Epix' Interview: A conversation with Leonard Nimoy

2014 February 04






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Leonard Nimoy (laughing): My parents ....

... were 'aliens', they came here as aliens. 



(laughs) I sometimes say they came here as aliens and became citizens and I was born here and went to Hollywood and became an alien. (laughs) . I started working when I was about 10, 11 years old selling newspapers. I started acting, my first payed job was aroound 1950, working at acting, producing and lighting and so forth. My brother and I were first generation in the USA, were born in the United States. My parents came from Russia and they had a tough time getting away from where they were and crossing the ocean to get to the Unites States. My father was a barber. He started around barbering when he came to the United States, eventually in Boston. That is where I was born, my brother and I were born. I was attracted to the Spock character because Gene Roddenberry said to me: This is a person who has an internal struggle. He's half human, half Vulcan, born of a human mother, a Vulcan father. The human mother obvioulsy has emotions, the Vulcan father has repressed his emotions if he has any at all. For an actor that's furtile ground, to be able to play a chacter that has an internal life like that. 

I have been extremely grateful for the whole Star Trek experience. The fact is that Star Trek has been resurrected several times. There was the first pilot which was not successful. The network was concerned about the Spock character from the onset. They asked Gene to eliminate the pointed ears and the concern about the Spock character was in -what they called- 'the bible belt'. People might not welcome that character into their homes because he might look 'devilish'. Gene was very firm about that. He said: We're going to keep the pointed ears and that will be okay. The network found the first part 'too cerebral' they said. Not a straight lined story enough. And unusually they decided to try a second pilot. And the second pilot was a much more direct story. We had a specific problem to deal with, and that's the one which sold the series.
altWe had a wonderful script by Theodore Spurgoen called 'Amok Time'. We arrive on the planet and a processions comes out to greet us. I said to the director: We should have some kind of a special greeting. Asian people bow to each other, military people salute each other, I think Vulcans should have some kind of a greeting. 

And he said: What would you like to do? And I said: What about this? (giving the Vulcan salute) Where it came from was from my childhood. Going to synagogue on a high holiday with my family there's a moment where men go in front of the congregation, cover their heads with their prayer shawls, chant a prayer. My father said: Don't look. 
altI'm about eight or nine years old, so I snugged a peek. And what I saw were the gentlemen out there who were doing the shouting and their hands out towards the congregation like that (see photo) with both their hands. I found out later this is the shape of the letter 'shin' in the Hebrew alphabet. The letter shin is the first letter in the word 'shaddai', the name of god. 


And in terms of they are using a symbol of god's name as they bless the congregation - well, I survived- I peeked and I survived, but I was so intrigued with that gesture, and I suggested that we do that with the Vulcans.



Within days after that episode was on the air I started getting that gesture back on the streets. I get it until this day. 
At the end of the second season Star Trek was cancelled. There was a tremendous amount of uproar of energy from the fans. Demonstrations, letters, I think the network reported they had something about 110.000 pieces of mail in a week's period. And finally the network decided to go for a third season. It was not a terribly successful season, it was in a very bad time slot. At the end of the season Star Trek was supposedly 'finished'. Then - I think a couple of years went by- we heard a rumbling about Star TRek successes. Star Trek being picked up by individual stations aroumd the country what they call syndication. And it would find enormous success. The stations were running it every night at six o'clock. Women started complaining that dinner hour for their families was being destroyed because peopel wouldn't come to the table to have dinner. In some cases they were professors complaining that peopel wouldn't come to their class, they were watching Star Trek because it was in the afternoon. And then the first Star Trek conventions started happening. They expected 300 people. 3.000 showed up. And then there was a huge story about the resurrection of Star Trek. 

altIn the 70s I did a lot of theater work, occasional film, occasional television. And I was on broadway in a play called 'Equus', prize winning play, wonderful play. And I was having an exciting time doing it when I heard about a movie called Star Wars and about the enormous popularity it achieved and the success of it. I thought: Maybe I'll get a call form Paramount about Star Trek. And sure enough I got a call from the studio asking me whether I would consider acting in a Star Trek movie and that's when the whole process began. 

The movie had -what I think- an interesting history. 'Star Trek I' opened with great expectations and was an ... success with the Star Trek fans, it wasn't really a dynamic Star Trek movie. Number II was much, much better and put the Star Trek franchise back in the water. We had bleached away after the first one. Star Trek II was a very powerful story about vengeance, a very human story if you will. About the battle between Kirk and the adversary played wonderfully by Riccardo Mantelban. He brought so much to that performance. And the fact that Spock dies in th eend of that movie did a very, very emotional venture to the scene. I had a very tough time with it because I really thought: When we did this, this will be the final Star Trek movie. At the time we got around to playing that scene I thought: This is going so well, I might have made a terribe mistake by agreeing to letting Spock die. (laughs) 

At the very last moment as we were about to finish with that scene Harve Bennett came down to the set and said to me: Is there anything you can give us that might be a string into the future for the Spock character?   Oh! Okay.  What can we do here? And I said: I can simply say in a mind meld with McCoy - now unconscious on the floor- just say: 'Remember!' And that was the thread that carried us into the next Star Trek movies. 
We had been through som edark times in Star Trek. Star Trek III gave us the death of Kirk's son which was a tragic and tyering experience and a dark story. I decided with Harve Bennett we should lighten up. Let's see if we can have some fun. I became curious with the possibility that earth was threatened by the loss of the humpback whales. And that's how the Star Trek IV story began to come to life. 
altStar Trek V was Bill Shatner's time of that. I had directed III and IV. It was kind of a take-off on the Wizzard of Oz. This guy pretended to be god. He wanted a star ship, he wanted the Enterprise. (The scene where Kirk asks what god needs a star ship for is shown, Kirk is down) That was kind of fun (Leonard laughs).

altFrank Mancuso was now head of the studio. He contacted me and asked: I'd like if you could make us a final movie with the original cast. And that's the way the movie came about. Up until 'The Next Generation' came along and the episodes had been done, I had been in every piece of Star Trek ever produced; every episode, both pilots, and all the first six films and even in a few episodes in The Next Generation.  And then I was gone and I was out of the picture after that. I was comfortable with that. I thought we had a very comfortable long run, some difficult times, some questionable times, but by large we left behind a pretty good body of work. 


Then along came JJ Abrams who found a way to crack it open to an entirely new and different audience.

You didn't have to know all about Star Trek, you could come and enjoy this movie as a person who had never seen any of Star Trek before. I could see during the making of it that it had great adventure elements.


It was extremely cinematic. Much more so than we had been able to do in the first six films. 
.. talking about JJ Abrams .. (see above for the transcript ) ... I have enjoyed working with him twice and I think he's been very successful. I think that the franchise now is in very good hands. Chris Pine is a wonderful actor. Zachary Quinto (is) very talented, a great guy. It's in good hand, the franchise is in good hands and I would look forward to seeing what they do with it next and if they call me I take the phone call. (Leonard laughs) . 

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