William Shatner Lives Long and Prospers -- but Did He Really Make $600 Million?

William Shatner
William Shatner

Thanks to a thinly sourced story out of Canada, actor William Shatner is suddenly being proclaimed a financial genius on the Internet, because of his quirky commercials for Priceline.com (PCLN), which reportedly helped him amass a fortune of $600 million. But odds are that the captain of the Starship Enterprise isn't quite that fortunate.

Shatner, 79, was awarded a warrant in 1998 allowing him the right through 2003 to purchase as many as 100,000 shares of the Norwalk, Conn., company. The warrant was issued on Apr. 9, 1998, almost a year before its initial public offering. Some media reports describe a 125,000 share grant. It's not clear if they are the same award. Like many dot.com stocks, the company's value skyrocketed in the following months, reaching $137 in May, 1999.

Cheap Dot-Com Spokesman?

Then the dot-com bubble burst. Shatner was ridiculed in The New York Times a year later when he unloaded some of his shares, which were trading for about $5.56 ($33.38 on a split-adjusted basis).

"Want to hire a dot-com spokesman cheap?" huffed the Times's Andrew Ross Sorkin. "Priceline.com seems to have gotten William Shatner for next to nothing in cash by paying him in stock options that have tanked."

Shatner sold half his holdings before the stock cratered and held 65,000 shares as of March, 2000, according to the paper. His current holdings are unknown, and Priceline spokesman Brian Ek says Shatner's compensation other than the original stock grant is considered confidential. His stake may have been further diluted by a 1-for-6 reverse stock split in 2003.

"Unofficial Word on Wall Street"?

Priceline shares have rebounded since then, rising more than 865% over the past five years. Though Shatner was paid in stock previously, it remains unclear if he's now paid in cash or a combination of the two.

Efforts to reach Shatner through his agent and business manager were unsuccessful. The actor originally got the role as Priceline's spokesman because he was recognizable to multiple generations of consumers. Comedian Bill Cosby was also considered, Ek says.

The $600 million figure that the Toronto Sun published was explained as coming from "unofficial word on Wall Street." No further explanation was provided, and the paper's entertainment editor, John Kryk, had no immediate comment.

The actor, who first rose to fame in the 1960s cult TV show Star Trek certainly is wealthy and could have reaped a handsome profit from his relationship with Priceline. Nonetheless, the Sun's figure seems suspect. At the stock's current price of $253.44, Shatner would have needed to acquire a stake of more than 2 million shares. The payment doesn't make much financial sense either.

According to Priceline's latest 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it spent $38.6 million on offline advertising in 2009, which includes domestic television and radio advertising and "the cost for creative talent" (Shatner's compensation). That's about 4% lower than last year. Not surprisingly, the company's online budget is much larger ($365.4 million) and soared by 35% from 2008. Priceline would be foolish to blow such a large percentage of its advertising budget to pay Shatner.

Celebrity Pay Comparison

The story also makes no sense when compared with what other celebrities earn. Before the scandal about his personal life erupted, Forbes pegged Tiger Woods' 2009 pay at $110 million because of his lucrative endorsements with Nike (NKE) and other companies, some of whom have since parted ways with the golfer. Oprah Winfrey netted $275 million, and she has a media empire, while Madonna earned $110 million.

Thanks to his more than 40-year career in show business, Shatner is plenty rich. The Priceline advertising campaigns have given his career a shot of adrenaline, introducing him to younger audiences who could care less about Captain Kirk or T.J. Hooker. But no one should ever confuse the star with Warren Buffett.