With his mellifluous voice and unmistakable cadence, William Shatner could make reciting the ingredients on a cereal box sound philosophical or at least as if he thought they were. From his 1978 spoken-word rendition of Elton John's "Rocket Man" to his latest lyrical spoof of Sarah Palin's farewell speech on The Tonight Show, Shatner has proven himself to be the reigning master of self-mockery. TIME spoke with the Emmy Awardwinning Star Trek icon turned Priceline pitchman about his off-camera relationship with Conan O'Brien, buying dinner for J.J. Abrams and why, when it comes to musical collaborations, he's not unlike Dracula.
Your version of Sarah Palin's adieu to Alaska as beat poetry was so popular it even inspired an encore performance using the exAlaska Governor's tweets. How did the idea first come about?
I had been on The Tonight Show a couple of weeks earlier telling a story, and then some papers tried to manufacture a feud between Conan and myself, which is, of course, ridiculous. So they called a few weeks later to do the Palin bit to solidify that we weren't feuding the Conan O'Brien show and I are really good friends and that was about 1 o'clock in the afternoon. By 3 o'clock I turned up dressed up well enough to go on the air. The reaction has been absolutely mind-boggling. The Internet is all atwitter.
So what is your relationship with Conan like when the cameras are off?
It's great, he folds me into his arms and I come up to his belly button. So I suckle on his belly button and he holds me close. [Laughs.] That can lead to any kind of relationship, right?
Your spoken-word interpretations of "Rocket Man" and "Common People" with Ben Folds have become YouTube classics. How did this musical career begin?
I did an album 40 years ago that was a mixed success, both creatively and critically. But out of it came a concept of how to do songs and how to make the poetry of the lyrics resonate, as a nonsinger. Instead of singing, holding the note, you can use the rhythm of the words to indicate the emotions whether it's Sarah Palin's meanderings or Shakespeare. Well-written words are music.
You've also worked with songwriter Aimee Mann, country singer Brad Paisley and the electronic duo Lemon Jelly. Who else would you like to work with?
Anybody. Any well-known musician would be a prime victim of mine. I would jump on their backs and stick my needle-like teeth in their throat and suck their musical blood. [Laughs.]
You and Leonard Nimoy just headed to Las Vegas for one of the world's largest Star Trek conventions. What was that like?
There used to be as many as 15,000 people coming to these conventions and I would get up and not quite know what the next word would be, and then go from there. That was those early conventions, and then I began to get into a sort of stand-up routine. I'd change my act every six months or so, but I think everyone there had already heard them. And now apparently interest has revived as a result of the movie that J.J. Abrams made. This is the first convention I've been to in a long, long time.
Do you remember what your first convention was like?
Well, I declined for the longest time because I thought it was beneath me. Then I got there and realized it was above me.
Have you seen the latest Star Trek film?
I haven't. Abrams sent me a message through the Web what was it, Twittered me? No. YouTubed me? No, what has he done? E-mailed me. He e-mailed me saying he heard that I hadn't seen the movie and he'd set up a private screening, and I declined the private screening and told him I'd buy him dinner.
The sort of mild reluctance is that if I were seen going in, the way people talk about things, it'd be mentioned. So I'd have to wear a hat, and gloves, who knows. I didn't want to go through that minor irritation.
You also declined Richard Branson's offer to send you into space.
He asked how I would like to pay for it. And I said, How would you like to pay me to do it? And we didn't talk any more about that. That shut him up.
Is it true that you once sold a kidney stone for $25,000 and donated the money to Habitat for Humanity?
$75,000. There's somebody living in a house from my kidney stone. A lovely, large family somewhere in northern Louisiana.
So what body part is next?
Well, it depends on the price, I guess. I can spare very little, mind you. I might try liposuction and spread that around.