William Shatner’s notorious performance of “Rocket Man” is the gift that keeps on giving. Shatner, the “Star Trek: The Original Series” legend who played Captain James T. Kirk, was an in-person guest on the most recent episode of the CNN+ program “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace?” when the veteran newsman surprised Shatner by showing a clip of the “Rocket Man” performance.
Shatner, for his dramatic interpretation of “Rocket Man” at the January 20, 1978, Saturn Awards, which were also known then as the Science Fiction Film Awards, sported a tuxedo, took drags from a cigarette, and talk-sang his way through the Elton John classic. Moments before Wallace played the clip, Shatner jokingly said that he’d “torture” Wallace for doing so.
“I want to explore these spoken word albums, and I get what exactly what you’re saying; it’s not quite singing,” Wallace said. “It’s not quite talking, but it’s… you’re going to kill me for this. 19…”
“I would never kill you,” Shatner teased. “I’d torture you.”
“…1978,” Wallace said. “I’m going to play… Here’s another spoken word album. Take a look….”
Shatner watched the 25-second “Rocket Man” snippet and afterward quipped to Wallace, “Now your audience is going to watch Chris die, as I kill you.” Both men laughed, and Shatner added, “It was an awards show… that wasn’t being broadcast. They said, ‘Would you entertain us, and do “Rocket Man,”‘ so I said, ‘Well, I’ll do it like Frank Sinatra…'” and gestured as if he were smoking a cigarette and crooning like Sinatra.
Shatner Jokes about His ‘Rocket Man’ Performance
Wallace joked that the performance was “a little over the top,” prompting Shatner to note, “All right, so I was just kidding around. I didn’t know they were recording it. They released that thing…” Wallace questioned how it was even possible that Shatner didn’t know the performance was being recorded for posterity. Shatner, after all, was wearing a tuxedo… at an awards show, and everything, including the camera moves, was clearly choreographed.
“It wasn’t on TV,” Shatner said. “It was an awards show. It was for an audience (there at the show). I’m doing this thing. We’re all laughing. We’re all having fun, and somebody is recording it, and released the recording, released the tape.”
“Well then, don’t kill me,” Wallace said. “Kill them.”
Shatner smiled again and replied, “They’re dead! You never heard from them again. No, it was… It’s not my proudest moment, but then I re-recorded it on another album the way I thought it should go.”
Behold the Full ‘Rocket Man’ Video
The “Rocket Man” footage is classic. It’s Shatner at his most Shatner-esque. The ashes on his cigarette seem to defy gravity and definitely need to find an agent to represent them. Shatner’s frilly tuxedo shirt is a sight to behold. He’s fully committed to singing the song and digs deep for the drama in every lyric.
It’s the full context of the video, however, that makes it almost surreal. At the awards show, the late actress Karen Black introduces the song’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin, who says, “In 1972, when Elton John and I wrote ‘Rocket Man,’ it became very popular among the listeners. Due to the interest in the meaning of the song, now, in 1978, at the Science Fiction Film Awards, I’m truly proud once again to present my ‘Rocket Man’ as interpreted by our host, William Shatner. Thank you.” So, Black, whose career, according to the Internet Movie Database, included an Oscar-nominated performance in “Five Easy Pieces” and such fun B-movies as “Trilogy of Terror,” “Burnt Offerings” and “Killer Fish,” introduces Oscar and Grammy-winning Taupin, who introduces Shatner.
Though his “Rocket Man” interpretation still elicits some chuckles more than four decades later, Shatner has never stopped making music. He’s recorded several albums, according to AllMusic.com, including “The Transformed Man,” the 1968 classic that features his inimitable cover of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” as well as “Has Been,” “Exodus: An Oratorio,” “Seeking Major Tom” (which features the re-do of “Rocket Man” that he mentioned to Wallace), “Ponder the Mystery,” “Shatner Claus: The Christmas Album,” “The Blues,” and “Bill,” and has collaborated with such world-class musicians Ben Folds, Billy Sherwood, Iggy Pop, Brad Paisley, Judy Collins, Sonny Landreth, Canned Heat, and others on songs from those albums.
Shatner is set to reunite with Ben Folds, who is currently the artistic advisor for the National Symphony Orchestra, for a concert on April 29, 2022, at the Kennedy Center. According to the NSO site, DECLASSIFIED: Ben Folds Presents with William Shatner is “a special concert presented as part of Ben’s casual, late-night DECLASSIFIED series. This unique ‘part concert, part party’ series defies the traditional symphony experience with exciting guest artists, pre-show activities, and more.”