LOS ANGELES — Bravado is a familiar part of William Shatner's image and his acting portfolio, whether he's in character as James T. Kirk, Denny Crane or the Negotiator TV pitchman.
Even the title of the one-man show he's bringing to Broadway this week – "Shatner's World: We Just Live in It" – has moxie to spare. So it's surprising, even endearing, that Shatner admits to his version of stage fright.
"My fears are not the primitive, `I'm afraid I can't talk' kind of fear that young actors have. Mine is, `I'm afraid the ticket sales won't go,'" he said recently in his memento-decorated office before heading to New York for the play's Thursday opening.
Another worry, and this is a big one: that audiences will prove tougher to impress than they were in Australia and Canada, where he toured with an early incarnation of the show. Shatner was last on Broadway in the 1961-62 production of "A Shot in the Dark," starring Julie Harris and Walter Matthau.
"I feel New York is held to a higher standard than anyplace else," he said. "I'm anxious to see how the New York audience will accept me."
His qualms weren't enough to make him skirt the Big Apple before he starts a monthlong, 15-city U.S. tour. Instead, he reassessed the material covering his career, his life and life in general. The show, directed by Scott Faris, runs through March 4 at the Music Box Theatre.
"I began seriously looking at the stories I told and trying to pare down to a minimum number of words to convey the meaning," he said. "In a way, it's very stark and dramatic to do that, but you have to select those words judiciously."
He's also ditched the original production's onstage interviewer. Shatner realized he didn't need a nudge to keep the story moving.
So what tales does he tell? He rattles them off: "I talk about death and I talk about love and horses and motorcycles. I talk about comedy and I talk about some of the things people want to hear about, `Star Trek' and all."
Nearing his 81st birthday on March 22, Shatner has much to discuss, including how he remains astoundingly energetic and far younger than his years in appearance (all his hair!), voice (still commandingly Kirk-like!) and quick wit (he loves puns!).
"It's probably good genetic structure," he offered. There's also a daily swimming-pool workout and, most importantly, the equestrian life he shares with his wife, Elizabeth, a former horse trainer.
"Horses and exercise and a loving life," Shatner said. When he's in Los Angeles, he fits in three to four hours of riding at a stable north of the city to compete in various events.
"I've won championships against kids who are 18 and born on a horse," he said.
How satisfying is that? "Beyond belief," he replied. "I'd rather get a belt buckle (prize) than an Oscar," said Shatner, whose tidy office is filled with family photos, copies of his books (including 2011's "Shatner Rules") and souvenirs of film and TV roles and his life as a horseman.
In conversation, he can't resist being lighthearted about the most heavyweight topics. It's a contrast to the perception that this is one self-serious guy despite his tongue-in-cheek commercial run as the Priceline Negotiator or his Emmy-winning turn as the outrageous lawyer Crane in "Boston Legal" or the short-lived sitcom "(Bleep) My Dad Says."
(Others may blame his portrayal of Capt. Kirk, circa the 1970s and `80s TV series and movies, for any lingering impression of pompousness, but Shatner doesn't: "If you look at `Star Trek' closely, there's a lot of laughs there.")
Ask the Canadian-born Shatner what he wants to leave behind, a question he's put to celebrity guests on his talk show "Shatner's Raw Nerve," and this is his reply: "Fingernails, toilet paper and some happy kids and a sorrowful wife."
Prevail on him to sum up "Shatner's World," and he said it's about "saying `yes' to a challenge. ... It's difficult to say, `Yes, I'd like to entertain that new idea. Yes, I want to take that adventure. Yes, I'll do a one-man show.'"
Then the actor's impish side kicks in.
"I was joking with somebody about getting people to the theater to see if I'm going to die that night: `Well, he made it through last night but you better go see him,'" Shatner said, grinning. "Come and see me balance the balls until I fall over – or the balls fall on me."