By Hartley Pleshaw
This writer brings to this article a certain authenticity. He—I—was a Charter Trekkie.
For three years in my childhood, Thursday night meant STAR TREK. I was among those present, if not at the creation of one of the most amazing phenomena in the history of entertainment and popular culture, then certainly at its infancy. Back then—and I wouldn’t doubt that this was true of many other fans of the series, particularly very young ones like me—it was easier to imagine the future depicted in STAR TREK than it was the future of STAR TREK: its evolution into perhaps the greatest cult phenomenon/franchise in the history of modern entertainment.
But then, few others saw the future of STAR TREK, either. It lasted only three seasons, and never cracked the Nielsen Top Twenty. During its initial lifetime, there was nothing about its fan base, demographic or popularity to indicate that those first three seasons were just the opening act of something that would last half a century—and counting.
If the ongoing saga of STAR TREK’S popularity continues to amaze, however, there is no particular mystery as to what has attracted its beyond-loyal (some would say, beyond reason) following. It depicts a future humanity united in harmony, venturing far beyond the earthly realm into an exciting, fascinating (if, occasionally, dangerous) future. But perhaps, even more than that, what people came to love about STAR TREK were and are its characters—and one in particular.
Think of STAR TREK, and you think of Mr. Spock, usually first. The pointy-eared half Human, half Vulcan, devoid of emotion and chock full of logic and reason, quickly became and remains the most beloved character in the history of the franchise (unable though he may be to return that love, at least emotionally). And when you think of Mr. Spock, you have to think of the actor who played and defined him, Leonard Nimoy.
Leonard Nimoy comes, not from the Planet Vulcan, but from the city of Boston. He grew up in a long-vanished civilization: the beloved and fondly remembered West End neighborhood (his family’s address was 87 Chambers Street), a vibrant, safe, multi-ethnic urban success story—until, alas, it was destroyed, not by invaders from another planet, but from something that Mr. Spock would have found totally illogical, the oxymoronic concept known as “Urban Renewal.
Now 83 years old, Leonard left Boston many decades ago, but it never left him. He has returned to it many times, and soon will once more. On May 23rd and 24th, 2014, Leonard will narrate “Out of This World,” a presentation of music from classic film and television Science Fiction for the Boston Pops at Boston’s Symphony Hall. On Saturday, June 7th, 2014, Leonard will receive the Governors’ Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Boston/New England Chapter. And Leonard will return to Boston in another, familiar way, by appearing on television. On May 22nd, WGBH-TV will air a documentary directed by his son Adam, IT TAKES A SHTETL, about Leonard’s teenage years growing up in Boston. (It’s an historically appropriate time to celebrate Mr. Nimoy, as it was fifty years ago last month—April, 1964—that a television producer named Gene Roddenberry presented his idea for a TV series to NBC. He called it: STAR TREK.)
Yes, Boston is indeed celebrating Leonard Nimoy. But then, it’s really a matter of returning the favor, as Leonard has always celebrated Boston.
“I feel blessed to have had the background and childhood I did. Not only did I have a loving family, but the neighborhood was a very interesting place to grow up in. A lot of values were taught. It was always an immigrant neighborhood, at least when I was living there. Prior to that, it had been an African-American neighborhood. It became a neighborhood for European immigrants. When I was coming along, it was about 60% to 65% Italian, about 25 to 30% Jewish, and a sprinkling of others: Poles and others.
“It was a very interesting mix of cultures. There was a lot to be learned, a lot to be gained from mingling with other cultures. The city itself, Boston, was extremely interesting in academia and the arts. It was a very enriching neighborhood. You got along with everyone that lived on the street. It really was a village.
“We got along with each other in a very interesting way. It was Live-and-Let-Live, and ‘Help each other when possible.’ I feel very, very lucky to have grown up there.
Leonard Nimoy’s acting career began when he was eight years old. “There was a wonderful, wonderful settlement house building called the Elizabeth Peabody House, on Charles Street. I used to hang out there after school, and on weekends, because there were all kinds of wonderful activities. There was a sports program, there was a science program, and there was a wonderful little theater. And when I was eight years old, I was cast in a production of Hansel and Gretel.. I was cast as Hansel. I enjoyed doing it. I continued doing children’s theater at the Peabody playhouse until I was about seventeen. I was cast in a production of a play called Awake and Sing by Clifford Odetts. This was my first experience in a serious piece of adult drama. It captured my imagination totally, and I decided that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
That epiphany led Leonard to Hollywood—or, thereabouts. In 1949, after graduating from Boston English High School (and saving up some money from selling vacuum cleaners), the 18-year-old Mr. Nimoy got on a train at South Station and headed west.
Why did he go to California and not—as so many others had done in search of acting careers—New York? “There was a theatrical school called the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre. There was a theater arts magazine that I used to look at monthly, and they always had a full-page ad which looked very impressive. Some people that I asked about it said that it would be a good place to study acting. And, California seemed very attractive at the time. More so than simply going to New York, which just seemed like more of Boston. I wanted something of a change; I wanted something a little bit more romantic, I guess.
“When I got to California and got to the school, in a short time I became very disillusioned, because I discovered that the school really was struggling to stay alive. It would have been long gone, but it was being supported by the G.I. Bill. There were G.I.’s coming back out of the service who were getting free tuition, plus a monthly subsistence. I had not yet been in the Army; I went into the Army about four years later. So, I didn’t have that support. Struggling to support myself at a school which was not inspiring, I left after a short period of time.
“I moved to Hollywood, and started looking for work.”
A series of non-acting jobs followed, along with two years in the U.S. Army. So did marriage and parenthood. Eventually some acting jobs followed, including, in 1951, his first Science Fiction role. It was on television, in the then-popular Saturday afternoon 15-minute serial genre. (“It was called ZOMBIES FROM OUTER SPACE. I played a zombie.”) As the years passed, he found regular, if not necessarily steady, work, in film and television. (“All the weekly series with cops, cowboys and Indians. I played a lot of Bad Guys.”)
Then, in 1965, came the call from a TV producer named Gene Roddenberry.
“I was acting various TV shows, including an episode of a show called The Lieutenant, which was produced by Gene Roddenberry. After I had done that performance, he contacted my agent. (My agent) called me, and said that Gene Roddenberry was developing a Science Fiction pilot for a series, ‘and is interested in you for one of the roles.’ That’s how it began.”
And, in one form or another, STAR TREK has yet to end.
How did it all come to be? According to Leonard Nimoy, Gene Roddenberry sensed some socio-political changes in the wind that boded well for a science fiction TV series.
“I think that he sensed that the Westerns were on their way out, and that Science Fiction was taking their place. It was no longer politically correct to portray the Indians as terrible people. So, the Westerns had lost their ‘heavy,’ their villains. As a matter of fact, STAR TREK was sold to NBC as ‘Wagon Train” in space.’” (Wagon Train was a popular Western TV series at the time.)
Then, Leonard Nimoy had the role that he was chosen for—and for which he would forever after be associated with—explained to him. What happened when, in a sense, Leonard Nimoy met Mr. Spock?
“I thought two things. One was that it offered the potential for a steady job. Up until that time, I had never had a steady job as an actor. The longest jobs that I ever had had been two weeks on a movie or a TV show. This was potential for steady work, which was a very desirable experience. It was something that everyone was striving for. You could support yourself, and not be at the mercy of the next phone call.
“But, there was something else that was very intriguing. When Gene explained the character to me, he talked about the fact that the character was half-Human, half- Vulcan, and therefore would have an internal struggle dealing with his emotional design. He wanted to live as a Vulcan, functioning purely on logic, ruling out emotion.
“For me as an actor, it was fertile territory, because it told me that this was going to be a character that had an interesting inner life, which you didn’t often get with television characters. That was intriguing.
“I was somewhat concerned with what (Gene Roddenberry) described as the appearance of the character. His initial idea was that the character should have red skin. Really red. And, of course, pointed ears. The red went away because at the time when the show was due to go on the air, there were still a lot of black and white TV sets across the country. And the red makeup would have read simply as black. And that was not the intention. The intention was to be ‘different.’ And a black-looking character would not have been different in the right way.
“The pointed ears took some time to develop, but we finally got it right.”
Indeed they did, at least where the outside of Mr. Spock was concerned. But there was then the matter of his inner self. Leonard Nimoy had the challenge of portraying the first character in TV history—or, perhaps, in any other performance realm—who had, by deliberate and permanent design, no emotions (that being a Vulcan trait). As a professional actor well trained in the art of expressing emotions, how did Leonard Nimoy deal with the challenge of projecting a character devoid of emotions?
“I don’t think that’s quite accurate. The character (of Spock) was not unemotional. The character was in control of his emotions. He didn’t want to display his emotions. But, it was a given that he did have emotions. That was one of the most wonderful secrets of the character. Audiences were watching for a glimpse of the emotions leaking out occasionally when Spock had an off moment.
“To me, that was one of the major reason why audiences so identified with the character. So many humans go through their lives dealing with this very issue: how do you control, how do you deal with emotions? We all have emotions; if we don’t there’s something wrong with us. So, how do you deal with that? How do you control your emotions? Do you suppress your emotions, do you show your emotions, WHEN do you show your emotions? When is it appropriate or inappropriate to show your emotions? It’s all about emotional control. And Spock was an example of that. So, I think people identify with the character for that reason.”
While no one could see the fantastic and enduring popularity of the series, Leonard Nimoy—who, by that time in his career, was a veteran of television—had the sense that he was part of something special, and different.
“It was exciting. We were doing work that had promise. It felt as though we were breaking new ground in television, and in science fiction writing. That kept me going. I felt very strongly that we were doing something very fresh and, possibly, enduring.”
“The writers on STAR TREK were given (a chance) to deal with subject matter that they had been carrying in their heads and hearts for years, (but) had not been given an outlet for their ideas. In STAR TREK, they were able to express some of these social and political thoughts that were not welcome in other places.
“Among other things, (STAR TREK) was a hopeful show about the future, a hopeful show about problem solving in the future. I think it’s very important that kids, seven, eight, nine, ten, twelve, fourteen years old, see the show as an adventure show, with Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, or Good Guys solving problems. And then, at another age level, the next generation, the same people ten years later might look at it and say, ‘Oh, this is really a story about Communism,’ or, ‘It’s a story about hate,’ or a story about some social or political problem. And you rediscover the show, in perhaps a more layered, nuanced way.”
STAR TREK lifted off in September, 1965. So did Leonard Nimoy’s career, never to descend. According to Leonard, he never had trouble finding work after the series ended its initial three-year run. His career has since expanded beyond series television to the stage, to film directing (including the hit comedy THREE MEN AND A BABY) to radio and to photography. And, of course, to the very successful movie adaptations of STAR TREK, two of which he directed, two of which he wrote and produced.
As the Boston boy returns home, what does Leonard Nimoy think of his home town?
“I still have a very, very strong emotional connection to Boston. This morning I was reading in the New York and Los Angeles Times about the Boston Marathon being run successfully, being twice what it was last year. I cheered up reading about the resurgence of interest and support for the Boston Marathon. It meant a lot to me, to see that happening. I LOVE the city! I LOVE the city!”
For information about Leonard Nimoy’s photography work, including his Boston exhibitions, go to: www.leonardnimoyphotography.com.
Hartley Pleshaw’s email address is [email protected].