2014 May 23
Margery Eagan: Leonard Nimoy on Growing up in the West End, Keeping Spock's Ears and loosing his Boston accent.
(Thanks to Ibolya for this LINK)
Margery Eagan: You who are no stranger in the Museum of Science know him as the man who voices the "New England Time Capsule" film. Those of you who are into fine art know him as a photographer and Trekkies, you know him as Spock. That is right: Actor Leonard Nimoy joins us in studio 3, he is in town by the way because of the Boston Pops hosting "Out of this World" a space-themed production tonight and tomorrow at Symphony Hall. He also made a documentary with his son filmmaker Adam Nimoy. It is titled "Leonard Nimoy's Boston". It premiered last night on chanel 2 for future screenings there are gonna be plenty if you missed it last night. We are WGBH. Leonard Nimoy, it is so great to see you, thank you so much for coming.
Leonard Nimoy: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.
Jared Bowen: I just watched this documentary. It is so phantastic! You and your son walk all around Boston, the Boston you grew up in until the age of 18 when you left for Hollywood.
Leonard Nimoy: On the South station, that's right.
Jared Bowen: We have a clip of the documentary here, that's when you worked for a vacuum cleaner company on Boylston street in 1948, here's the clip to listen:
(check photos and the summary of the documentary here)
Leonard's voice is heard from the clip: The worked on a pay ans switch - operation. They would advertize a used Electrolux vacuum cleaner, which is a famous name for 9 or 10 dollars. Then the job was to sell upward. They got one as a sample to show: "Don't sell it!" The machine you want to sell costs about 100 bugs. So it took us an amount of confidence and salesmanship. It was useful later in going for some of the acting or distance I went on. Jared: This is such s sweet documentary, you walking around West end and tell that you were a shifty salesman.
Leonard laughs: I was dangerous.
Jared Bowen: Prior to that I have to tell you that I was so moved because you grew up in the West End. And for people who don't know what the West End is, it is like the lowest side of New York.
Leonard Nimoy: That's right.
Jared Bowen: Where the immigrants went, where you were all crowded, as I know you were in appartment buildings
Leonard Nimoy: Yeah.
Jared Bowen: In public buildings, it was located near the Mass Hospital and the Charles river. Prime location. And because of that reason it was a level taken by amminent domain. I am wondering how is it because of the fact you actually can't go 'home' now. You have all these wonderful memories where you grew up and you can't go because they don't exist any more.
Leonard Nimoy: It is very sad. Many years ago, amybe 25 years ago, I took a trip to Boston withmy wife and I wanted to show her where I have grown up and we could not find the street. We walked into the area that was the West End, but the streets are so totally reconfigured that there was no connection to what it used to be. The only connection that we found, that my son and me found when we were making this documentary was the St. Joseph's church.
And we actually sat on the steps, he and I, at the St.Jospeh's church, and I pointed to the left so I could show him where we could actually see St. Joseph's from the window of our appartment building, it ws only half a block away. But now it was so totally different, it was uncecognizable. So in a sense I feel uprooted, but in the same way I still have a great connection to the city. I love being in Boston, I am looking forward to coming back.
Margery Eagan: Leonard Nimoy, how did your parents react to taking off the neighbourhood? Your father was a barber. Hoe did they react?
Leonard Nimoy: Well, they were very stubborn about leaving. They were among the last people you leave. They stayed and stayed and stayed. I left in 1949. And they were theer until the very end. I think the building was one of the last to come down, I think in 1959. And by then the West End was just gone. They wanted to stay forever until they passed away. They were just forced to move, they had to get out. The buildings were torn down around them, so they were moving to Worchester.
Margery Eagan: Did they keep in touch with the old neighbours from the West End?
Leonard Nimoy: Oh yeah. The West End was a very closed net neighbourhood. They were very much like a village in a way.
They hired a sociologist named Jants (?) who wrote a book called "The Urban Villages" about the West End. It was a unique neighbourhood, absolutely unique.
Margery Eagan: So where did the young teen Leonard Nimoy hang out when he was young, yuppy around Boston?
Leonard Nimoy: I slpit my time betwen the Elisabeth Peabody house which was on Charles street and the West End house which was on .. street. The Elisabeth Peabody house was a wonderful place, it had a sports program, a science program, it had a science lab. My brother began his interest in science there - and he became a chemical engineer with a graduate degree from MIT. And it also had a wonderful theater. 375 seats. They had a beautiful theater.
And that's where I first started acting when I was eight years old in a production of 'Hansel and Gretel'. (laughs) And somehow I just kept on doing that. By the time I was about 17 a play was being done "Awake and Sing!" and I was cast as a juvenile. My first time in an adult drama. About a family very much like my own family. Three generations living in an appartment like we did: My grandfather, my parents and my brother and I. And I was so taken with it, I was so moved by being involved in a play that sopke about our generation, our people, that I decided this is the way I wanted to live my life and that was when I decided to move to California and study acting seriously.
Jared Bowen: Do you -and of course we know this voice you have and we know it's so well of course we mentioned the Museum of Science - did you have a very thick Boston accent?
Leonard Nimoy: I did, I did. I went to school to the Pasadena playhouse school, I was theer for about 6 months, I was disappointed of the school in general, but I had a great speech teacher. And when I left Boston, you would ask me what part I played in the TV show, I would say (speaking in the Boston accent): "I was Spock in Star Trek".
(The interviewers are laughing. )
Jared Bowen: It still comes right back to you.
Leonard Nimoy: It was 6 months of hard work. To change a speech is not easy because there is more to it than just the sound. There is a whole psychological thing about how you sound. And I really didn't want to let it go. I thought: This is how I am. But then I thought: I better change because it makes me do different kinds of work.
Margery Eagan: We are talking to Leonard Nimoy because he's in town for the Boston Pops and for his documentary he did with his son which premiered last night on WGBH chanel 2.
You know everyone knows you as Spock from Star Trek, but now we look at your resumeé: you were in almost every single great television show from the late 50ies and eearly 60ies: Sea Hunt, The Twilight Zone, Highway Patrol with Broderick Crawford ...
Leonard Nimoy: Broderick Crawford, right.
Margery Eagan: Perry Mason, Rawhide - that was with Clint Eastwood, right?
Leonard Nimoy: Clint Eastwood, that's right.
Margery Eagan: The Untouchables .... You have any great stories from that, any tales from the young Clint eastwood or Perry Mason or someone?
Leonard Nimoy: Well, that was struggling I was happy to get each single one of these jobs. I lived in the neighbourhood, a few blocks away from Lloyd Bridges who was the star of those Sea Hunt series.
Margery Eagan: I remember him.
Leonard Nimoy: And if I got very desperate I'd get into my car and drive by his house to see if he was outside watering the lawn. And one time it actually worked. I was driving by and I had worked in the show a couple of times. I knew the job and I was driving by and he was out side and I said: "Hey, hello, I'm Leonard Nimoy, do you remember?". And he said "Yes, how are you doing?" And I said: "I'm looking for a job.". And he said: "Just a minute!". He went inside the house, made a phone call, came back and in two days I had a three day job which paid a couple of hundred dollars and paid the rent that month. He was a great guy.
Interviewer: Wow! And you worked on Bonanza.
Leonard Nimoy: Yes, a couple of times. And Gunsmoke a coupe of times. And .. I was on all of these shows. I did Rawhide, I did Wagon Train, I played cops and robbers and I played good guys, bad guys, I played Indians, and every once in a while I did some science fiction.
Jared Bowen: And of course you were in this show a lot of people heard about. So I have to make a confession to you: A few years ago I was in Greece. I was standing at the Plaka, at the base of the Akropolis, and I heard this very distinctive voice behind me
Leonard Nimoy: You were there?
Jared Bowen: I was there. And I turned around thinking: That sounds like Leonard Nimoy!
I spunn around and I saw this tall distinguished gentleman and when I figured out it was really you I looked at your ears.
Jared Browen: I feel somewhat valideted. You brought a lot of yourself to Spock.
Leonard Nimoy: I did, I did. I was very fortunate to find a role that welcomed me and I welcomed it, I took it to heart. And I was very serious about that character because I identified with him a lot. Spock was a character that was sort of outside the main stream, he was the 'other', the alien. And I grew up feeling that way. I felt that I was one of the minority. And Spock was not at home on Vulcan because he was half human, he was not at home on earth because he was half Vulcan. The kids on Vulcan teased him because he was a half-bread. And that's why he went into the space work. I was struck by the way the character had intelligence and usefulness and professionalism and dignity. Above all: Dignity. It meant a lot to me.
Margery Eagan: Why did the real Loenard Nimoy feel he was an outsider - of what?
Leonard Nimoy: Well, I grew up in this very mixed neighbourhood. The people on the floor below us were Italien, the people on the floor below they were Irish, we had very good freinds in all of the denominations, but being Jewish I was definitely in the minority.
Margery Eagan: You were definitely in the minority.
Leonard Nimoy: So I felt I was not mainstream, you know?
Jared Bowen: That must have been some comfort in Los Angeles,that's where a lot of people went when they were considered 'other' because they have that other artistic sensibilities, these other selves ...
Leonard Nimoy: That is true. I found a different kind of world in California. There was not that kind of strong cultural identity. There was an easier mix of people. Not that I enjoyed them but I had a different feeling. I felt like 'OK, this is what California is all about. What is Hollywood all about.' But the most important thing for me was to be involved in the arts. I wanted to make a living in the arts and that's why I went to California because I felt out there I had a chance to do it. And it worked out. It worked out for me fortunately. It took a while to build a career but it worked out.
Margery Eagan: Mr. Nimoy I read somewhere that you saved the last pair of ears.
Leonard Nimoy: I have them.
Margery Eagan: Where? In the bathroom?
Leonard Nimoy: That's a small box in a glass trunk on my desk to remind me where came from. (laughs)
Margery Eagan: This relates to a little bit when you said you were an outsider: You worked on Star Trek many days during the week right through on Friday and you somehow maintained the role of Spock on Saturday and maybe on Sunday. What was that about?
Leonard Nimoy: Well I guess you call that method acting. I was deep inside this character for many hours each week. Twelve hours a day for 5 days a week, 60 hours a week I was in the Spock character. I came home, took off the make-up, grabbed something to eat, started up to learn the lines for tomorrow and still in Spock's character I go to sleep. Wake up in the morning, and - bang - right up in the make-up chair and back to Spock.
So the weekend was the only time I had to slipp out of the character and it took a while. I could still feel Spock around all day Saturday. And he starts to leave around midday on Sunday. (laughs) And the I start to slipp back into Leonard Nimoy. Sunday night I was free of Spock but Monday morning right back into the character. Three years. That was the way it was.
Jaret Bowen: The same time you started your acting career in 'Hansle and Gretel' you also started your photography career, you were literally developing in your bathroom you were sharing with all your family members. I see you had a life-long passion for photography.
Leonard Nimoy: Yes.
Jaret Bowen: Which was your entry there? What made you do it still?
Leonard Nimoy: In the neighbourhood there was a friend who showed me how to develop your own role of film and make a print. You could go over to Kodak over on .. street and for 50 cents you could buy a packet of chemicals and that was all you needed. And maybe a packet of paper for another 15 or 25 cents. And with that kind of investment I could take the family camera and go out and shoot some pictures and come home and start making my own and developing prints in the family bathroom, which was exciting for me, very exciting. I stayed with my interest in photography forever but I got serious about it. When I finished Star Trek I did two seasons on Mission: Impossible and left that show because I really had had enough of that. I went back to school on U.C.L.A. and started studying photography seriously because I really considered changing careers. What I realized was that I did not want to do commercial photography, shooting cars and clothes and fashion. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do what's known as fine art photography.
Very difficult ot make a living of it, so I decided to stick with my acting career (laughs). But I always loved photography and I have continued to do it ever since.
Margery Eagan: Leonard Nimoy, you've done some fascinating things in your career beside your photography a few years back. I found them totally fascinating: The Big Body Project, you photographed a lot of women, they were not just a little heavy, they were really, really heavy.
Leonard Nimoy: Large women, yes.
Margery Eagan: and they looked, a lot of them, really beautiful. Why did you do that?
Leonard Nimoy: Well, it started with a woman who came to me. I was showing some of my early work from a project called Shekhina in Northern California where I had a home and a woman came to me after that, She said: "I'm a model. I'm a different body type than you've been working with, would you be interested in shooting me?" And she was a very large lady. And I was concerned, I was not quite sure what to do with her because I had been shooting classic-type figures. She came to our studio and my wife and I photographed her. And when I showed her pictures she - she is quite large, quite large - when I showed her pictures along with other work, she was the one who got all the attention. They were fascinated because you never see that.
Margery Eagan: Exactly.
Leonard Nimoy: That kind of new figure almost like a sculpture. And I thought there is something going on here in our culture that I think people are interested in and might want to learn about. So I found thisi group of women, large body women in San Fransisco and I photographed them and that became The Full Body Project.
Margery Eagan: Which reactions did you get? We never see or really see ...
Leonard Nimoy: I got a lot of interest, a lot of people ask me the same question: Who are these people and why are you shooting them? And I was shooting them because theer is this cultural question in our society about what people should look like. And women in our culture are told what they should look like by the cosmetic companies, the clothing companies, the diet companies .... people want to sell you something.
Margery Eagan: That's right.
Leonard Nimoy: "Take these pills!", "Buy these clothes!", "Take this excercize program, buy it from us and you'll look lie you're supposed to look, you know?" Now what are you supposed to look like? You're supposed to look like how you are. And people are chased to this dream by paying something to somebody to try to achive that kind of a look, so sensed what this is all about. I thought it would be interesting to raise a conversation about this subject.
Jaret Bowen: Did that change the way you made photography the way after because you said you were ancious about doing it and you didn't quite know how to do it. So there must have ...
Leonard Nimoy: Well, many years ago I had a good friend named Macia Tucker who is th efounder of the new museum of contemporary art in New York. For a while she was the chief curator of the Whitney Museum. She was a good friend and a great support of the arts and she said to me: "Do what scares you as an artist. Do what scares you, what you would normally shy away from. And explore it. Find out what scares you or bothers you - maybe you'll find something interesting." and that's what I found when I was doing the Full Body Project.
Jaret Browen: Do you shoot on film or digital? I shot almost exclusively on film which I developed in the process, except for my last project which was called "Secret Selves", which I shot in Northampton.
Margery Eagan: Oh, tell people about that, that was fascinating, too.
Leonard Nimoy: Yeah. Well, I came across this story from the ancient Greeks, supposedly they were discussing what is called the 'human angst'. What is this thing that we all feel uneasy about. And Arestophanes, a poet and philosopher,said that he had an explanation for human angst.
He said: Huamns at one time were double people attached back to back. We had four arms, four legs and two heads. And he said that humans became very powerful and arrogant. I don't see how they could be powerful if the'd be in combat, you know?
(laughs) But that's what he said. He said the gods became angry and they sent Zeus to solve the problem. So Zeus took a big sword, split everybody in two and sent them on different paths and we have two legs, two arms and one head. However he said, eversince then human have felt that some part of themselves is missing. Something is missing in their lives. And that's the explanation of human angst. People were trying to get in touch with the other part of themselves to re-integrate, to become whole again. What a fascinating story!
So we set up a series of interviews and portrait session in Northampton where I photographed 100 people. They were invited to be photographed with me as their secret or hidden od phantasie self.
Oh boy! And some wonderful people came there.
Margery Eagan: And you had a big exhibt yourself and that's why they were so wonderfully received. Leonard Nimoy, it has been fascinating and wonderful and a great treat speaking with you.
And thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it!
Leonard Nimoy: Tonight: Symphony Hall!
Margery Eagan: Tonight Symphny Hall! We'll give all the info in just a second.
Jaret Bowen: You can catch Leonard Nimay, Nimoy, excuse me, tonight and Saturday at the Boston Symphony Hall. He is hosting "Out of this World", a space-themed conduction let by guest conductor Sara Kicks to learn more about the tickets ... And if you want to see Leonard Nimoy's Boston which you he made with his son Adam go to ww.gbh.com for showtimes. Leonard Nimoy thank you so much for visiting us.