Thursday, May 24, 2007

Leonard Nimoy's Love/Hate Relationship with Mr. Spock

by Jared B.
When Leonard Nimoy was hired for the role of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, he was a relatively unknown actor. Any work was good work for him at the time. Nevertheless, he had serious reservations about playing the Vulcan alien. Foremost, the ears… Would anyone, he wondered, take the character seriously? Before Star Trek, most televised science-fiction was “kids’ stuff,” such as Buck Rogers or Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. Accepting a role as a satanic-looking alien on a low-budget television show produced by Desilu studios (which had been declining for decades) might have been a career killer. Sure, it would pay the bills for a few months or maybe a year, but it was not the wisest long-term decision.

As the first episode’s filming date crept closer, Nimoy grew anxious. At one point, he approached Gene Roddenberry with an ultimatum: “It’s me or the ears!” he asserted. Fortunately, Roddenberry calmed him down by promising that, if the ears did not go over well with audiences, then he’d personally write an episode in which Spock got an “earjob.” This promise apparently placated Nimoy… for a few months.

When Star Trek premiered in 1966, the critics gaffed and the ratings limped. Although the show began to attract a loyal and militant “fandom,” it was not a popular success. However, the star of the show became extremely famous and beloved. That star was Leonard Nimoy, not William Shatner.

took everyone by surprise. It first manifested when Nimoy agreed to participate in a county parade. While signing autographs afterwards, he was nearly mauled by hundreds of teenage girls. Later, during a promotional tour for his music album, Leonard Nimoy presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space, Nimoy escaped an uncontrollable mob by fleeing to the roof of a building after calling the fire department for rescue. Bodyguards and life-or-death escapes became familiar features of Leonard Nimoy’s travels outside of the Desilu (soon to be Paramount) sets.

He no longer complained about the ears. However, a new problem surfaced. He was the star of Star Trek, receiving far more fan mail than Shatner, yet his salary paled in comparison. Throughout the first and second season of Star Trek, Nimoy battled to renegotiate his contract so that his pay would reflect his true contribution. Roddenberry and NBC refused to budge. They were already losing money on this expensive and unrewarding project. Gradually, Nimoy’s relationship with Roddenberry and other producers of Star Trek deteriorated, and at one point, 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 (Solow and Justman 1994:319).

While Nimoy’s relationship with Star Trek’s producers soured, so too did his relationship with Mr. Spock. Initially, he attributed the popularity of the character to his own acting and creative ideas, having personally fashioned many aspects of the Vulcan’s mannerisms, such as the neck pinch and the V-shaped “Live Long and Prosper” hand gesture. Yet, by the third season, he had grown so protective of his creation that he resented many of the scripts. Feeling like the writers simply didn’t understand the character while the producers refused to take his concerns seriously, he stopped trying. While waiting anxiously for someone to finally pull the plug on this doomed T.V. show, he wrote one final scathing memo bitterly complaining about the writing for Spock. This memo has infamously gained the title of “The Letter.” It concluded with these words:

My primary interest in contacting you gentlemen is my concern over my lack of experience in playing dummies. Perhaps you could arrange to get me educated in this area. Maybe if I watched some “Blondie” episodes and watched Dagwood as a role model, I could pick up some pointers. Or better still, I could get right to the bottom line by wearing some braids and feathers and learning to grunt, “Ugh, Kimosabee”? (Nimoy, 1995:126)

When Star Trek finally died in 1969, Nimoy felt relieved. He wanted nothing more to do with either Star Trek or Mr. Spock. Luckily, and unlike Bill Shatner, he found other work immediately, replacing Martin Landau on Mission: Impossible.

Just as he was blindsided by “Spockmania,” he was also surprised by Star Trek’s unprecedented rebirth in syndicated reruns. By 1975, Star Trek had grown into a cultural phenomenon, airing daily on hundreds of local television markets throughout the United States and Europe. Star Trek “conventions” were also attracting as many as 30,000 people in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Throughout the industry, influential people spoke of bringing Trek back in some form.

Meanwhile, Nimoy continued to pursue other roles and career goals. Whether working in theater or trying to turn his photography hobby into a career skill, he distanced himself as far as possible from “the guy with the pointy ears.” Yet, everywhere he went, the Vulcan shadowed him. To millions of people around the world, he was now Mr. Spock, forever associated with a role that he gladly left behind for more serious pursuits.

An identity crisis ensued. Nimoy expressed his frustrations in a 1975 book called I Am Not Spock:

I went through a definite identity crisis. The question was whether to embrace Mr. Spock or to fight the onslaught of public interest. I realize now that I really had no choice in the matter. Spock and Star Trek were very much alive and there wasn’t anything that I could do to change that (Nimoy, 1975: 64).

Nimoy felt helpless and trapped by the popularity of Mr. Spock, but he did have options. When Paramount decided to relaunch the original crew in a new television series called Star Trek: Phase II, Nimoy flatly refused to participate. He later claimed that his refusal was due to ongoing legal negotiations with Paramount about the use of his image without royalties. But, more likely, he did not want to return as Spock, especially in a new series ruled by Gene Roddenberry. When Paramount decided to instead make a feature film, he was equally disinterested. Only after legendary director Robert Wise pleaded with him and Paramount sent him a hefty check for past royalties did he agree to return, so long as he had substantial input on the character of Spock.

The experience of filming Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not pleasant for Leonard Nimoy, and by some accounts, he was determined not to return if they made a sequel. Then the phone rang: “Hi, Leonard. I’ve been hired by Charlie Bluhdorn and Michael Eisner to work on another Star Trek movie. Now, I know you’re not interested, but… could we meet for lunch?” It was the voice of T.V. producer Harve Bennett. In what amounted to a regime-change inside the Star Trek franchise, Paramount pushed Roddenberry to the sidelines. This change must have pleased Leonard Nimoy. He met with Bennett and others to listen to their ideas, but he also made it clear that he wouldn’t be interested unless the script excited him. “How’d you like to have a great death scene?” Harve asked. “Let’s talk,” Nimoy responded.

In the end, Nimoy got everything that he wanted: a great death scene and contractual agreements that guaranteed him non-Star Trek roles in the future. He was finally liberated from the pointy ears. By all accounts, Nimoy saw Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan as final. “He’s in the box! I’m calling it death, dead, finished,” he told the L.A. Times in 1984.

Yet, Nimoy returned as Mr. Spock for the next four Star Trek films. Why? He usually got everything that he demanded. Nimoy appeared (briefly) in the third movie because Paramount grudgingly agreed to let him direct it. He had no feature film directorial experience, but it was a deal-breaker. If they wanted Spock, then Nimoy must direct. In the fourth film, not only did he direct again, but he also co-wrote the script with Harve Bennett. Afterwards, he graciously took a backseat during the fifth film to give William Shatner the opportunity to muddy up the Trek waters with Star Trek V. Nimoy returned to the captain’s chair to co-write and co-direct Star Trek VI, the last feature film of the original Enterprise crew.

In Hollywood, there is a thin line between negotiation and blackmail. Whether or not Nimoy held Spock hostage to aid his escape from Star Trek is debatable. The more that he used Spock to branch out, they more fully he became Spock in the public imagination. What is clear though is the love/hate relationship that Nimoy has had with Mr. Spock and the Star Trek franchise. The role was both a mixed blessed and rewarding curse. In later years, having amassed extraordinary success, wealth, and comfort, Nimoy has come to terms with his other half. In fact, they have become close friends, speaking to each other inside Leonard Nimoy’s head:

Nimoy: Spock, do you have any idea how lucky we are to have each other?
Spock: I do not believe in “luck.” I believe every event is statistically predictable…
Nimoy: We’re both very lucky, Spock. Lucky to have lived the lives we have, and lucky to have had each other (bracing for the anticipated lecture on luck versus statistics)
Spock: (softly) Yes, I suppose we are…
---(Nimoy: 1995: 4-11)

If only a younger Nimoy could have heard the voice of an older Nimoy, then perhaps he would have come to terms with Spock much earlier in life. Rather than struggling at every moment “to rip off the damn ears,” Nimoy could have relished in the rebirth of Star Trek. After all, he was the star of the original show, as well as an influential factor in the box office successes of later films.