Captain's Blog, pt. 98: Leonard by William Shatner

"Some directors are Machiavellian manipulators; 
Leonard was a Mother Teresa manipulator."
- Steve Guttenberg 

Today is the one year anniversary of Leonard Nimoy's death. Seemed like an appropriate time to discuss William Shatner (with David Fisher)'s recently-published tribute:

It seemed pointless to analyze it the way I have other Trek memoirs. How do you really analyze a man's personal tribute to his dearly departed friend? I will say that if you wanted something like Papa Hemingway by A.E. Hotchner, you'll be disappointed. It doesn't fill an essential gap in Trek lore and scholarship, but it would have been exceedingly surprising (and outside the scope of its intent) if it had. Shatner wanted to write a tribute to his friend's career that took the reader from Leonard's birth to death, in that he mostly succeeded.

Is it a good read? Sure. Leonard Nimoy was a fascinating guy, so anecdotes about his life and career will likewise be fascinating.Maybe there's less personal interaction between them mentioned than there should be. But a lot of that is just how Shatner is. He mentions James Spader, how they were attached at the hip and loved each other like brothers while working on Boston Legal all those years, but they've exchanged only a handful of texts or calls since. No love lost, just the way that it goes.

With Leonard, though, it was different. He and Shatner grew close not during the TOS era but from doing the conventions circuit and being continually in one another's lives as a result of Star Trek never fading away. He describes an eight-day cross-country motorcycle ride from Chicago to Los Angeles he took in 2015, the summer after Leonard died. He observed a set of brothers throughout the trip. 

"They rode side by side, each describing his brother as his best friend. They also had fights, one night they described choking each other, but the next morning, whatever caused that was gone. They loved each other and they are each others' best friend. That is something that is very rare, very enviable, and to me, something that must be cherished when achieved. And for a time, I had that with Leonard, and I lost it."  

We'll get back to that at the end of the post. The bulk of the book describes Nimoy's career and particularly his approach to his craft. Nimoy was an eloquent guy when it came to tradecraft and the purpose of art. When he did Equus on Broadway, he told Shatner afterward that it gave him"a feeling of awe at the power of the horse in the night mind of man." 

I love that. And it made me wonder what kind of book we'd have gotten had the situation been reversed and we were reading Nimoy's tribute to Shatner instead. That book probably would have been the equal of Hotchner's Papa Hemingway.

"In Search Of... was the perfect show for Leonard to host, because more than anyone I have ever known, Leonard spent his entire life in search of knowledge and creative expression."

Nimoy came from a first-generation Jewish immigrant family in Boston, three blocks from where the Boston Science Museum now stands (and where you can - or at least you could; I haven't been in many years - hear him say "Who put the bomp in the bomp-bah-bomp-bah-bomp" in the audio intro to all Omni IMAX presentations there). Much of the overview in Leonard of his early childhood comes from remarks I recall from Mind Meld, but there are some personal recollections mixed in, as well.

"My father warned me 'You'll be hanging around with gypsies and bums.' I understood that his vision of actors were the people who came into Iziaslav, in the villages and towns as a company, and did a performance in the town square and passed the hat - then maybe steal a loaf of bread, make love to the mayor's daughter, and leave in the morning. And then he offered me a piece of advice, 'Learn to play the accordion.' Because if I could play the accordion, I could always make a living working bar mitzvahs and weddings."

I would have liked to hear if Nimoy ever did learn to play the accordion. I don't think it's touched upon - here or anywhere else. Perhaps when he gets the definitive biography of the 600 page variety, we'll learn the answer.

He did pay tribute to his family's roots when he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

While "unfortunately there was little demand for an actor who spoke Yiddish and could duel," Nimoy etched out a living for many years as a taxi driver in L.A., which freed him up for auditions during the day. He got parts regularly on a variety of shows of the era:

But of course it was Star Trek that put him over the top. Shatner spends an understandable amount of time on their Trek years, both the show and the movies, but this is all material that's been well-pored-over. One of the anecdotes - how he got Leonard to recreate his "Pain!" PAIN!" bit from "Devil in the Dark" as a set-up to say "Will someone get this guy an aspirin?" i.e. tell a dumb joke. - is described a bit differently here than it was in Shatner's TV Memories or in Nimoy's recollection. 

It was during the filming of The Motion Picture that Shatner began to appreciate how their natures complemented each other, not just as Kirk and Spock, but as Bill and Lenny. "(He) displayed little emotion; I was a walking mood ring." The filming of TMP was a well-known mess. One day they got to talking about how they could fix the script. They pitched their idea (which Shatner doesn't remember, or divulge; maybe he's saving it for a Clangers multi-parter) to director Robert Wise, who listened and said "Okay, that works. Sell Roddenberry on it, and I'll back you." Bolstered by this, they went in to tell Roddenberry, whose lack of enthused response took the wind from their sails and "it completely blew our pitch. (...) We laughed at that for the rest of our lives." 

Nimoy's other projects get plenty of attention, particularly the one-man play he wrote, Vincent, which (Nimoy once described to Shatner) was the perfect security for an actor, something he could take out on the road every few years and keep the wolves from the door. He kept the set in his garage, ready to be unpacked whenever the need arose. Though Trek (and Mission: Impossible) afforded him a steady paycheck for many years, it wasn't until Paramount settled Nimoy's lawsuit against the studio for licensing his likeness and not paying any residuals for Trek's near-constant syndication (which wasn't a standard of the trade back then) that he truly never had to worry about such things again. 

Leonard in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The book touches on Nimoy's alcoholism and how he tried to warn Shatner that the woman he married was an alcoholic and hiding it, something Shatner never truly realized until she fell into the swimming pool and drowned. Nimoy was there for him during this period, and this section was particularly touching. Any friendship that exists as long as Shatner's and Nimoy's did - and cut such a strange path through the cosmos - is going to encompass both loss and triumph, but it's how we deal with the former that defines the quality of the latter.

Nimoy was constantly re-inventing himself as an artist, whether through music:

poetry, photography:

Shatner devotes some considerable time to his friend's fine arts photography; I guess he was a big fan. Easy to see why - I actually had no idea how extensive this side of his life truly was.

or directing, most famously (perhaps) for 1986's Three Men and a Baby.

In later years, as Leonard's COPD accelerated - he was a two-pack-a-smoker for many decades - he retired from acting. But he left behind one more notable role as William Bell on Fringe, a show that ultimately disappointed me enough to tune out over the course of its third season but I do look forward to catching up with it one of these days. Nimoy started off his career playing mostly villains; there's a nice symmetry to his last role (outside of Spock of course in NuTrek) being a bad guy.

Shatner alludes to a falling out the two had over Leonard's not wanting to be in The Captains, or more specifically to Shatner's using convention footage of him in the movie anyway. Shatner seems genuinely bewildered by both Leonard's refusal and subsequent anger and figured - after a few rebuffed attempts to clear the air - it would blow over. They'd argued plenty of times, but like the brothers Shatner observed, they always got over it. Unfortunately, Nimoy died before they could make peace.

"I tried to find out what the issue was through our mutual friends, but I never found the reason. I was mystified. It was baffling to me (and) no one could give me an answer. It remains a mystery to me, and it is heartbreaking, heartbreaking. It is something I will wonder about, and regret, forever."

The l
ast time he saw him was for this German Volkswagen commercial in 2014.

When he learned Nimoy was dying, he wrote him a letter (which he includes in the final pages) but is unsure if his friend got to read it before he died. Shatner was doing a charity event in Florida when he heard the news and couldn't make it back to Los Angeles in time for Leonard's funeral, something for which he was widely (and dickishly) chided for on social media. I remember signing into twitter the Sunday or Monday after Nimoy's death  and reading Shatner deflect tweet after tweet criticizing him for not being at the funeral.

"There are times when being a celebrity can be painful. The fact that rather than being able to mourn the death of my dear friend in my own way, I had to deal with this controversy was one of them."

To whom did the man owe an explanation? Star Trek fans? About the loss of his own best friend? People's self-delusion with celebrities - specifically those they claim to love - is amazing to me. Unless you're tweeting "Sorry for your loss", go watch Wrath of Khan and leave the man alone. I can only imagine the pain of not only losing a pivotal friend under a haze of unresolved drama but also having to offer one's self up "for the franchise" to some faceless jury of millions. 

To his credit, Shatner doesn't dwell on it and ends only with a fitting passage from Vincent and one final sentence:

"LLAP, my friend, 
my dear, dear friend."


  1. Man...brutal.

    I didn't know about this book, but I immediately want a copy.

    That idea of Shatner making strong friendships while working with someone and then allowing them to almost totally atrophy resonates with me. I can see how it would happen. I'm complete shit at actively maintaining friendships, not so much because I want to be as because I'm very selfish with my time. That's only getting worse as I get older. And I'm just a schlub in Tuscaloosa! I suspect that if I were a world-class entertainer like Shatner unquestionably is (and has been for virtually his entire adult life), it would be even more pronounced an issue.

    I had no idea Nimoy had struggled with alcoholism. He seems so reserved that that kind of doesn't compute for me. I guess it hits all sorts of folks, though.

    Tons of great images here. Well done!

    1. I only learned about Nimoy's alcoholism from Mind Meld. I don't know if he really touched on it elsewhere. By Nimoy himself, I mean - it's touched on in Adam Nimoy's book.

      He never got the work dirty, though - his drinking was excessive only after work-hours and on the weekends. That might compute a little easier; if you're going to live like a drunk, be logical about it, at least, and keep the work clean. But yeah, I think his addictive personality traits were channeled into his work so intensely that what we got was a portrait of complete actorly control while inside the wolves just bided their time.

      2 packs a day, too! I mean, that's commitment. Granted back then you could smoke everywhere.

    2. If anything, it was encouraged.

      Leonard Nimoy, the logical alcoholic. A persuasive idea, and I bet you're right.

      I'd like to carve out some time to familiarize myself with Nimoy's photography one of these days. That seems to be what he was really passionate about, and if that's the case, you've got to figure it's worth a look.