2010 July 10 / 24
By Jason Schwartz for Boston Magazine
BEST KNOWN AS STAR TREK'S SPOCK, his alter-ego, actor Leonard Nimoy grew up in Boston's West End. He's published seven books of poetry, is an accomplished photographer, and has saved several dozen planets. Later this month, his photography show, "Secret Selves," will open at Mass MoCA in North Adams.
So you brought together 95 people in a Northampton art gallery over two days, asked them who they thought they really were inside, and photographed them? The idea was to come as your secret self that you typically don't get to express, and I would do a portrait of that. We chose 25 to be in the show.
Did anyone stick out to you? The guy who looks like a wood nymph.
I saw that. It looks like he spent about four days rolling around in the mud. He came looking exactly like that, and he became sort of the poster guy for our show.
So what's your secret self? I'm an actor. All of my secret selves have been played out over the past 60 years. Any secret that I ever had about myself has been revealed in one character or another, a lot of it in Spock.
Was that the idea behind the show? Because you are so identified with Spock, did you want to pull that apart? What's the question? Let's get this settled now. Star Trek has nothing to do with this show. Nothing.
Right. That kind of stopped you cold. What happened? You got quiet.
Is it frustrating that whenever people meet you, they always want to talk about Star Trek? Like me? You're a funny guy. Where do you live?
Cambridge, but I grew up in Newton. Newton? I bet you were uptown.
It wasn't exactly like where you grew up. Well, I grew up in the West End, two or three blocks from the river, in a four-story walkup tenement building. My father was a barber who had a shop a couple hundred yards from our house. About three blocks from where I lived was the Peabody Playhouse. That's where I first stepped onstage when I was about eight years old. And when I was around 12 or 13 years old, a neighborhood friend showed me how to develop a roll of film. I became fascinated and started taking pictures with the family camera. I still have some of the photographs that I made when I was that age.
I understand you actually developed those shots in your parents' bathroom? We were three generations in one two-bedroom apartment. We had one bathroom, and if I got in there and started working on developing prints, pretty soon there would be a pounding on the door that someone has to use the toilet, you know.
I also heard that the Vulcan salute came from your synagogue. This could be the city's greatest cultural contribution since the Boston Tea Party. I was sitting with my grandfather, my father, and my brother at the synagogue on North Russell Street. And there comes a point in the service when the Kohanim, these gentlemen who are members of the tribes of the Kohen, get up in front of everyone to bless the congregation. And when they do that, typically the congregation doesn't look at them. My dad said, "Don't look," and I peeked. I was about eight years old. I saw these guys up there with their hands stretched out toward us, in the shape you've seen me do on Star Trek, the split-fingered gesture.
I've been trying to do that my whole life. During this conversation, too. It takes work. I started working on it when I was eight, and I mastered it. And I didn't know why they were doing it, I just knew that I was intrigued. It was something magical.
Originally published in Boston magazine, July 2010