In his autobiography Up Till Now, Bill Shatner describes a pivotal moment in his early life that directly led to his career as an actor - it is a moment that may also be crucial in understanding the toupee (more on that later):
The first time I stood on a stage I made the audience cry...I was six years old, attending Rabin's Camp, a summer camp for Jewish welfare cases run by my aunt in the mountains north of Montreal. I wanted to box at that camp - hitting people seemed like fun - but my aunt instead put me in a play named Winterset. My role was that of a young boy forced to leave his home because the Nazis were coming. In the climactic scene I had to say good-bye to my dog, knowing I probably would never see him again. My dog was played by another camper, costumed in painted newspaper. We performed the play on parents' weekend to an audience consisting primarily of people who had escaped the Nazis, many of whom still had family members trapped in Hitler's Europe. So many of them had left everything they knew or owned behind-and there I was, saying good-bye to my little doggie.
I cried, the audience cried, everybody cried. I remember taking my bow and seeing people wiping away their tears. I remember the warmth of my father holding me as people told him what a wonderful son he had. Just imagine the impact that had on a six-year-old child. I had the ability to move people to tears. And I could get approval. Something in me always wanted to perform, always wanted the attention that came from pleasing an audience...
A very young William Shatner.
The unauthorized 1995 William Shatner biography Captain Quirk also describes this moment:
William Shatner discovered the power of acting when he was only six years old. It happened at summer camp in 1937. Camp in depression-era Quebec was not some privileged kids' retreat to Camp Coddle-Me. Summer camp meant fifty or so kids spending several weeks on a real farm, working hard at chores and playing hard in the outdoors. This particular farm was owned by Shatner's aunt and was located in the Laurentian Mountains, ninety miles north of Montreal.
Every Sunday, the campers would put on a play for visiting parents. In one of the amateur productions, Billy was chosen to play a little Jewish boy in Nazi Germany. To escape persecution, the child's family was abandoning their home, and the little boy had to leave behind his pet dog, who was played by another young camper. During the scene where Billy was saying goodbye to his dog, tears welled up in his eyes and he started to cry. The audience was profoundly moved by the portrayal of the sacrifices being made by their friends and families in Germany at the time. Many joined the boy and started sobbing openly.
From left to right: William Shatner, sister Joy, father Joe and mother Anne.
What the audience did not know was that little Billy was crying because he really wanted a dog of his own, not because he had any comprehension of the events in far-away Europe. He just wanted a puppy, but his parents would never allow it.
"All I remember was people were trying to take me away from my dog," Shatner said many years later. "I always wanted one, and my parents' argument was, in the muddy streets of Montreal, the dog would run around outside, come in, and dirty up the carpets and furniture. They'd say, 'You can have a hobby horse, but you can't have a dog!' ... and so I remember my crying on stage as a kid, 'Don't take my dog away from me!!!'"
"I didn't realize how powerful that play was. At the end, I looked up and saw everyone crying. At that moment, I had a firm feeling of being able to get hold of people's emotions. So from that moment on, I wasn't interested in anything other than acting."
The incident is also briefly mentioned in an E! True Hollywood Story profile of William Shatner:
So what we have here is a young boy who gains the approval and love of an audience - and his father, with whom he apparently didn't have the warmest of relationships - via a theatrical performance that was actually very real for Bill Shatner.
He wanted a dog, a furry friend, but his parents wouldn't allow him to have one. The boy then finally found a venue to express his pent-up emotions on the subject, one that was elevated outside of the everyday reality - a theatrical performance (Trek fans note: the play contains a character called Miriamne, rather similar to Kirk's big love Miramanee).
If we apply some rather deep Freudian psychoanalysis to this 1937 event, then we can perhaps find some important clues to understanding the toupee here: A young boy and parents who apparently don't understand his need for a dog; a representation of a dog (another boy wrapped in newspapers pretending to be a dog) and "I remember the warmth of my father holding me as people told him what a wonderful son he had". For a six-year-old mind, some important associations may have been formed that day: about love and where and how it could be found; about expression and about approval.
Years later, as Bill Shatner's hair began to fall out, did the fear of potentially losing the love of the all-important audience bring back memories of this moment? "All I remember was people were trying to take me away from my dog," said Shatner of the tears he shed during the play. The loss of hair during his twenties may well have brought back this dog-related trauma: "Not this time - you won't take my hair away from me! Without it, I may not be able to move an audience anymore!"
Bill Shatner had defied his bald father who wanted him to take over the family clothing business, and instead decided to become an actor. But hair loss suddenly threatened to end the dream. The fear of returning home a failure, not the star he had dreamed of becoming, must have been overwhelming.
Many of you will have wondered, particularly during the very thick "TJ Curly" years, how Bill Shatner could have believed that we could think that his hair was real.
Are there actually two dogs in this picture?
But what if we're missing the point? What if at all times during his post-baldness life, Bill Shatner needed that dog that never was, that furry friend and companion, that close physical warmth he received the day of his emotional outburst, nearby (on his head)? Could it be that in some sub-conscious way, Bill Shatner's toupees are a complex memorial to a furry childhood friend?
Clues about a mythical dog in Star Trek: Generations (1994).
Since those days, Bill Shatner has been an avid dog-owner, particularly of his beloved and fiercely protective Dobermans. But that first love, that formative love, only ever occurred within the fictitious context of the stage. And the moment changed Bill Shatner's life.
If all this is indeed the case, then Bill Shatner could no more ditch the toupee than any of us could ditch our beloved pets. His first dog, with him throughout his entire life, providing warmth, love, approval and much, much more. Perhaps, every once in a while, late at night, Bill Shatner takes off the toup, strokes it, gives it a gentle kiss and whispers to it: "We made it. You and me. Always and forever together. I won't ever be separated from you again!"
Futurama - "Jurassic Bark"
UPDATE: A reader correctly notes that the play Winterset (published in 1935, well before Hitler's most egregious anti-Jewish acts) is neither about Nazism, nor does it feature a boy and his dog. However, an adaptation to be performed by young children may have altered the original story of the Sacco and Vanzetti case into a highly simplified allegorical tale about the persecution of Jews in 1930s Europe. Anyone who has followed Bill Shatner will know that his bad memory is almost legendary, but his book had the benefit of numerous researchers and fact-checkers, so it would be quite something for the incorrect play to be referenced - but it isn't impossible, of course. Read about the play here.