If someone offered you an all-expenses-paid trip to Asia, would you take it? Well, yeah. That, dear readers, is the split-second consideration process William Shatner says he underwent after being asked to appear on Better Late than Never?NBC?s four-episode series premiering Tuesday that sounds like it was created in a Mad Libs laboratory. (In actuality, it is based on the South Korean show Grandpas over Flowers.) Shatner ventures to South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Bangkok for 31 days with three other 65-and-over celebrities whom he?s never met before and, frankly, has no business traveling overseas with: Henry Winkler, George Foreman, and Terry Bradshaw.
The resulting fish-out-of-water adventure, as the promos would have you believe, consists of a quartet of North Americans ambling confused around foreign countries in Tommy Bahama shirts and cowboy hats, without ever attempting to lie low in their host countries. And the actual TV show is that, sure?but the stars also share an unexpected warmness, jokey camaraderie, and chemistry that transcends the gimmicky setup.
Yes, even Shatner realized that the wacky, W.T.F. setup would be something he and his co-stars would have to overcome.
?It?s such a difficult premise, isn?t it?? the Emmy-winning actor and Star Trek high priest admitted on a phone call earlier this month. ?How do you treat all this? Do you treat it seriously? Do you treat it with a joke? Are we ugly Americans or, more truthfully, Americans and an ugly Canadian? [Shatner is from the Great White North.] It was about finding the right notes to hit, and that was always uppermost in our minds.?
?I?ve never been to Asia,??Shatner said of his motivation to appear on the show, respectably not even attempting to construct a pretentious actor-y reason for taking a reality gig. ?It was literally a bucket list [item]?I?ve got to get to Asia. I?ve got to get to Japan. I?ve admired Japanese art. I love Japanese food. The Japanese culture. Chinese. Thailand. Thai kick boxing. I?m into mixed martial arts. I wanted to go to Hong Kong, and here, a major network was saying, ?We?ll pay for everything. . . . We?ll carry your luggage. We?ll renew your passport.? I mean, everything.? (He even convinced the network to fly his wife out, though she never appears on-camera.)
Once the random foursome signed onto the project, the actors and athletes apparently didn?t convene beforehand to discuss a game plan. They also did not receive much direction from the network: they were thrown together on an Asia-bound plane and told to wing it.
?It was exciting, leaving LAX,??says Shatner, though the anticipation among this 65-and-over set quickly dissipated: ?Then it was at night, so everybody fell asleep. But there was this latent sense of, ?What?s going to happen? How are we going to react? What do I do? Do I take it seriously?? Because I really wanted to get into the culture. I wanted to get into the tea ceremony and the zen. I?m an admirer, I guess I could put it, of Buddhism, and its all-inclusive philosophy. That?s what I am. That?s what I do with horses and as an actor and with people at times, just get into their souls.?
Although they did explore these cultures?visiting a temple, meditating with a Buddhist monk, watching Thai boxing, eating (and getting sick from) the local cuisine, getting lost in a train station, and sweating through their clothes during monsoon season, Shatner concedes that the group did not succeed at fitting in. (?We stuck out,??says Shatner. ?There was no question.?) And after awhile, any individuals traveling in close quarters?whether with family or new celebrity acquaintances being filmed by a camera crew?are bound to get on each other?s nerves. This foursome was no different.
?They were all annoying,??Shatner says, laughing. ?Grown men who have wives who cater to them. They expect other people to cater to them. And I was guilty more than anyone. But you have to be sanguine about it and realize, at least for the moment, these are their characteristics, and since you?re not married and there is a point in which you?re going to go home and pull the covers over your head, you can endure anything.?
(Though, he carefully adds, ?Each of them are special people. They?ve risen to the height of their profession because of their special properties, their special characteristics. To divine that, to find that out, to talk to them about it, and to glory in it was part of the joy of what I did.?)
Interpersonal odds aside, the experience was worth it, Shatner says, especially because he ticked off a few other bucket-list items along the way?among them: getting to catch a football pass from Bradshaw and boxing with Foreman, whom Shatner says knocked him out. (?Then I wanted Henry Winkler to make me laugh,??Shatner deadpanned. ?I got two out of three wishes.?) His most profound experience abroad, though, had nothing to do with people?it was communicating with an animal he met along a river in Thailand.
?I keep going back to an occasion with a young elephant,??Shatner says, when asked about the most surreal moment of the trip. ?I?m a great believer in the interconnectedness between human and animal, and our inability to perceive the intelligence of another entity. We think we know some of it but we don?t really. Feeling how empathetic animals are and we, in our arrogance as human beings, think we?re the top of the chain?but we might very well not be.? (Though, find us one elephant who was offered an all-expenses-paid-trip abroad with the Fonz.)
?Now, I got up close and personal with a young elephant,??Shatner continues. ?I put my hands on her head and she was communicating with me in a rumble. They make these deep reverberations. So deep that we can?t hear them, but you can feel them. And they communicate with their feet in long distances. . . . The earth trembles, and they can communicate with herds thousands of miles away by these deep, deep rumbles that are beyond our human hearing. I could feel them as she was communicating with me. I just felt I?d connected with another animal.?
The experience overall was so positive that he would consider a second go-round with his ragtag tribe of Tommy Bahama?clad cohorts, and he says NBC is ?already talking about it.? Fortunately, he has a few other parts of the world that he has been longing to visit, including India, Bhutan, Cuba, South Sea Island, the Caribbean, and the Antarctic. (A moment to fantasize about a parka-clad Shatner and Winkler, the lovable odd couple of the foursome, bickering about each other?s snoring habits on a glacier surrounded by penguins.) But as NBC awaits Tuesday evening?s ratings, and decides whether to fund another celebrity trip abroad, Shatner only has one destination on his mind at the moment.
?Home,? he says. ?I travel a lot. I?m on tour. I?m making personal appearances, speeches, films on location. Coming home to love and to comfort and to my own bed is a huge joy.?
William Shatner Remembers Spending a Month in Asia with Celebrity Strangers – Vanity Fair}