Star Trek Legend William Shatner Has No Idea What "Slowing Down" Means

William Shatner spoke to E! News about his experience with hearing loss and his new campaign stressing the importance of getting your ears checked—and why at 91 he's still working at warp speed.

By Natalie Finn Jan 04, 2023 11:42 PMTags
Watch: William Shatner Details Living With Tinnitus

William Shatner has been boldly charting new frontiers as an entertainer for the better part of a century—but a few decades back, he had to fine-tune his experience of the world around him.

The actor was diagnosed in the 1990s with tinnitus, a persistent buzzing, hissing, ringing or other tonal sound in the ear associated with hearing loss. And, he admits, it was a frightening experience.

"I realized that if you were given the choice of sight or sound, choose a faculty, most people would say, 'Well, sight, sight, sight!'" Shatner told E! News' Courtney Lopez in an exclusive interview. "It's argumentative, because sound gives you a 360-degree [perspective]. Imagine never hearing music again."

The sonorous performer has attributed his condition, which affects 10 to 15 percent of the population, to damage he suffered when a pyrotechnics effect exploded right next to him on the set of Star Trek in 1967, during filming of the episode "Arena."

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It wasn't until years later, however, when he was on the beach—"a vivid moment," he remembered—and kept hearing the whooshing sound of the ebbing waves, even when they were crashing back onto the sand, that he realized something was seriously wrong.

At first, when he didn't yet know that tinnitus "literally is in your brain," Shatner said, he tried wearing earplugs—but that just rendered him "almost deaf" for a few days.

Eventually, he explained, "Your brain starts to assimilate the sound, like it would if you were living beside an airport."

A doctor told him at the time that "it might not" get worse, Shatner said. "But," he added, "of course it does, as you age." Which, despite Shatner's still-robust, we'll-have-what-he's-having zest for life, he eventually did. Technically.

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But the natural progression of the years has barely put a dent in his creative output. The two-time Emmy winner and stealth recording icon released his 11th album, Bill, in 2021, and his latest projects have included hosting the History series The UnXplained for four seasons and performing at the Kennedy Center.

Shatner is also still a competitive rider, specializing in quarter horses and American Saddlebreds. He didn't ride as a child, he said, but "I took to horses as though I had always been there. There was a magic to it."

And, of course, he's been lucky enough to have been acting for almost his entire life, starting when he was 6 years old.

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"I've never done anything else," Shatner said. "I've never driven a taxi, I've never waited tables. I've never taken an unemployment insurance check. I was always just trying to find something to do that entertains you."

Asked if he ever considered slowing down, he politely replied, "What does that mean?"

So, when presented with the chance to team with HearingLife for the company's new "Live Life to Your Fullest" campaign to educate people about hearing loss and the importance of hearing tests, the 91-year-old jumped at it like it was an opportunity to orbit Earth in a rocket.

"Getting your hearing checked is critically important," Shatner noted. "It's as important as getting your health checked, your eyes checked. There's a stigma attached to the hearing aid, so that stigma's got to go. HearingLife is doing that."

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Shatner first spoke out about tinnitus years ago because he knew firsthand what it was like to face the unknown. "The fear that it's not going to go away, that you won't be able to sleep—which is what happened to me—and that fear amplifies the sound," he said, "so it's even worse than you think it is."

And after Shatner started talking about it, he started hearing regularly from fellow famous people, who'd call him "in a panic" after finding out they, too, had the condition and were afraid that they'd be too impaired to memorize lines or otherwise do their jobs.

Alas, there isn't any cure-all, but the sooner someone is diagnosed, the sooner they can start to manage the condition and press forward.

Shatner "ended up with a famous audiologist," who told the actor there was nothing he could do but adapt.

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"'You can only become habituated,'" Shatner remembered the doctor saying. "So the habituation process was getting hearing aids that made a sound"—what's known as white noise—"and they put you in a studio, where they play loudness and timbre and quality of sound, trying to find out what you're hearing."

"When they found out what I was hearing, I broke into tears," he shared. "Somebody had finally reached in to hear what I was hearing."

Which, Shatner described, was a hissing sound, reminiscent of a pipe oozing steam. The doctor "handed me a box of Kleenex," he added, "because everybody cries when that happens. It was the most amazing thing."

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Also in the running for most amazing thing: On Oct. 13, 2021, Shatner became, at 90, the oldest living person to go into space.

As for the assumption that rocket travel would be awfully loud, he quipped that the sound aboard Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin shuttle wasn't as grating as the piercing squawk of a macaw he once shot a commercial with.

However, in his 2022 book Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder, Shatner poignantly recalled having "the strongest feelings of grief" he'd ever encountered while gazing at Earth from on high.

"It filled me with dread," he wrote. "My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral."

Shatner later found out that his was a common reaction experienced by numerous astronauts (the "Overview Effect," it's called). But in the moment, he explained to E!, "Space looked black and ominous, and Earth looked like, 'Wow, that's where I want to be!'" He chuckled at the memory. "I don't want to be on Mars, I don't want to be on the moon. I just want to go home."

And, obviously, back to work.