Leonard Nimoy Interview
MARCH 4, 2015 • Editor’s Note: Last weekend actor and director Leonard Nimoy passed away at the age of 83. Like anyone who loved Star Trek and his character Mr. Spock, his passing leaves me somewhat sad. But I also have my own personal remembrances of the man. Twenty-odd years ago I had the opportunity to interview him several times. I found him to be affable, engaging and generous regarding off-the-topic questions about his early career in a Republic Pictures serial (see accompanying image) that I adored as a kid before there was a Star Trek. So as our own homage, following is the last Leonard Nimoy interview I conducted.
Three Men and A Baby starring Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson as three successful bachelors who unexpectedly become three bemused godfathers, was one of 1988’s top money makers at the box office. The movie possesses a fine mix of humor and warmth, and bears the undeniable mark of its director, Leonard Nimoy.
Given the enormous success and longevity of Star Trek, Nimoy is best known for his characterization of Mr. Spock. However, there’s a great deal more to Nimoy’s career than Mr. Spock. Nimoy’s work as an actor is both extremely diverse and accomplished, his recent work as director of Star Trek III, Star Trek IV and Three Men and A Baby shows every sign of carrying on the same tradition. When you meet the man, it’s easy to see why. Fueled by enormous drive and energy, yet tempered with a decidedly humane view of people and his art, Nimoy loves what he does and also enjoys taking on new challenges.
GTC: From what I’ve read, you didn’t have a lot of lead time before you signed on to direct Three Men and A Baby. When did you actually start working on the project?
Nimoy: I don’t remember the exact date, but it was about five weeks before we started shooting − very fast. The three actors were already cast, the set was already under construction and there had already been a search for the babies. There were about twenty sets of twins on videotape. I looked at the twenty sets and chose the babies.
We spent two weeks – the actors, the producer, myself and the writers – everyday in Toronto just before we started shooting. It was very hard and very tiring. That was the toughest part of the whole job, the work on the script to make it what I thought it should be for our audience. Once we started shooting we had a good time.
Never easy making a movie. Some movies are harder than others. This one was not the hardest I’ve done, but I think we had a good time doing it. The actors were very good, the babies were wonderful.
GTC: Both Star Trek III and IV are science fiction, and based upon your close association with Star Trek, it makes sense that you would direct them. Why do you think you were approached to do this film, a comedy?
Nimoy: The people at Disney who hired me for this film are the same people who hired me for Star Trek. They were at Paramount when I was making the Star Trek films. In Star Trek IV, they felt I had enough humor that I could do this film.
GTC: What particular talents do you think are required to be a director?
Nimoy: There are different kinds of directors. There are some directors who are extremely technically oriented who have a great sense of editing, camera, design, composition and really use actors as a piece that’s to be moved about here and there. I’m very actor-oriented because of my background. I believe very strongly that the actor is the person who has to give you the humanity of the film and I want to make films which are in touch with humanity. I think my greatest strength is my ability to appreciate what an actor does and how to help the actor do it. If an actor is having a problem, I think I know how to help. I think I understand the problem and I can make it easier for the actor to do the job properly.
There are directors who don’t like actors, there really are. Actors ask questions and some directors don’t want to be asked questions. They just want to tell people what to do and they don’t want an actor saying, “why can’t I do it this way.” I worked for Otto Preminger – he didn’t like actors very much. He really wanted people to simply do what they were told. And sometimes you need that but very often actors can make a contribution if you let ’em.
GTC: How about your actors in Three Men and A Baby?
Nimoy: These are very disciplined, experienced guys… very helpful guys. They come to work prepared every day, serious about their work… very serious about their work. Comedy yes, but serious about doing it right, and funny and imaginative… I had no problem with them. I enjoyed them a lot. I felt my job mostly was helping them to make choices. They’d bring in ideas and they’d say, “how about if I do this, or how about if I do that?” I’d say okay, I don’t think that works, but this over here works. Many of the ideas in the film came from the actors and it was very helpful.
GTC: How much emphasis do you place on rehearsals to develop these ideas?
Nimoy: As much as is necessary and not a bit more. I believe that there is certain amount of spontaneity that can get lost with too much rehearsal. You start out to put a scene together and it may be immediately ready and you say fine, roll the camera, we’re going for a take now. If it’s there on the first take, that’s it, I’ve got it. I don’t 20, 30 takes ever. If I haven’t got it by the the 10th take, we have a technical problem somewhere. And I print very little – one or two takes. Especially working with the babies. You bring in this human being that’s going to do whatever she wants to do, and you roll the camera and you’re looking for opportunity – looking for successful accidents in a way. When you’ve got it, you print it. I like to get momentum going, I hate lethargy on the set.
GTC: How would you compare your new career as a director with all your years as an actor?
Nimoy: It’s very exciting, very rewarding and very unexpected. I have been doing some directing, off and on, for a long time. I started directing in the theater in the ’50s, some television in the ’70s. I didn’t really focus on directing because I was having a good time as an actor. It’s kind of accidental. When we finished with Star Trek II, when Spock died, I thought I was finished with Star Trek. They called me and asked me if I wanted to be involved with Star Trek III, and I thought, well, maybe it’s time I started directing. So I said I’d direct the movie. Before Star Trek III even opened, they called me and asked me to make Star Trek IV. By the time that was finished I was getting offers from other companies. And suddenly, I got a couple of hits.
In the early ’60s I was teaching acting classes and I was intending to be a director. I was in a directing training program at MGM in ’63-’64, and suddenly the Star Trek series sold and that was gone – acting… busy acting. I’m just really coming back to what I was doing 30 years ago.
GTC: If you always yearned to direct, how did you get started as an actor?
Nimoy: I started when I was eight years old, accidentally, really. I was hanging out at a community settlement house in Boston, the place where I used to spend afternoons after school. They had classes in crafts and stuff like that. They would teach you how to make a kite or they would teach you how to play basketball. One day somebody said go in that room and sing a song and I was in Hansel & Gretel. I kept on doing children’s theatre until I was perhaps 17 or 18, then I started doing adult theater. By the time I was 18 I decided this is what I wanted to do and I left home for California. It was very hard. I bummed around for a long time. I was in a movie about a year after I arrived and I did a lead in a movie about a year that. That happened pretty fast, then I went away into the army for a couple of years, came back and had a couple of kids and I was driving a taxi in 1956 to support a family.
GTC: With all of your years of experience, did you expect Three Men and A Baby would be such a huge success?
Nimoy: While we were making this picture, I did feel that this had the potential of being a greatly satisfying film for an audience – that an audience could really enjoy this movie. It’s charming, it’s adorable, it’s funny, it’s touching and I thought this could be a very successful commercial crowd-pleasing movie.
GTC: Do you think you’ll ever go back to acting?
Nimoy: Oh yeah. Got a job for me?