LN (visiting Israel at present): I found myself in a tiny trailer. The air-conditioner is working, but no cold air is coming out. The door was a curtain, there were flies everywhere and dust and dirt all around me. I have three beautiful homes in Los Angeles, New York and Lake Tahoe in California, and I asked myself: `Why am I wasting my time? Why do I need to do this?‘ At that moment, I knew that I wasn’t going to return to hotels.
Nimoy became a cultural icon thanks to his role as Mr. Spock in the science fiction series Star Trek. This is his fourth visit to Israel, this time as a guest of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. (In 1982, he played the husband of Golda Meir, Morris Myerson, in a film made in Israel.) He has already visited the Tel Aviv Arts School, the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Herzliya Museum of Art, and held master classes in the Beit Zvi drama school. Today he is teaching a directing workshop at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
Nimoy says that before he arrived, he asked to have recent Israeli films sent to him. He was surprised and very impressed by their high level – not only by the quality of the work, but also by the inner world of the filmmakers. There’s no comparison, he says, to what there was here 20 years ago, and that he now feels that instead of talking about his experience as an actor, he comes to tell people that they are good creative artists.
It is not surprising that Nimoy is giving a workshop on directing. After all, he directed Three Men and a Baby, the successful comedy starring Tom Selleck and Ted Danson (the American adaptation of the French film directed by Coline Serreau); he directed two Star Trek films, including The Voyage Home, which is considered the best in the series and films starring Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson (The Good Mother); Gene Wilder and Christine Lahti (Funny About Love) and Patricia Arquette (Holy Matrimony).
LN: I never planned to direct. I loved to act.
In the early 1960s, he studied acting in order to earn a living. Already then they told him he should direct, and he was insulted; he thought it meant that he wasn’t a good enough actor. He says that he came to directing by chance. When the filming of Star Trek III began, he asked Paramount to direct the film, and after several weeks of discussion, they agreed. When the same executives went over to work with Disney, they offered to have him direct Three Men and a Baby.
However, even though he has directed, written, become a stills photographer who exhibits his work, has performed on Broadway, and more, he is familiar all over the world as the man with the pointy ears. Nimoy doesn’t seem upset about that. He even enjoys it: About 10 days ago, he participated in a convention of Star Trek fans in Germany, something he usually does twice a year.
LN: From the age of 18 I dreamed of being an actor. My parents weren’t happy with my choice, and I left home to the furthest place I could find.
For 15 years, Nimoy looked for work in acting, and meanwhile he worked as a taxi driver, a life insurance salesman, a newspaper delivery boy, a salesman in a pet shop, a waiter, an ice cream vendor – any kind of work he could find that didn’t require commitment, so he would be able to leave the moment the great opportunity presented itself.
Stepping into a long role
Nimoy says that when he was offered to play Spock in Star Trek, that was actually his first long job, and afterward, when the series was aired, he no longer had to look for work. He says that he won’t forget the hard years, which taught him to appreciate what he had. That is also why he doesn’t see himself as an icon. He says he relates to himself as a laborer, a working man.
Not many of the millions of Star Trek fans know that Spock’s special gesture – splitting his fingers, two on each side – is taken from Jewish tradition. Nimoy says that he talks about it, and that even at the conference in Germany he told the participants about it. He remembers that when he was eight years old, in the synagogue with his father and his grandfather, during the priestly benediction, they placed a tallit (prayer shawl) over their heads. His father told him not to peek, but he did anyway, and he saw them forming this symbol with their fingers and shouting: „May God bless you and keep you…“ The movement of the hand creates the letter „shin,“ the first letter in the word „Shaddai,“ one of the names of God.
Nimoy says that during all his years of work, he has always identified as a Jew. As a young man, he even thought of living in Israel.
LN: I’m a Jew, I never hid it, and I never had a problem with it. Whenever I had an opportunity to play a Jewish character, I jumped at it.
He says that when he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, people wondered how he could portray a character with such depth.
Nimoy also acted in a successful TV movie Never Forget based on a true story, which was produced in 1990. He played Mel Mermelstein, who established a small museum in his home for studying the Holocaust, and was invited by a group of Holocaust deniers to a public trial, in which he would have to prove that there were gas chambers in which Jews were exterminated. The people in the group told him that if he won, he would receive $50,000. Mermelstein accepted the challenge, but the members of the group – who were relying on his refusal – repeatedly postponed the trial. Mermelstein turned to the courts and sued the group for not holding the trial – and won.
But the most famous Jew that Nimoy played was Morris Myerson. Nimoy says, smiling, that at first he refused to accept the part. He read the script and felt that the character of Myerson had no depth. He was used to playing people of stronger character, and didn’t know how he could play someone who trailed behind Golda. Golda told her husband „I want to go to Palestine,“ and he agreed. But when Nimoy was told that Ingrid Bergman was going to play Golda, he changed his mind.
Nimoy met the director, Alan Gibson, only on the set in Israel. One day, when Nimoy asked him for an explanation of some scene, the director attacked him and said: „What difference does it make? You’re the wrong person for this role in any case.“ In spite of Nimoy’s fears and Gibson’s lack of confidence in him, the actor was praised for his portrayal and nominated for the Emmy for this role.
In recent years, Nimoy has focused on photography, publishing in 2002 a book of photographs called Shekhina, which contains black-and-white photos of women, some of them in the nude, who for him represent the divine presence. On the book jacket there is a female figure wearing transparent fabric and on her arm, tefillin (phylacteries). He says that when religion and sexuality are mixed, there will always be people who say it is bad. He was pleased that the book was well-received. But there were also harsh reactions from Orthodox Jews. In Seattle they asked him not to attend a dinner to which he had been invited, because for fear of riots. And in Detroit he was supposed to participate in a Jewish book fair at the local Jewish center, but the rabbi told the organizers that if he came with the book, the rabbi would remove the certification of kashrut from the local restaurant.