How he went from Star Trek icon to become even better known as the voice of Priceline.com
How did this association with Priceline begin?
A friend of my wife asked her if it would be all right if this small startup got in touch with me. I was on my way to New Zealand to film and had no idea what a dot-com was or how you order online. They wanted to do some radio spots, just use my voice—no person recognition or anything like that. So finally the deal was sealed, and it was for a couple hundred dollars—a very, very small amount of money. Apparently the spots worked for them. Then one day shortly thereafter they said, "You know, we're going to do television, and we want to start a campaign."
The story is, you took stock options.
Well, this was a very small company, and they said, "Here's what we'll pay you." And I said, "Well, look, that's not anywhere near enough." They explained what the company was, and it all sounded good, so I said, "I'll take stock." Although I'm a business major out of McGill University, I know nothing…but then I found out much later in life, nobody knows anything.
I find that every day.
It's all by guess and by golly, anyway. And I guessed right. So I watched Priceline.com go roaring from pennies to $150, and I thinking, "I'm rich! I'm rich! In a year and a half I'll be rich! In six months I'll be rich!" Then in three months, I'm less rich. In two months, I'm not rich. In one month, it was less money than it had started out. It had gone up and down in that dot-com bust. So it was money I never had that I lost.
But you stuck with it?
Well, the company looked like it was going under but didn't. So many dot-com companies were formulated on air. Even though the stock had descended into the depths, the business was making a connection with the audience, and slowly—and then not so slowly—the stock went back up. But by that time I had sold.
You sold the stock at what point?
I don't remember. I made some money, but nothing like what I would've have had I held onto it.
There are stories out there that you'd made hundreds of millions.
Would that I had had the sagacity.
So how do they pay you now? Cash, stock, or none of my business?
Well, they trundle up with an armored car. Three guys with Gatling guns. No, they pay me like anybody else.
What's the connection between Shatner and the world that makes people want to use Priceline?
Every so often we change the campaign. So we changed the campaign about four years ago to this Negotiator. And I approached the Negotiator character like an actor. I thought, "The Negotiator is insane." We've made him so nuts that he'll do anything to get a customer a bargain. And that seems to have resonated.
Do they worry that their public identification is with one man?
I know—they must be shivering in their pants. I, on the other hand, stand erect and proud.
So do they come and say, "You be a good boy, Bill"?
No, they come on their knees. They crawl, and I, with great dignity, lift them up: "Be not afraid, my friend. I'll make you proud and will not take advantage of you—at least not to the degree somebody else would have."
Did you have anything to do with Nimoy [Mr. Spock] being in one ad?
Poor Leonard. I recommend him for anything. I put him on the dole.
Have you ever used Priceline?
All the time. That name-your-own-price stuff really works.
So no matter how rich, no matter what advantages, we all love a bargain?
Absolutely, because most of us who have made some money didn't come from money. And that thought is always there: "What would Dad have said?"
Watch Charlie Rose on Bloomberg TV weeknights at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.