He was “Star Trek’s” resident malcontent, a self-described “irritant” whom some trekkies accused of killing the TV series. Now, I8 years after the show premiered on NBC, Leonard Nimoy has finally been given a chance to put up or shut up.
He’s just finished directing “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” and come Friday, trekkies—along with the rest of us—will be able to see what happens when the actor finally gets to do it his way.
The opportunity to direct was a long time coming. Sitting at a glass-topped coffee table in his comfortable Westwood home, Nimoy says, “I really believe now that if ‘Star Trek’ (the series) had not come along when it did, I would have been directing intensely a long time ago. I had been teaching actors for five years, I had directed a lot of theater and I had already produced a movie (“Death Watch”)... I was heading for a directing career.”
But, of course, the TV show did come along, and Nimoy was catapulted into a cult phenomenon. Doctoral theses no doubt have been written about “Star Trek’s” appeal, but Nimoy’s own assessment is uncomplicated: He believes its clearly expressed morals and the contrasts between the three main characters—Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock—made indelible impressions on young viewers As for his own role as Spock, Nimoy suggests the character had a coolness teenagers envied and an aloofness which tantalized women viewers.
When Nimoy first encountered Spock, he’d been a character actor for I5 years. A part of the Marlon Brando/James Dean generation, Nimoy took considerable pride in his wide range of roles in TV, feature films and on stage. In short, he took acting seriously, and that concern with craft remained—even when he put on pointed ears and stepped into the role of a supposedly emotionless alien. Soon the producers of “Star Trek” began receiving memos from Nimoy, a steady stream of often bitingly sarcastic missives about script problems and character continuity.
“Yes, I have been difficult with the studio over the years,” Nimoy acknowledges. “I have been a pain because time after time, I would not simply sit in my cage and respond on cue, and go out and put on my makeup and do my lines. Time after time I asked for opportunities to have meetings, discussions to improve it, change it”
If Nimoy took this “kids’ show” too seriously back in the ‘60s, he was not nearly as fanatical as many of the viewers. When NBC tried to cancel “Star Trek,” after its second season, 100,000 letters of protest arrived at the network—an unprecedented outpouring of enthusiasm which prompted the network to do something equally unprecedented: renew the show for another season.
During this third season, however, it became apparent to NBC that the fanaticism of a few didn’t make up for a lack of numbers. The show was canceled again, this time for good.
Almost immediately, “Star Trek” became a huge hit in reruns; but Nimoy managed to escape the pitfall of type-casting. He quickly jumped to “Mission Impossible” as a replacement for Martin Landau and spent two seasons as the show’s disguise expert. After that, Nimoy tried a feature (“Catlow”), some syndicated shows and Broadway.
In I977, Nimoy recalls, “I was in New York, doing ‘Equus’ and I went to see ‘Star Wars.’. I thought to myself, ‘This is going to affect me.’ I knew it immediately, and within a very short period of time, I got the phone call from Paramount: ‘Want to be in a “ Star Trek” movie?”
To everyone’s surprise, Nimoy didn’t jump at the offer. Setting a pattern that would repeat itself with the two subsequent “Star Trek” movies.Nimoy showed that his participation couldn’t be taken for granted.
“Going in, I didn’t believe it,” he says of the script. “There was nothing there for actors to play … “ Still, Nimoy felt he didn’t have much leverage at the time – “They could make a Star Trek without Spock,” he reasoned – so he finally capitulated. And off Spock went to another intergalactic adventure.
Nimoy says now that the film was technically brilliant but lacking in characterization. All that aside, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” had the biggest opening of any film in Paramount history.
Almost immediately plans were made for a second “Star Trek” movie. This time the studio executives offered Nimoy a lure they knew he would find perversely appealing. The chance to do a death scene.
Nimoy now says he didn’t feel particularly good about killing off the Spock character, but decided to take the chance anyway: “I’m not here to play it safe and be repetitious,” he maintains.
Countless times in the TV series, a wide-eyed Dr. McCoy would look up from the seemingly lifeless body of one of the regulars and exclaim to Capt. Kirk “He’s dead, Jim!” Did Spock’s death in “Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan” have a greater sense of finality to it?
“It certainly did when I did it,” Nimoy answers. “And I was very moved doing it. I was very moved when I saw it. And then suddenly I thought, ‘Oh ho, this is interesting, look what they’re saying to the audience: There’s the Genesis Planet evolving; there’s the tube with Spock’s remains. Interesting.” Sure enough, a few days after the picture opened, the studio called and asked him what It would take to get him to participate in the third movie.
Again, Nimoy was being courted, and this time he asked for a big dowry: He wanted to direct. As it turned out, the executives were quite open to giving Nimoy the chance. (Part of their openness may be attributable to the fact that this third “Star Trek’ movie, budgeted at $I6 million, represents nowhere near the gamble of the first one, which cost over $ 40 million.)
The posters and billboards for “Star Trek III” lists Nimoy only as director—he is not billed as an actor. But the assumption, of course, is that Spock didn’t’ really die in “Star Trek II,” and that he somehow reappears in the new film. Why else would Paramount offer Nimoy the plum directorial assignment?
Confronted with the question, Nimoy offers nothing but an un-Spocklike grin. “I’m not going to tell you, but I’ll tell you something else: The audience doesn’t want to know now... They’ll kill you if you tell them,” he warns, chuckling.
Asked how the character of Spock has changed over the years, Nimoy initially relates the change to himself. Some of Spock’s logic has apparently rubbed off. “I’m a lot more rational than I used to be,” he maintains. As for Spock, “something of a more settled nature has pervaded the character. He’s not so much on edge any more...”
Isn’t that a roundabout way of acknowledging that Nimoy did in fact glue on the ears one more time for “Star Trek III”? “Look,” Nimoy says, “the audience’s imaginations are cooking. Why should we destroy that for them?”
Why indeed? /it’s tough to turn down a contemporary icon when he asks for a favor.