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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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
RECENT AND RELATED
“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.