sketch. Sanders (Garry Shandling) and another writer request that he be put on speaker.

“Try to get him to say Klingon,” Sanders says.

Over the phone to Jerry (a young Jeremy Piven) Shatner plays up his prickliness. He asks if they could do away with all the Kirk stuff and do something with his three novels — “TekWar,” “TekLords” and “TekLab” — instead. The suggestion has those present burying their heads in boredom.

“I mean isn’t ‘Star Trek’ the most obvious, unoriginal choice you could make?” Shatner declaims, not knowing he’s being listened in on.

There’s a gameness from this Shatner. He’s willing to play into the resentment of being known for his early career peak and the disinterest from so many regarding his new endeavors (there are nine TekWar books, by the way). People want him to play the hits. Shatner — the man if not the character — knows it and is happy to be the butt of the joke and even nod to his reputation for feuds with his costars when he suggests his biggest enemy onset may have been DeForest Kelley.

Shatner does, in fact, end up giving us what we want when Larry gets on the phone.

Playing nice for the guy who runs the show, Shatner executes a heel turn, now thrilled to do something with “Star Trek.” He even says “Klingon.”

This is the Shatner I’d like to see more of — laughing at himself, not lashing out at other people.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].

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