Leonard Nimoy: ‘Star Trek’ fans can be scary

May 11, 2009 | 1:33 a.m.

One of the great things about my job is the opportunity it’s given me to sit down for lengthy interviews with true icons of Hollywood, people such as Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford and Harrison Ford. Now I can add Leonard Nimoy to that list. And yes, I would put his name right next to those aforementioned cinema heavyweights as far as dazzle quality because I grew up adoring “Star Trek” in its many permutations and admiring his performances in them without exception. A much shorter version of this interview (it’s about 40% shorter, in fact) is running on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section tomorrow — but if you’ve followed Nimoy’s long and prosperous career as closely as I have, you’ll want to read this more in-depth version.

Leonard Nimoy by Anne Cusack

It’s still strange to see Leonard Nimoy smile. In five different decades now, Nimoy has been the impassive face of pure alien logic as “Star Trek” icon Mr. Spock, so it’s a bit unnerving to see him flash a big grin while recounting a very special presidential salute.

“During the campaign, Barack Obama gave me the Vulcan greeting at a fundraiser,” the 78-year-old actor said, holding up his palm in Spock’s signature split-finger gesture. “That was pretty memorable. Timothy Leary gave me the salute once, too. It’s something that happens to me quite often, as you can imagine.”

When the interviewer sitting across from Nimoy held up his own hand to answer the salutation, Nimoy shook his head in mock disapproval. “No, no, the thumb goes out. You have to get it right.”

A whole new generation of fans are learning how to pry their fingers apart with the release of the eleventh “Trek” film, which hit warp speed on its opening weekend with a total of $76 million.

For the filmmakers, the 78-year-old Nimoy is a living link to the history of the franchise that began on television in the 1960s as “‘Wagon Train’ to the stars” (as it was pitched) and became much more than that with five spin-off television shows, novels, a Saturday morning cartoon, comics, a Las Vegas attraction and more fan conventions than a Klingon could count.

“’Star Trek’ fans,” Nimoy confided, “can be scary. If you don’t get this right you’re going to hear about it.”

The crew is new and young with 28-year-old Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk and 31-year-old Zachary Quinto as Spock, but Nimoy (thanks to a time-travel plot) has a key role as a second Spock, a solemn, grey-haired visitor from the future who is being pursued by a rogue Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) with face tattoos and a blood quest.

Leonard Nimoy in Trek 11

Nimoy’s presence gives the franchise revival “a very important sort of approval – there’s a torch being handed off there,” according to Pine, and director J.J. Abrams describes the elder actor’s participation in the film as “essential to our goal to serve and celebrate the history of ‘Star Trek’ with this story and create something new and exciting.”

Nimoy, for one, never expected to put those pointy ears back on again. He was leery when approached by Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman but, after hearing them explain their vision of the latest chapter of the space epic, he was intrigued. (This Tuesday, by the way, Nimoy also drops in on the first half of the two-part season finale of “Fringe,” the Fox sci-fi series from Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman.)

“This is the first and only time I ever had a filmmaker say, ‘We cannot make this film without you and we won’t make it without you,’” Nimoy said with another one of those startling smiles. “J.J. Abrams said that – that’s a pretty heavy statement. And when you see the film you see how central the character is to the story they’ve told.”

Nimoy stands as “the figure of credibility” for the franchise, as Orci put it, which sounds like an unintended ding on William Shatner, the original Kirk and an actor who publicly lobbied for a role in this new $140-million film. Nimoy and Shatner remain good friends after all these years and one reason is an understanding of the benefits of selective silence.

“Bill and I have spent some time together, we have dinner periodically, and frankly it’s a subject that we avoid,” Nimoy said. “It’s not a fun subject right now. And I sympathize with him because I was left out of the ‘Next Generation’ films. It is what it is.”

Star Trek Crew

The last “Trek” film for Nimoy had been in 1991 and he had felt like an exile as he watched four straight Starfleet movies be made without Spock at all. Unlike Shatner, he reached a point where he was uninterested in another ride aboard the Enterprise. Moviegoers made have shared that apathy; the 10th “Trek” film, “Nemesis” in 2002, cost $60 million to make and pulled in less than $44 million in the U.S.

“In the ‘Next Generation’ movies, I did not appear and Kirk was killed,” Nimoy said. “It was as though someone was trying to create a dividing line between the original, classic series and the ‘New Generation’ crew. I was out and Bill was dead. They never contacted me, never suggested anything, we never had discussion or conversation. I assumed that was it, it’s over. I didn’t feel great about it but I was OK with it. I’ve had my run and I had a lot of other interesting things I wanted to do. I didn’t look back.”

Nimoy, nibbling on brioche and sipping Earl Grey tea at the Four Seasons restaurant, paused to say hello to an art gallery friend at a nearby table. As “Trek” faded from his life, his longtime love of art and photography became his dominant pursuit. He and his wife, Susan Bay, are fixtures in the local arts community and he spoke proudly of a grant program they have established to help artists.

Nimoy_kelly_and_shatner_tape_star_t

As an erudite man, there are some aspects of his “Trek” career that have been a bit hard to swallow. He acknowledged that, all too often, the passion for the hardware and catchphrases seemed to become more important than the depth of the characters. “There were times it was hollow, I agree,” he said. That is not the case with the new film, he said.

“It’s a gigantic canvas with wonderful, intimate character-driven moments,” Nimoy said. “There’s a huge scale to the film but there are these small moments and that is special.”

“My wife is not an action film fan, she’s not a science fiction or adventure fan. This isn’t the type of film we would choose to go see together. She respects what ‘Star Trek’ has meant for us as a career and as a source of creating a great lifestyle for us. But we watched this film and around 15 minutes before it was over she turned to me and said, ‘I don’t want this movie to end.’ That is big stuff.”

Nimoy was born in Boston, the son of Max, a barber, and Nora, a couple who had emigrated from Izyaslav in the Ukraine and spoke Yiddish in the household. Young Nimoy gravitated to the stage early in life and made his acting debut at 8. It was around that time, too, that he was at synagogue for High Holiday services, sitting with the male members of his family, and he saw something that stuck with him.

“A group of men at this particular synagogue, the kohen, members of a priestly tribe, stood up in front of the congregation to bless everyone,” Nimoy remembered. “They were very loud, ecstatic, almost like at a revival meeting, and they were shouting this prayer in Hebrew, ‘May the Lord bless and keep you…’ but I have no idea at the time what they’re saying. My father said ‘Don’t look’ and everybody’s got their heads covered with their prayer shawls or their hands over their eyes. And I see these guys with their heads covered with their shawls but out from underneath they have their hands up. It was chilling, spooky and cool.”

Their hands, of course, were stretched out in the gesture that would be the Vulcan salute. “It’s the shape of the letter Shin in Hebrew, which is the first letter in the word Shaddai, a word for God, and shalom, the word for peace. It came back to me years later when he made a “Star Trek” episode “Amok Time” when Spock returns to his home planet for the first time and we see him interact with Vulcans.”

It was a circuitous route that took Nimoy from that synagogue to Spock’s wedding ceremony on Vulcan in that 1967 “Trek” episode. A theater scholarship took him to Boston University and the lure of Hollywood brought him west.

Leonard Nimoy, 1952

In February 1952, The Times ran a photo of the baby-faced Nimoy, then 20, holding a $200-a-week contract he had just signed with Jack Broder Productions. He was photographed with Mona Knox, his costar-to-be in “Kid Monk Baroni,” a boxing movie that released three months later. Nimoy was surprised when he was handed a print of the vintage photograph.

“Would you look at that, that certainly brings back memories,” Nimoy said. He pointed at Knox, who was described in a short 1952 Times article as a “cute tomato.” “She just passed away recently. Can you imagine the paper describing an actress today as a cute tomato? I don’t think so. Those were different days. It was an interesting film. My big break to stardom.”

Nimoy chuckled and shook his head. For a dozen years following “Kid Monk Baroni,” his career was defined by steady work in second-class roles on television shows such as “Perry Mason,” “Sea Hunt,” “Bonanza” and “Dr. Kildare.” It was in a 1964 appearance on “The Lieutenant,” a short-lived military drama based at Camp Pendleton, where Nimoy caught the eye of that show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry had another slightly more cosmic military drama up his sleeve. 

The role of Spock would earn Nimoy an Emmy nomination and, much more than that, a singular spot in television history as the most iconic alien this side of Superman. And, like George Reeves who portrayed the Man of Steel, Nimoy was frustrated that his wider acting career was smothered by his trademark role. Still, he always maintained a deep fondness for the character of Spock, who had the mien of a holy man devoted to science and an internal struggle with his pent-up emotions.

“When these guys talked it reawakened something in me,” Nimoy said. “It put me back in touch with something I cared about. I had a passion for ‘Star Trek’ when we were doing it and sometimes there were fights over content and ideas and subject matter and execution. Gene Roddenberry and I didn’t always see eye to eye, sometimes there were battles. Other producers came on to the show and sometimes there were battles. Friendships ended – seriously – over particular scenes.”

Star Trek 1988 press conference

 

After the original “Trek” series was cancelled in 1969, Nimoy went on to appear on “Mission: Impossible” and host the show “In Search Of” and take on roles in film and assorted television movies as well as on stage, but his career always came back to Spock. (Nimoy is shown above with his fellow actors at a Paramount press conference in 1988.) He also became a director, a career pursuit that he calls “an afterthought, something I backed into,” and among his credits are “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (1984) and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” (1986), the latter the highest-grossing film in the franchise, although this new model will soon warp past its $109-million domestic mark.

“This is a very emotional experience for me. Watching this film stirred up a lot of feelings in me. The cast recaptures the chemistry that I felt was so important to the original series. I never stopped caring about ‘Star Trek’ but this made me care even more about it.”

There is one scene in the new film where Nimoy and Quinto meet and speak, which seems to test the conventions of comic-book physics but gave Nimoy a final scene with his old friend Spock that could be a heartfelt handoff.

“Quinto is great, he’s smart, talented,” Nimoy said. “For me, that scene was almost like the fantasy a father would have about talking to his son. To offer some ideas, some guidance, affection and love – it has those elements. We bookend the Spock character: He’s playing a Spock still looking for a balance between logic and his emotion and my Spock, well, he’s gone through many years of life and arrived at condition very much like the position I am in here in my own life. I’m very comfortable with my life, my choices and my instincts. I was pretty much playing who I am today. I didn’t have to search very hard to find the character I play in this movie. And I think that was the end. But you know, I’ve thought that before about Spock.”

– Geoff Boucher

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VIDEO: The Onion: Trekkies blast new film for being “fun, watchable”

GALLERY: 10 Things you don’t know about Chris Pine

“Star Trek” images courtesy of Paramount Pictures. 1973 photo of Nimoy, DeForrest Kelley and William Shatner recorded the animated “Trek” series by Mary FramptonLos Angeles Times. Feburary 1952 photograph of Leonard Nimoy and Mona Knox by Gordon WallaceLos Angeles Times. Bottom: Chris Pine photo by Jay L. ClendeninLos Angeles Times.

Update: I heard some conflicting information about Nimoy’s academic career so I removed a reference to his college years until I pin down the accurate information. It was the, uh, logical thing to do. 

Comments


30 Responses to Leonard Nimoy: ‘Star Trek’ fans can be scary

  1. Malte says:

    you might want to use the spell check on this article!
    "seen" should be "scene"
    you are missing an "able" in the last paragraph
    and "was" should be "will soon warp past"

  2. Michael J. Barela says:

    I took my 25 and 27year old sons to see the new Star Trek movie. We all enjoyed the fast moving and action packed film. I look forward to its release on Blue Ray. All of the new actors did an outstanding job as the various original Star Trek charactors. A definite 5 star rating.

  3. Christopher in Atlan says:

    Having seen Leonard Nimoy back on TV, is a television event, for me, it's definitely "must see" TV. I said that when I read he appeared on David Letterman and then he showed up on The View, Jimmy Fallon, and SNL. I watched 1 episode of Fringe and that was it for me. The concept, the writing, acting – it was all there but I just didn't want to commit myself to watching. Having Leonard Nimoy there is a compelling enough reason for me to want to tune back in.
    I couldn't agree with you more that "And yes, I would put his name right next to those aforementioned cinema heavyweights as far as dazzle quality because I grew up adoring "Star Trek" in its many permutations and admiring his performances in them without exception."
    Thank you and Live Long and Prosper.

  4. corntrader19 says:

    He's right about Star Trek Fans. I am not a Star Trek Fan nor have I ever watched Star Trek for any length of time. However, I have known many Star Trek fans and some of them are downright scary. They are weird. I like the skit William Shatner did on SNL in the late 80's when he told a group of Star Trek fans "Move out of your mother's basement. Get a life!"

  5. Rob says:

    I'll take Spock over Superman any day.

  6. Thura says:

    Nice interview.
    Hate to be a typical Trekkie, but the 6th picture with the TOS cast in their red starfleet uniforms holding campaign glasses is flipped/mirrored.

  7. Adega says:

    That was a nice article but regarding Leonard Nimoy's education can you reconcile how the article states that he dropped out of Boston University with what Wikipedia states regarding his education (he has both an undergrad and graduate degree)?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Nimoy
    Please issue a correction or refute what Wikipedia states.
    Thanks,
    Adega

  8. Cynthia Fox, KLOS ra says:

    thank you for your consistently high quality work! I really enjoyed your profile of Leonard Nimoy today-and we are most grateful to Leonard and his wife Susan for leading the fundraising efforts to revamp the Griffith Observatory! There is a new 200 seat theater at the Observatory called "The Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater" that plays a short film that Leonard hosts called "The Once and Future Observatory"-enjoy! More info at GriffithObservatory.org

  9. Deslock says:

    According to the article, Leonard Nimoy said:
    “In the ‘Next Generation’ movies, I did not appear and Kirk was killed,” Nimoy said. “It was as though someone was trying to create a dividing line between the original, classic series and the ‘New Generation’ crew. I was out and Bill was dead. They never contacted me, never suggested anything, we never had discussion or conversation. I assumed that was it, it’s over. I didn’t feel great about it but I was OK with it. I’ve had my run and I had a lot of other interesting things I wanted to do. I didn’t look back.”
    That's a bit misleading… he was asked to be in Star Trek VII (Generations) but he declined, supposedly because they didn't offer him a big enough part. As far as Kirk being killed off goes, that was Ronald Moore's idea but Shatner went along with it.

  10. it's_me says:

    This movie kicks butt!

  11. Ian says:

    With all due respect to the great Leonard Nimoy, he's got his facts wrong on one important point. Paramount DID in fact contact him about both appearing in and actually directing 1994's "Star Trek: Generations." The acting portion would have amounted to a mere cameo (both he and DeForest Kelley turned down the parts that were eventually given to Walter Koenig and James Doohan) and in terms of directing, Nimoy wanted a lot of script changes which Paramount refused to accommodate (most likely because the film had a very tight schedule).

  12. Widsith says:

    I thought the new "Star Trek" film was just a typical, generic scifi space adventure with lots of action, special effects and thinly-developed characters — no better or worse than most similar films. Except for the characters' names and a few exterior shots of the Enterprise, I didn't see anything particularly "Star Trek" about it. "Galaxy Quest" reminded me more of "Star Trek" than this film did.
    It was amusing to see a few of the old Trek cliches thrown in (like McCoy's "I'm a doctor, not a …" or Scottie's "I'm giving her all she's got!" or Chekhov's Russian accent) but they came across more as self-conscious parodies than anything else. Frankly, I couldn't imagine any of the characters in this film someday growing up to be the people in the original series; the personalities were just too different. (To my great surprise, I didn't even find Leonard Nimoy convincing as Spock!) In many ways, this film reminded me of the "Lost in Space" film from a few years ago; both were based on TV shows from the '60s and both failed to capture anything of the feeling or atmosphere of their TV ancestors.
    I watched the original "Star Trek" when it was on in the '60s. My oldest son, who grew up with "Next Generation," "DS-9", "Voyager" and "Enterprise" (as well as re-runs of the original series) had essentially the same opinion that I did of the film. My youngest son, who has paid little attention to "Star Trek" over the years, thought this movie was "awesome!" Personally, I wish someone would do a "Star Trek" film that would use sets, props and characters as close as possible to identical with those from the '60s TV show. I'd love to see a big-screen version of what would be, in effect, a new episode of the old series. But I'm realistic enough to know how unlikely that is to happen; so for me, this film was not so much a disappointment as a sad confirmation of what I was expecting. It was worth seeing — once, anyway — but it wasn't "Star Trek."

    • startrekgirl says:

      You know, it would be interesting to see an new continuation of TOS….I'm so tired of all the overdone special effects that only take the place of the true spirit of the original show….it's a story of friendship with a little action mixed in. I guess no one really cares about that anymore. What a shame.

  13. SeanBoy says:

    Forget about Star Trek's fans, Jane Austen's fans are more scarier.

  14. OK, enough about Star Trek already. Are you done yet? There is a lot more happening in comics and Hollywood than Trek this month.

  15. ddm97 says:

    To Widsith:
    Quote: "Frankly, I couldn't imagine any of the characters in this film someday growing up to be the people in the original series; the personalities were just too different." Apparently you missed (or decided to ignore) one of the main plot lines in this film which explains why the personalities were so different than the TV version. I have been watching Star Trek in all is variations since it first aired in the 60s as well and I thought this was a wonderful film. I thought the actors did an excellent job. It had great special effects, wonderful action scenes, good story twists and 'the moral of the story' aspect that most of the original episodes had. It was about friendship, love, family, loyalty. If I were to offer any criticism it would be the rather one-dimensional portrayal of Nero, the Romulan bad guy. His character was very much in the vein of the original ST bad guys who just wanted to wreck havoc on the Federation because, well, that's what the bad guy Romulans were supposed to do (or Klingons or Ferengi or the Gorn, or the Cardassians). However, after reflection, the Romulan wasn't as one-dimensional as I originally thought. Die-hard Trekers need to keep an open mind when seeing this film. This is, afterall, a story about a universe where people have boldly gone where no one has gone before. The possibilities are endless (and that's a major spoiler right there for those of you who have yet to see the film). I can't wait for the next installment.

  16. Ted says:

    It was a real kick to fire up the latest installment of the Civilization series and hear Nimoy voicing each new advancement in science.

  17. Mirror, Mirror says:

    you might want to use the spell check on this article!
    "seen" should be "scene"
    you are missing an "able" in the last paragraph
    and "was" should be "will soon warp past"
    Posted by: Malte | May 10, 2009 at 10:42 PM
    Malte. I think you mean a grammar check.

  18. lol fans can get outta control.

  19. Roy From Atwater says:

    (Posted by: SeanBoy | May 11, 2009 at 11:00 AM)
    "more scarier"???

  20. Nikki says:

    I really respect Leonard Nimoy, and am thrilled that he is around to help introduce a new generation of fans to Star Trek. I never considered myself a Trekkie/er, but I was familiar with the show and the characters. I have seen this new Trek more times than I am comfortable confessing, and I have loved it every time…in fact, it gets better with each viewing! Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine did an excellent job of stepping into the iconic roles of Spock and Kirk, and Karl Urban captured Bones perfectly… In fact, I fell in love with every member of "the crew", and can't wait to see the next installment! *Standing O & wild applause*

  21. JR Jake says:

    I don't believe I saw more than 2-3 episodes of Star Trek and I know I never saw the Star War's movies. It never really interested me because it seemed so remedial, entertaining and sometimes funny; but not realistic. Leonard Nimoy is a tremendous actor and a great contribution to the arts in general. Could not believe he is 79 and looks that great. I guess that is good clean living, great genetics and young at heart. Good luck Dr. Spock. You'll have to teach me that Vulcan hand grip one of these days, looking forward to it.

  22. johnny says:

    I have alot of love for classic trek, the next generation and star trek ds9. Leonard is one of my favorite all time actors along with Harrison Ford (probably a tie or close second). However as a fan of star trek, I absolutely hated the reboot.
    The music was absolutely terrible for as well as the characters out of place for star trek reboot and it seems that moviemaking is becoming a lost art as more money is spent into effects on movies and most people do not seem to understand that terrific music propels a movie or tv series. The great thing about star trek classic was not its special effects, with the laughable costumes and cardboard sets, it was 1# story #2 actors and #3 music.
    I hated the star trek tng movies for dropping tngs brilliant use of star trek II's music (my opinion the best star trek movie) except for first contacts music (the only tng movie i liked while loving the show).
    I thought quinto, urban were greatly cast as well as checkov and scotty but zaldana, pine and cho were terribly miscassed. The biggest mistake of abrams is making star trek like star wars an action scifi movie without heart, allegoric stories were what made star trek unique, it was like a scifi space twilight zone with morals, something missing from the new film as well as the rapport between kirk, bones and spock with misplaced dialogue. also the international dialogue (people having unique sounding accents, from sulus japanese sounding to scotty to checkov to bones southern drawl and even shatners voice) and the difference in ages helped propel and make classic trek interesting and watchable instead of preppy young jock people with monotone voices (except pegg and checkovs voices in the new).
    sad to see star trek loosing its appeal to me as a fan for 30+ years along with other great franchises who discontinue thier music (like terminator wich stunk since dropping fidels soundtrack with t3). tngs movies made a huge mistake of turning it into action fair (along with the tv series) star trek has never been about that, its a series id like to see return to its roots, story + music. musicmaking is becoming a lost art in hollywood movies and what sets a great movie (along with pacing) from a terrible one. (would rather they either use star trek II or even the classic tv's shows music than the terrible reboot soundtrack).

  23. Roger says:

    Sorry but Nimoy whines about the quality of the scripts etc.

    That last movie was complete garbage and he was a SELL out!

  24. [...] said the fringe folks among the sometimes scary fans of “Star Trek”  let it be known they weren’t happy about the death or the [...]

  25. Amber Thompson says:

    They failed to mention, Nimoy's first movie: Zombies of the Stratosphere, wherein he played an extraterrestrial.

  26. [...] The “Vulcan Salute,” Spock’s signature move is formed on a gesticulate done when a Cohanim, (Jewish priests, also famous as Kohanim) magnify a [...]

  27. DK DeHart says:

    Being a TOS nut for over 40 years I had/have no interest in watching this film, but I've been told it was well done by other Trekkies. For me, Star Trek is so intertwined with the original actors who portrayed the characters that I cannot fathom others in their shoes. I have never enjoyed A/U stories (alternate universe) where anything is possible and canon doesn't apply anymore just to be able to work a story the way someone wants it. The only reason I was even partially interested in seeing this film was because it was the last film to feature Majel Barrett Roddenberry's voice as the ship's computer. People always remember that Nimoy has been in the original pilot to the latest film, but so has Majel. Majel was the executive officer in "The Cage", spent a great deal of time in pre-production work modeling costumes, make-up, did a great deal of voice over work for both the original series and animated episodes as well as The Next Generation, played Nurse/Dr. Christine Chapel in the original series, Lwaxana Troi in TNG, and of course, married Gene Roddenberry and became the champion for all his subsequent works like Westworld, The Questor Tapes, etc…

    Yes, I am a Trekkie, love the original series just the way it is–corny as it can get and hammy as Shatner is and have no need to substitute other actors into the mix.

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