Orbiting 80, Nimoy Looks Back... and Ahead - Part 1
Leonard Nimoy, to quote an old friend of his, has lived long and prospered. He’s enjoyed success as an actor, producer, director, photographer, show host, voiceover artist and more. He’s a husband, father and grandfather. But there’s no denying that, for better or worse, he is Spock, the half-human/half-Vulcan he portrayed on The Original Series, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, in a half-dozen TOS features and, of course, in Star Trek (2009). He’s beloved by countless millions of people around the world for his performances as the green-blooded one, and it’s a legacy with which he is quite comfortable. Nimoy will turn 80 on March 26, and in advance of his big day, he granted the better part of an hour of his time to an exclusive, career-encompassing interview with StarTrek.com. Below is part one, and be on the lookout for part two on Thursday and part three on Friday.
Let’s start in the present, go back to the past, and then look to the future. So, first, you gave some people a scare a few months ago. What happened and how are you feeling?
Nimoy: Yeah, I had a surprise. (Laughs). That’s the best way to put it. I was in Massachusetts, North Adams, Massachusetts, to do a presentation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. They had an exhibition of my photography that was up for several months and I was there to give a talk. I was at a hotel across the street from the museum. I was set to go over in an hour or two and I suddenly started having severe stomach pains. And instead of going to the museum I went to the hospital and I had some colon surgery. Fortunately, the hospital and the surgeon were excellent and did a very good job for me. The rest was just a story of recovery. I’m fine now. It took a few weeks because it was rather severe surgery, with a lengthy incision from down the middle of my chest into my stomach. But I’m fine and I’m fully recovered.
You’ve retired, but we keep hearing – including from you with your recent tweet – that more Fringe may be on the horizon. What’s happening with that?
Nimoy: I did it. One episode. I can't say if William Bell will ever be back or if this is the finale of the season. I thought the character was finished, but they came up with a wonderful idea.
Wait, wait. Did you mean to say finale of the season or finale of the series?
Nimoy: I don't have either answer, season or series. I have been through many resurrections in my time!
You still attend the occasional convention. Why? Is it kind of a thank you to the fans at this point?
Nimoy: That’s exactly what it is, a thank you. I still feel an obligation to be out there for them, to tell them the Star Trek stories and to bring them up to date on what I’m doing. There’s still a lot of interest. I don’t know when I will stop doing this. I think there is an end in sight. I will not go on doing it indefinitely, but I am scheduled for three or four events for this year.
You’ve spent years now taking photographs and have published several books and had your work displayed at museums. What do you get from creating, arranging and snapping a photograph that you don’t from any other art form?
Nimoy: The photography is a useful outlet for me, for creative ideas. I can get an idea and execute it on my own. I don’t have to deal with large-budget issues and scores of people. I don’t need to bring together writers and designers and very many performers. I don’t need to be away from home for weeks and months at a time. It’s a comfortable way for me to express ideas and to remain creative without it totally taking over my life. My personal life is very valuable to me. I enjoy my family a lot. I enjoy my personal time with my wife a lot. I don’t want to be away. I don’t need or want to do that.
Any other books on the way?
Nimoy: Not right now, no. The most recent one was a catalog of the Secret Selves project, which is still very current. That show will be moving around to various venues. It was up at Mass MoCA for six months and it will be at other venues in the future. Right now, I would say that ideas are in the development stages, but I don’t have anything ready to go quite yet.
Star Trek aside, what other roles/performances/projects in your career are you particularly proud of and/or fond of? We’d suggest such works/projects as Alien Voices, A Woman Called Golda, Three Men and a Baby, your Ballad of Bilbo Baggins song…
Nimoy: (Laughs at the mention of Bilbo Baggins). Apparently, the best known of all those is the Bilbo Baggins recording. I enjoyed doing that. It was a lot of fun. It’s a song aimed at kids. It was about 30 years before its time. We were way ahead of the cycle on the Hobbit stories. It was much, much later that the Rings trilogy was produced as films. I know that “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” has had a very active life on the Internet. I get a kick out of that. I think it’s wonderful. You’re right. I’d say A Woman Called Golda is something I’m extraordinarily proud of. I’d say Never Forget, which was a television movie that I produced and starred in for TNT. It was a true story about a Holocaust survivor who fought an organization that was intent on denying the Holocaust ever existed. I thought it was a very important project and we did get a Cable Ace nomination for it. I have some wonderful experiences along the way. I was on Broadway for 16 weeks in Equus. That was a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play. I toured the United States in my one-man show called Vincent, which was about Vincent Van Gogh, and I thought it was a valuable piece of work. So I have been given opportunities to do some very interesting projects and I’m very happy about it.
What’s a film or show of yours that no one saw – that critics dismissed or audiences just never got to see – that you feel was truly worthwhile and deserved a better fate?
Nimoy: I directed a film called The Good Mother, which was with Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson and a lot of other wonderful actors: Jason Robards and Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright and James Naughton. A really fine cast was attracted to what I felt was an important project. It had to do with the court imposing a rather rigid and conservative attitude on the personal lives of the people involved. I thought that the film was a statement about the injustice that was being done in this case. It was based on a book and we tried to be very faithful to the Good Mother book. I thought the performances were excellent. I was pleased with the job that I did getting that story told. Unfortunately, it’s a film that doesn’t have a happy ending. Audiences were turned off by that and we just could not get the film the kind of attention I thought it deserved. I was hoping that it would create enough discussion about the right or wrong of the justice system in this case that it would get some attention. And it never did. So that was a disappointment. I suppose I should have known going in that a film with an unhappy ending was not going to be terribly successful commercially. Anyway, I was happy that I did it and I got to work with some wonderful people.
OK, let’s talk Trek. When we saw you in your LLAP (Live Long and Prosper) tee shirt at the Official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas last August we had to smile and chuckle. You’re really, truly, deeply at peace with Spock’s place in your life, aren’t you?
Nimoy: Oh yeah, I’m very comfortable with it, sure.
Take some of our newer fans back to the 1960s. What was the reaction to Spock at the time the show debuted? Did people get the character or was he just a total anomaly to the viewing audience at the time?
Nimoy: Well, I think it caught a lot of people by surprise. I must say that I was somewhat surprised by the response, but I understood it. I understood what it was about the character that people were responding to. The mail told me a lot about what people were responding to. Certainly, the network was totally caught off-guard. The people at NBC, the network that was running the show, had actually asked Gene Roddenberry to eliminate the character or to keep him in the background, because they were concerned that the character was not a positive character. In fact, in some of the earliest promotional materials that they put out to potential advertisers, they had retouched the photographs of me as Spock to take off the pointed ears. They actually took off the pointed ears in the photographs. And it was explained to me that they were concerned that the character looked devilish and that a “devilish” character might have a negative connotation, particularly in the Southern states, where people might be uncomfortable having a devilish on their TV set.
What happened was quite the opposite of what the network expected. The Spock character became the breakout character on the show and the mail for the Spock character and myself was enormous. The network then asked for a lot more of Spock, rather than less of Spock, and we had to go through a major adjustment in the production to get the Spock character built up to the level of demand.
There are early episodes where we see you show emotion, and Spock even smiled in the pilot. How long did it take you to “find” the character?
Nimoy: Well, there was a smile in the first pilot. I was directed to smile. Being the good guy that I was, I did what the director told me to do. I was working with Jeffrey Hunter, who was the captain of the Enterprise at the time, in the first pilot, and we were on this strange planet where a certain kind of strange plant was growing. I was to reach out and touch one of the leaves of this plant, which gave off a certain kind of eerie sound. The director said, “Why don’t you smile when you hear that sound, as though it’s a pleasing sound.” I thought, “OK, I’ll do that.” It was a long time after that before I ever smiled again on Star Trek (laughs). It happened only under very special circumstances. But it took a while to find the character. It wasn’t until we made the second pilot, really, that I got a total grasp and was able to make my own decisions, frankly, about how the character should function in certain circumstances. I did what I was asked to do on that first pilot and that’s why you saw a smile.
Tomorrow, in part two of our interview with Leonard Nimoy, the Star Trek legend talks about the aborted Star Trek series, Phase II, and looks back at each of the TOS features.