Sunday, May 6, 2007

In the Shadow of Spock: The Great Shatner/Nimoy Feud

by Jared B

In the 1973 book The World of Star Trek, William Shatner dismissed the widespread rumors of a “Great Feud,” which had plagued the set of the Original Series. “There was never any feud. There were, on occasions, mostly between Leonard and I, a difference of opinion, and sometimes, in a moment of pique, one or the other of us would get angry.” He further argued that tabloid journalism had kept the myth alive, when, in reality, there was no animosity between the two professional actors. In his later memoirs, Shatner gives us the “real truth” of what went on behind the scenes: a jovial series of sibling rivalries, such as his repeated attempts to frustrate Nimoy by stealing and hiding his bicycle.

Instead of engaging in a ruthless Hollywood war of egos, Shatner and Nimoy acted like competing brothers, and the main drama revolved around Shatner’s infamous practical jokes. By the end of the show, both actors had become close friends.

Not quite…

When the producers recruited Shatner for the role of Captain Kirk, they were very clear: He was the star of the show. All action aboard the starship Enterprise centered on the captain, whose leadership, bravado, and sex appeal would keep viewers tuned in week after week. Mr. Spock was to be Kirk’s sidekick, the Tonto of Trek. As Nimoy explained in both I am Not Spock and I am Spock, the producers/writers did not give him much to work with, because the character was not fully developed. Kirk, on the other hand, had been well-fashioned, modeled in part off of Gregory Peck’s 1951 role as Horatio Hornblower. All other characters, with the exception of guest stars were, in the words of Trek writer David Gerrold:

Subordinate characters, meant to be just that: subordinate… [and] otherwise
unnoticeable.. simply there to dramatize the external conflict of the leading
characters. They were functions of the starship, not the story. (Gerrold, 85)

So, Shatner was the lead actor, and Nimoy was a secondary, albeit very prominent co-star. Yet, something unexpected happened. Leonard Nimoy explained:

The first hint of the Vulcan’s popularity came with the laundry bags full of
mail after "The Naked Time" aired. I was both relieved and pleased to know that
Spock had fans; after all, not so long ago, NBC had wanted to ditch the alien…

A call came from Medford, Oregon, inviting me to be grand marshal of the
annual Pera Blosson Festival Parade in April 1967… The parade went smoothly
enough... The problem came after, when I was taken to a nearby park. A table was
set up on the bandstand so that I could sign autographs. But instead of hundreds
I’d hoped to see, there were thousands of people there. They surged forward so
quickly that I was terrified someone would be crushed to death; and then they
started pressing against the bandstand so hard it began to sway beneath my feet.
The people with me soon realized we were in trouble. Fortunately, the local
police came to the rescue and pulled me through the throng! (Nimoy, I am Spock,

From this point on, Nimoy required security guards and police when he attended public events. Despite efforts to restrain and control these events, Spock-appearances became more chaotic. When Nimoy launched a publicity tour for his music record Leonard Nimoy presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space, another autograph session went terribly wrong.

I was signing autographs at a counter, closed in on either side by portable
gates. At some point, the crowd started pushing so hard that the gates started
to collapse. Unfortunately, the crowd was noisy, and out of control; I tried
standing on a counter and talking to them to quiet them down, but there were
just too many people. Finally, the manager grabbed my arm and said, “Let’s get
out of here!”

We pushed our way through the throng and started running. Fortunately, we made it up to the manager’s office and locked the door behind us, thinking we were safe at last. But then we realized we had a new problem: we were now trapped in the office! There was no way out of the building except down and through the crowd.

But the manager was a resourceful man, and said, “Wait a minute. We can’t go down because of all the people. But we can go up. There’s a back stairway that leads to the roof!"

He placed a call to the fire department, who sent a hook-and-ladder truck… I went up to the roof, climbed down the provided fire ladder, and made good my escape! (Nimoy, 79-84)

Nimoy narrates further adventures in his autobiography I am Spock, such as being forced into a freight elevator to protect him from a crowd of fans.

There have been many attempts to explain why “Spockmania” occurred. Because most of his fans were young “Spock-femmes,” Issaac Asimov believed it had to do with Spock’s unattainable essence. In a letter to Nimoy, he clarified, “What really gets the girls is your (or rather, Mr. Spock’s) imperviousness to feminine charm. There is the fascination of trying to break you down that appeals to the hunter instinct of every one of the dear things.” Bjo Trimble, after reading thousands of letters to Nimoy from young girls, also concluded that Spock was “a safe rape… You could love him without risking your virginity.” (Gerrold, 174)

Regardless of the causes of Spockmania, two things were certain: Young women adored Mr. Spock, and Mr. Shatner became extremely jealous. He still thought of himself as the star of the show, and he couldn’t understand why Nimoy was getting more media attention and fan mail. How could it be that the ship orbited around the captain, but the fans, especially women, adored the first officer? What was even more outrageous to Shatner was how the popularity of Spock led to media interest in Nimoy’s personal life and professional background:

Yet, reporters tended to ask Shatner more generic questions about the show, while showing little interest in him or his past achievements:

It was not long before Shatner’s anger and jealousy manifested on the set of the show.

In 1967, Life magazine set up cameras in the Paramount makeup room to document each stage of the application of Spock’s ears. When the process was halfway completed, Shatner arrived, visibly surprised by the presence of a journalist.

He sat down for his daily ritual, yet became increasingly agitated, shifting uncomfortably in his makeup chair. James Doohan explained in Inside Star Trek: “Bill’s hairpiece was being applied. The top of his head was a lot of skin and few little odd tufts of hair. The mirrors on the makeup room walls were arranged so that we could all see the laying on of his rug.”

Shatner suddenly launched from his chair and announced in a captain-like fashion, “From now on, my makeup will be done in my trailer!” He then stormed out of the room. Minutes later, a production assistant rushed in and told the photographer to leave, offering no valid excuse except “orders from up top.” Reluctantly, the photographer left.

George Takei narrates what followed in his autobiography To the Stars:

Leonard, understandably, was livid. He got up and refused to have his makeup
completed until the photographer was allowed back. Until then, he announced, he
would wait in his dressing room with his makeup only half done. And with that,
he exited.

The rest of us sat silently listening to the drama playing out as our makeup was applied. Then we gathered at the soundstage coffee urn for our usual morning gossip fest. But this morning, our conversation was hushed, almost conspiratorial. It was whispered that Bill apparently had language in his contract that provided for his approval of photographers on the stage.

Suddenly, a covey of black suits came rushing in. It headed straight for Leonard’s dressing room. We strolled over to the set with our cups of coffee and reconvened in the circle of our set-side chairs… We saw the covey of black suits come out of Leonard’s dressing room and flutter over to Bill’s. We waited patiently beside a gloom-shrouded set, and we sipped our coffee… Hours passed, and the coffee was making us jittery. Morning was becoming almost midday. Greg Peters, the first assistant, came over to our circle and told us we could go off for an early lunch. (Takei, 248-249)

When the cast and crew returned, they found the sets lit, with Shatner and Nimoy ready to finally begin. Both actors pretended like nothing had gone seriously wrong, and the rest of the day unfolded smoothly.

According to producer Bob Justman and NBC executive Herb Solow, this was one of many major incidents that caused tempers to flare during the first season. While Shatner fumed and worried insecurely, Nimoy grew convinced that the popularity of Spock entitled him higher co-star status. He also became more protective of the character of Spock, feeling justified in taking on writers, producers, and even Gene Roddenberry when he disliked what scripts contained. By the end of the show, Nimoy and Roddenberry’s relationship had deteriorated greatly.

Meanwhile, Shatner’s tendency to “steal” secondary characters’ lines escalated, causing George Takei to remark, “Bill is not going to be satisfied until we're all gone and he gets to do our parts." He then imitated Captain Kirk delivering other actors’ trademark lines: "Hail! Ing! Fre! Quencies! O! Pen! Cap! Tain! Fas! Cin! A! Ting! He’s! Dead! Jim!"

In Beyond Uhura, Nichelle Nichols also reflected on Shatner’s behavior: "Without anyone's consent, Bill Shatner stepped into the role [of Gene Roddenberry], bossing around and intimidating the directors and guest stars, cutting other actors' lines and scenes, and generally taking enough control to disrupt the sense of family we had shared."

Nichols then decided to quit, saying, “I didn’t even have to read the fucking script!” Apparently, they just needed to tell her when to say, “Open hailing frequencies.” Only after Martin Luther King Jr. complimented her as a role model for young African-American girls did she decide to stay.

Shatner’s actions can be justified. In the shadow of Spock, he felt threatened and insecure. He had to compete with Nimoy for the spotlight, and if that meant making demands for script revisions that gave his character more lines and attention, then so be it, he likely concluded. After all, he was the star of the show. He may have been forced to share the spotlight with Nimoy, but all other characters were disposable “functions of the ship.”

“Just make sure you know who the captain of the ship is!” he would tell writers and directors.

The Shatner/Nimoy feud had reached a fever pitch as the seasons progressed. Shatner became furious when fan mail statistics made their way into local industry newspapers, and he continued his onset blitzkrieg tactics towards “lesser” actors, asserting his own importance at every opportunity. Meanwhile, Nimoy continuously tried re-negotiating his contract to reflect his increased importance and popularity, demanding a more equitable salary that was comparable to Shatner’s. The studio, as well as Gene Roddenberry, refused to budge. They were losing money on this expensive television program, and the ratings were less than stellar. At one point, Gene Roddenberry wrote in a memo:

We find it impossible to bargain with him… Frankly, Nimoy and his representatives are very near trying to blackjack us into submission, by holding “Mister Spock” as hostage… They are kidding themselves into believing a very successful and much-wanted actor named Nimoy joined us and did it all. And, that our posture should be totally that of humble gratitude. I won’t play that game, nor will Desilu. (Justman and Solow, 319)

After Roddenberry abandoned the show in season 3, new producer Fred Freiberger suddenly found himself stuck in the middle of this ongoing rivalry. Justman and Solow tell the story well, and it is best to quote them in full:

Nimoy’s constant demand for scripts with a more involved Spock – and a Spock who
maintained his original character values – and Shatner’s insistence that he was still the star of the series put unusual pressures on Freiberger. In his desire to solve the problem, Star Trek’s new producer, frustrated and fed up with the bickering, arranged a meeting with the players: Shatner, Nimoy, and Roddenberry.

Freiberger held the meeting in Roddenberry’s old office, where he explained the complex nature of the situation, something that Roddenberry had been well aware of for at least two years. Freiberger then proceeded to confess that those pressures were preventing him from properly performing his role as the series’s producer. Shatner and Nimoy hung on his every word.

“Gee, I’m sorry to hear that, Fred, “ said Roddenberry. “I hope you get it straightened out real soon.” Roddenberry stood. “Well, I have to go now.” As
Roddenberry started to leave his old office, Freiberger stopped him and asked the million-dollar question: “Gene, please tell me. Who’s the star of the series? Is it Bill – or is it Leonard?” Both actors leaned forward eagerly.

Roddenberry became quiet. He grabbed a cigarette, lit it quickly, inhaled deeply, and stared wide-eyed into the space above him. “Ahh… I see,” he mused. He looked out the window, shock his head in Buddha-like fashion, but said nothing else. He looked at neither Bill nor Leonard. Perhaps he was hoping they would jump into the conversation and solve the matter, actor to actor. They did not…

Roddenberry walked toward the door to leave, but turned and stared, angrily, at Freiberger. Roddenberry was sweating.

“It’s Bill. Bill is the star of the series.”

Roddenberry left immediately, and a smiling Shatner and a sullen Nimoy returned to the set. (Justman and Solow, 396-398)

Roddenberry’s sour relationship with Leonard Nimoy may have clouded his objectivity, because most Trek insiders considered Nimoy the “de-facto” star of the show. In fact, when the show ended, his future looked more certain than Shatner’s, and he signed a contract to replace Martin Landau on Mission: Impossible. Shatner, coming out of a failed marriage and a doomed television show, traveled on the theater circuit in pickup truck that smelled of Dobermans.

Shatner and Nimoy are now good friends, and they continue to deny that a feud existed on the set of the Original Series. It may be an exaggeration to label it the “Great Shatner/Nimoy Feud,” but it was very real in the late sixties, and it certainly affected the cast and crew in detrimental ways. While Nimoy had to cope with sudden fame, Shatner had to deal with the descent to co-stardom. Later, Shatner also had to face the fact that Leonard Nimoy, as a writer, director, and executive producer, was a more important factor in the Star Trek franchise.

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