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He's been in show business for over 50 years and has worked with talents as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock and Heather Locklear. He won a Golden Globe and an Emmy last year for his work on TV drama Boston Legal, and he's appeared as himself on American pro-wrestling program. To some degree, however, none of that matters to his greatest fans: he can play as many roles as he wants, but to them, he will always be Star Trek's Captain Kirk.
William Shatner managed not to look too bored by Captain Kirk jokes Monday morning during an hour-long press conference at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, where the Jewish actor appeared to launch his latest charity effort - a $10 million endowment that will help to fund therapeutic horse riding lessons for children with mental and physical disabilities. The effort, a partnership between the Canadian-born actor and the Jewish National Fund, will support the roughly 30 riding programs currently running in Israel, including scholarships for financially needy children and efforts to promote cooperation between Israeli children of all backgrounds and their Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts.
Seated near the podium at the start of the press conference, the former TJ Hooker star listened intently as a local riding therapist explained the impact riding can have on the disabled. He then gave up his chair for Aliza Hovosa, an Israeli college student who said she had "discovered a new life" after using riding to control muscular spasms and improve her balance and walking abilities.
The new charitable fund had already received a $1 million pledge from Shatner friend and Los Angeles philanthropist Marvin Markovitz by the time Shatner addressed the assembled journalists and JNF affiliates. A horse enthusiast for over two decades, the actor has run the Hollywood Charity Horse Show for nearly 15 years and called his new project a "novel endeavor" during an exclusive interview with the Jerusalem Post. He calls his 10-day trip to Israel a "fact-finding mission looking at how to set up the infrastructure of the charity and make it run efficiently," and described guided tours he's taken in the last several days in the Galilee and Negev regions.
A long-time hero to science fiction geeks around the world, Shatner didn't look at all surprised by an autograph request at the end of the press conference from a member of Starbase 972, the Israeli Star Trek Fan Club. He's played his quirky image to comic effect in recent years and his non-sci-fi roles have proven a wise professional decision, helping bring Shatner roles on two televised legal dramas that won him guest and supporting actor Emmys in 2004 and 2005. The Emmys, his first in a career lasting more than half a century, have raised the actor to a level of professional prestige lacking for much of his TV career, which began in 1954 with a role as Ranger Bob on Howdy Doody.
Though he's long used his celebrity for charitable purposes, he gained particular attention earlier this year by agreeing to sell a kidney stone - yes, a kidney stone - to online casino goldenpalace.com for $25,000, all of which he then donated to Habitat for Humanity, an organization providing housing for the homeless. Though somewhat self-parodying in his recent film roles, the man clearly knows the value of a kidney stone, having rejected an earlier offer of $15,000 under the argument that old costumes from his Star Trek days had fetched as much as $100,000 at auctions. (Financial compensation wasn't the only issue under negotiation. "I retain visitation rights," the actor triumphantly declared, not long after passing the kidney stone.)
Shatner's current trip is his second to Israel, and like the first was arranged with the assistance of the tourism ministry. The actor met Monday with Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, who couldn't resist a Star Trek reference in saying, "We all grew up with Captain Kirk ...Israel isn't a different galaxy, and we're proud that people like you come and can be found among us."
But despite meeting with a government minister, Shatner was careful to stay on message during both his press conference and private interview, focusing on his charitable work and studiously avoiding questions about regional politics. Though he has "very much" watched Israel's development since its establishment, the 75-year-old said, "Your country is a huge country in spirit, and I wouldn't have the temerity to advise anyone on anything except to get behind this program and make it happen."
"I'm not a particularly religious person, but I am a spiritual one," he said. "I haven't been to shul in years in Los Angeles."
The Hebrew slogan for his riding project will be "soosim osim nissim," which the actor correctly translated as "horses make miracles" near the end of his Monday press conference. He responded with a smile at the next question, a query about his years "as captain of the Starship Enterprise."
"I knew you'd bring that up," he said.