By Marc Shapiro for Starlog
Leonard Nimoy is selling Star Trek. There’s nothing new in that. And the actor who plays Spock will be the first to tell you so.
“I’m doing exactly what I do on all Star Trek movies,” explains Nimoy. “This is typical of what we do every time a new Star Trek movie is released.”
Although Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has not emerged as a critical or box-office blockbuster, Nimoy plunges right into conversation about this latest sequel. He addresses himself to the fact that, in The Final Frontier, there seems to have been a concerted effort to draw Spock out of his Vulcan shell and to make him decidedly more human and just the slightest bit funny.
“I don’t think there was a conscious effort to make Spock funny in this film,” declares Nimoy. “Nobody was sitting around saying, ‘Let’s make Spock a funny guy.’ But what I think happened with Star Trek V was that they decided to take the character and move him in a different direction. And those are the kinds of moves that keep me interested in the character and in Star Trek.”
Nimoy indicates that the paces which The Final Frontier puts Spock through are indicative of a pattern he has seen developing since The Wrath of Khan.
“There has been what I consider an interesting kind of arc to Spock in these films. He died in Star Trek II and is brought back to life in III but with not a whole lot of his grey matter operating. By the end of Star Trek IV, we find that he has sucked up a lot of information and is standing on his feet again. Now in Trek V, he’s given the presence of his brother, which tests his loyalty. These kinds of changes are the things that continue to make Spock an interesting character to play.”
Nimoy, fresh from directing Three Men and a Baby and The Good Mother, laughingly offers that it wasn’t difficult to come on to the Star Trek V set and just act.
“Believe me, just acting was a wonderful break for me,” he smiles. “I had just finished four films in a row with almost no break in between and I really enjoyed the idea that Bill would be carrying the load and that I could sit in my trailer and take it easy.”
But not that easy as Nimoy discloses in his assessment of William Shatner as a director. “Bill’s such a physical guy to begin with and I immediately found that was going to spill over into this film. There was much more running and jumping than I normally like to do. I was constantly going up the elevator, down the stairs, across the cliff, down the rocks. We shot in the heat of the day and the cold of the night. It was a fun film to do, but it was also a very difficult one.”
As Nimoy recalls, that difficulty began on the day one of lensing at the stone face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
“That was a tough way to start a picture – what with all the complicated rigging and all – but it struck at a sense of adventure with everybody. I started having fun with the scene and it carried over to the rest of the picture.”
Those early campfire sequences with Kirk, Spock and McCoy, a calm counter to the action-oriented nature of the rest of the film, hold some pleasant memories.
“I felt the idea of having Kirk, Spock and McCoy sitting down and being with each other with no adventure involved and nothing to deal with was wonderful. It put the whole Star Trek experience on a very human scale and, in a very positive way, recognized the validity of the relationship these three have had over the years.”
The introduction of Laurence Luckinbill as Spock’s half-brother Sybok proved a further test of Spock’s emotional mettle. And while Luckinbill, in STARLOG #145, described the pairing as a “feeling out process between the two actors,” Nimoy remembers little that was out of the ordinary in preparing for the Spock/Sybok scenes.
“We rehearsed just the way any two actors would rehearse the scene,” explains Nimoy. “I think Larry and I understood from the beginning what the nature of the relationship should be and what the scenes between us called for.
“But there were some instinctive moments in those scenes that weren’t in the script and that ended up being used. There was the moment where Larry unexpectedly grabbed me in that bearhug and I withdrew. Bill saw it, liked it and we ended up using it in that scene. Playing off my brother was an interesting to play. I knew who he was, what I knew about him and that nobody else realized who he was.
“The scene where Kirk orders me to shoot Sybok and I refuse was a particularly difficult one for me to play,” notes Nimoy. “To refuse a direct order from my captain was so uncharacteristic of Spock and a Vulcan that I ended up really internalizing the whole scene to make it play. I had a hard time with it, but I think it plays as real.”
Nimoy pauses for a sip of coffee before switching gears for a look back at Trek II, III and IV.
“We didn’t sit down at some point and say we were going to make a trilogy. It was all pure unintentional. When The Wrath of Khan was done and Spock died, there was no plan to bring him back. We had no contract and I wasn’t interested in doing a third film, so I said goodbye and left.
“But I wasn’t excited about not being Spock anymore. I was sad. I thought there was a lot of history that was done for me. I didn’t feel great about it but I felt like the time had finally come.”
So did Paramount who, after the early previews of Trek II, decided to add that final shot of Spock’s tube resting on the Genesis Planet. The feeling being, according to Nimoy, that “whatever they decided to do in Star Trek III, they would have Spock’s death as a springboard.
“It wasn’t until they were getting ready to make Trek III that the studio called and asked if I wanted to be involved. I did under the condition that I also be able to direct and they agreed. So, I was back and back and back,” chuckles Nimoy.
Nimoy is currently considering half-a-dozen directing assignments, including the long-discussed sequel to Three Men and a Baby. Consequently, he doesn’t have much time to watch television and has only seen what he describes as “a sampling” of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. His assessment?
“From what little I’ve seen, the show is wonderfully well-produced. The actors are interesting and the performances are good. But, I haven’t really seen the show often enough to be able to comment about.”
He does comment on the ability of the first generation Star Trek series to keep bouncing back, ultimately making the leap from the small screen to the big screen.
“I thought we were finished several times,” Nimoy confesses. “I felt we were finished at the second season’s end, but then, there was that big outcry and we were renewed for a third season. After the third season, I thought, ‘Now, we’re really done.’ In ‘79, we made the first movie and I thought, ‘0K, now we’ve made the movie and now we’re done.’ None of us could have predicted that we might never be done.”
If that’s really the case, at least Nimoy has a healthy attitude toward what has become regular Star Trek duty.
“I tend to look at coming back every couple of years to make a Star Trek movie as a family reunion. It’s fun to come back and work with these people again.”
However, Nimoy is the first to acknowledge that “these people” are getting older and that mortality of the Star Trek cast should be a major consideration as Star Trek VI looms as a possibility.
“I know the question is on many people’s minds as to how much longer we can all continue to do Star Trek. When we started the show in the 1960s, I don’t think anybody considered whether we would do Star Trek for this length of time.
“But more and more people are coming up to me and saying, ‘Are all of you still alive?’ I guess maybe we should all start thinking about what the future may bring.”
The actor, at this juncture, has come to terms with the fact that he will be forever tied to Spock. He admits that his rise to prominence as a motion picture director owes a great deal to the pointy-eared Vulcan.
“Spock is definitely one of my best friends,” says Leonard Nimoy. “When I put on those ears, it’s not like just another day. When I become Spock, that day becomes something special.”