Adam Nimoy is the son of Leonard Nimoy, a man who became so thoroughly associated with the character he played on Star Trek that he wrote a book titled I Am Not Spock, and then another titled I Am Spock. Nimoy fils has made a brisk and broad-ranging documentary about Spock, his father, and his sometimes stony relationship with the latter. It will screen twice as part of the the 27th Annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival, first on Wednesday, September 21, at 7 p.m. in the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre in La Jolla, and then Thursday, September 22 at 7 p.m. at the Carlsbad Village Theatre. Mr. Nimoy will host a Q&A at both screenings. Visit sdjff.org for more information.
Matthew Lickona: You end the film by asking a number of people to describe your father or Mr. Spock with one word, and then Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in the rebooted film series, asks you for your one word, and the screen goes black.
Adam Nimoy: Yes, isn’t that clever?
ML: So you probably won’t give it to me, but what’s your one word?
AN: I’m not going to give it to you. [beat] No, I’ll give it to you. My word — and I drop a hint about it earlier in the film — would be “passionate.” He felt very strongly that you had to be passionate about your calling, your work, your career path. Because that’s what carried him through his entire career. It’s what gave him the energy and inspiration to get the hell out of the west end of Boston at the ripe old age of 18 and get on a train to Los Angeles where he knew nobody. It gave meaning to his life and enabled him to overcome a lot of obstacles. And it’s why I got out of law — for which I had no passion — and into filmmaking.
ML: Late in the film, your father says, “I went from having a major in career and a minor in family to having a major in family and a minor in career.” What brought about the shift?
AN: It came naturally to him, but it was also a conscious decision to refocus his life. There were so many family members; the grandchildren were embarking on their own careers, which he took a great interest in. And my dad was just slowing down. For the last two or three years of his life, my dad and his wife Susan spent a lot of time focused on family and family functions. He was so happy to see us all together at those dinners we had at the house. I think we all benefitted from that.
ML: What led you to include yourself in the film to the degree that you did?
AN: The original idea was my stepmother’s, and then more and more people joined the chorus. Susan felt that anybody could tell the story of Mr. Spock and Leonard Nimoy. What would make my film stand out was the inclusion of my story, my perspective, and my relationship with Mr. Spock and my dad — the ups and downs that we went through. Particularly because we had a happy ending. It was a story that could be somewhat inspirational. It was a story that no one else could tell.
The issue then became, “How much do we tell?” I didn’t want to create a reality TV show in the movie. This wasn’t a tell-all. We had a lot of discussions about whether we had found the balance in the film, with Mr. Spock as the first and foremost subject matter, my dad’s career second, and my relationship with my father third.
ML: And that relationship was pretty rocky. You talk about growing up seeing him play Mr. Spock on the set, but then not seeing him at home.
AN: My dad was not easy to connect to. He was working all the time. He was a completely self-made man who was desperate to succeed and create some financial stability for his family, and he had a lot of trouble balancing family life with professional life. Even when he was home, he was doing home improvement projects. He had trouble taking time to connect with the family. Star Trek was just the coup de grace. He was gone 12-14 hours a day for ten months of the year, and on the weekends he was making personal appearances, trying to make as much money as he could. But he was pretty much gone even before we got to Spock.
ML: Could you talk about what led to your rapprochement with your father in 2008?
AN: I went into recovery; that was a big factor in it. We both did our 12-step recovery work independent of each other; it just worked for us. We had the tools, and we were trying to practice some of the principles of the program, and it was very beneficial for us. We started to leave lines of communication open, and we started to reconnect. And then the tragedy of my second wife’s death really accelerated the reconnecting. It was the catalyst for finding each other again and deciding to continue along that path.
ML: Did he ever feel trapped by the role, limited in some way?
AN: When the part was presented to him, he had concerns because of the makeup. My dad considered himself a very serious character actor, and he didn’t want to make a joke out of his career by putting on this clown outfit. He talked to his friend, the actor Vic Morrow, about whether he should take the part, and Vic said, “If you put on enough makeup, no one will recognize you. If it flops, you can move on and nobody will remember your having done it.” But once they started to refine Spock’s look, and once the show started to evolve and the characters developed such wonderful chemistry, my dad was pretty happy with what he had accomplished. And Spock brought him a lot of opportunities. All the theater work he did was phenomenal. Would they have given those starring roles to Leonard Nimoy, bit player on TV shows? Not likely. I think he realized that.
ML: That reminds me of that one person who said that he was so good as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof becauase he was bringing in his own family experience...
AN: That was part of my father’s genius. He was very good at bringing his own experience into the role. His grandparents came from a shetl, a village in Ukraine. His uncle was killed in a pogrom, where the Russian Cossacks would come in and burn the village. They were outsiders, and the same is true of Spock. He’s the only alien on the crew of the Enterprise. Leonard was the son of Russian immigrants in an immigrant-heavy, very confined Boston neighborhood. He wanted to get out and integrate himself into American society. Likewise, Spock tried to integrate himself with his human colleagues.
ML: Your dad wrote you a letter in which he talked about feeling in competition with his father. Did you feel in competition with him?
AN: With a pop culture icon? Not really. The competition that I played out in my own mind was that I went to college and did very well, then went to law school and did very well. I got a postgraduate degree, and my father had never gotten through college. I competed with him on my own turf. That was my vindication. But after a while, we merged a little bit, because I wanted to direct, and that was what he was doing. That wasn’t a competition; it was really a matter of learning from a master craftsman.