Listen To Leonard Nimoy On Reluctance To Do ‘Star Trek’, How Spock Almost Lost His Pointed Ears And More

This week marks the third anniversary of the passing of Leonard Nimoy. One way to remember the man who made Spock a legend is to listen to rare interview with the actor from 1976 that was flagged by The Hollywood Reporter. The interview is audio from a public television interview Nimoy did in the same year he released his book I Am Not Spock, and two years before it was announced he would be returning to the role of Spock for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

How Roddenberry convinced him Spock wasn’t a ‘dumb’ role

The actor admitted he was initially not interested in the role of Spock, but Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry sold him:

When Gene Roddenberry first the character to me, he said it was going to be a character with pointed ears from another planet. I was pretty serious about my acting and that sounded like “Gee, that’s dumbo time.” I don’t know if I want to get involved with that as I have fairly reasonable reputation going as a good, serious character actor.

Several conversations with Gene led us to some very exciting and very meaningful studies of the internal life of the character. Who he was and what he was all about. And those were the predominant things that convinced me to play this role. And, to be honest about it, it was the first steady work that I had been offered as an actor. I never had a job that lasted more than a couple of weeks after 15 years as an actor.

Leonard Nimoy in the first Star Trek pilot “The Cage”

Spock’s pointed ears almost didn’t happen

Much of the interview discussed the development of the look of Spock. The actor discussed how originally Spock was going to have reddish skin, but this made him look black on black and white TVs (which were still prevalent at the time), so they went with the greenish-yellow makeup. Nimoy also revealed that the pointed ears were going to be written off the show due to problems making them work:

We were having trouble getting the ears properly done in the early stages of the makeup, before we ever shot the first pilot. We were with the wrong makeup people and they were making the ears for me, experimentally, and they were really grotesque and funny and just bad. And we went through three or four of those sessions and as time got close to the first day of shooting – and once you start shooting you are looked in, that’s it.

As the time of shooting came more and more closer, I became concerned about the look. I said to Gene “This isn’t working, we really got to reconsider if we should have pointed ears on this character.” We had the eyebrows and the haircut and the skin color, but we could not arrive at a good pair of ears. Finally it was Fred Phillips, who became the makeup man on the series, who knew what was wrong. The problem was the studio make a commitment to these other people to make the ears and didn’t want to go elsewhere because it would cost more money, but he said we must and forced the easy and went and got a good pair of ears and that solved the problem.

Leonard Nimoy with Fred Phillips, who solved the ear problem

Not anxious for Trek to continue after disappointing third season

During the interview the actor discussed how he was not happy with the third season of Star Trek and if the show had been renewed, he would only have stayed if there were major changes:

The third season was not a happy year. We had a new producer [Fred Freiberger], who with all due respect to him, really didn’t have a feel for what star trek should be and what it was at its best. The scripts that he was buying for us and we were shooting were not of best, by any means. We had some good shows in our third season, but we had some of the worst shows. My feeling at the end of the third year was, if the show were to continue, I would want to see some drastic changes to move us back into the territory where we belong, which was really fine science fiction with good ideas and scripts. That did happen during the third season, and I couldn’t get my voice properly heard and I felt very frustrated. Under those conditions, I was not anxious for the show to continue. So, maybe it was best to let it finish now and leave it alone and let it be what it should be. I have heard Bill Shatner say “Maybe Star Trek should have run just three years and be left alone.”

He later went on to lament about how in the third season, writers were starting to repeat themselves, using tropes and catchphrases:

What happens is, when the writers start to get tired or when the producers or writers are not being terribly creative, the tendency is to go back and reusing those things which are working, and perhaps work them to death instead of looking for new creative ideas. So, they would have me saying “logically” constantly. I would be saying “logically” and “fascinating” forever and they would have me raising the eyebrow, that sort of thing. Or they would have McCoy saying “You, green, pointed-eared elf” over and over again. And they would have Captain Kirk saying “Gentleman, I can’t have this squabbling in my crew.” And they would have Jimmy Doohan over and over saying “Captain, the ship won’t stand warp eight.” It gets repetitive because they know it’s safe.

Nimoy feels writers started over-using show tropes

Open to recasting Spock, but didn’t think it would happen

The actor also weighed on what he thought of the idea of Spock being recast in any potential new Star Trek, saying:

That would be interesting. [Wouldn’t you be crushed?] No, no. Maybe I wouldn’t be crushed, because I feel quite secure that is not going to happen. I doubt very much that the studio would try to recreate Star Trek and a new actor as Spock. I think probably the more intelligent thing for them to do is to try to create another character with another actor, to replace Spock. If, for some reason we couldn’t get together. If they didn’t want me as Spock or they didn’t want the Spock character.

In the mid 1970s there were a number of on-again-off-again attempts at Paramount to revive Star Trek on either the small or large screen. And Nimoy’s prediction of using another character proved true with regards to the 1977 Star Trek: Phase II TV project. Nimoy turned down the offer to appear in that series as Spock and so Paramount decided to create the Vulcan science officer Xon (to be played by David Gautreaux). Eventually that project morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which Nimoy did sign on for. Of course, thirty years later Nimoy welcomed the recasting of Spock with Zachary Quinto for J.J. Abrams Star Trek. 

David Gautreaux as Xon in Phase II and Leonard Nimoy as Spock in The Motion Picture

Listen to the full interview

 

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Captain Dunsel

I’m sort of surprised that, when the interviewer asked him if he was “a rich man”, Mr. Nimoy didn’t say something like “Well, I played Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ a couple of years ago…” He did that role in 1974, IIRC.

El Chup

Tevye was never rich! :)

Captain Dunsel

But would it have spoiled some vast, eternal plan if he’d mentioned the role?

Gigito

“if I was a rich man…”

Darth_Meow_504

I of course love that we got Spock back for the films, both the character and the actor were beloved and irreplaceable. However, I’m also sad that we didn’t get to see Xon provide a different take on the concept of a Vulcan science officer. Someone younger, and judging by his appearance, not as rigid as Spock. We got something similar in Kirstie Alley’s beautiful rendition of Saavik in TWOK, and their interplay helped shine a light on Spock through the balance of similarities and differences they shared. Seeing such an interaction on a weekly televised basis would have been, as the man himself would say, “Fascinating”.

Corinthian7

It would be cool to see Xon made canon in a future series of Star Trek. He’s probably a little young for Discovery at the moment although being Vulcan you can never be too sure about age.

alphantrion

I agree, they could have used the character and made him canon in the newest movies. Maybe even change him around a bit, have him like a close friend of Spock from academy days. Perhaps they can still use him for Discovery.

Nachum

Or Burnham’s betrothed. 😊

Nachum

He does appear in various Non-canonical stories. In TMP there was Sonak, who was killed early on.

Anthony Thompson

Haven’t you seen the test footage of him as Xon? He was truly awful!

Babrock

Spock is not Vulcan. His mother was human. So he was only half Vulcan. Nimoy often makes a big deal about how uninteresting it would be to play a character that never showed emotions.

Tho you are right in that he usually played Spock as much straight Vulcan as any other Vulcan charactor(Sarak, Savik, Tuvok, or T’pol) was ever played.

Tiger2

It is funny how a role Nimoy tried to get away from over and over again kept pulling him back in. Even when he turned down the second show but did the first film he clearly didn’t see himself doing more than 1-2 movies and tried to leave those. Then when they convinced him to come back for TSFS he stayed on through that series and did TNG on top of it. When he turned down to play Spock in Generations he probably thought he was FINALLY done with Spock until Abrams and the boys rung him up and did two more films and his character is responsible for spawning a new universe for Trek to play in.

Its just one of those things, he probably (like all of them) thought when the show ended in 1969 that was the last of the character. Who knew then he would appear over and over again as Spock for another 40 years across four different properties in the franchise (TAS, TOS films, TNG, Kelvin films)? Amazing career!

Paul

Nimoy had a very selective memory as far as Trek & Roddenberry go!!

Anthony Thompson

If your memory is better, please enlighten us.

Paul

Well the defunct trekweb.com had most of it & there are also several stories told over the years in published unofficial Trek books which state some of the issues but there is the below:
http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Inside_Star_Trek
“Spock performer Leonard Nimoy declined to be part of the project, as several incidents, detrimental to Nimoy’s interests, with creator Roddenberry had caused their relationship, having started out warm enough in the mid-1960s, to turn sour. With the exception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and save for legally obligated studio media events, Nimoy has avoided to work, meet, or even speak with Roddenberry as much as possible for the remainder of Roddenberry’s life. ”

Its common knowledge Roddenberry was not remotely close to either Shatner or Nimoy since the 1960s they only had distant professional contact due to the lingering resentment about lack of salary from the TOS episodes & merchandise.

Nimoy was not by several accounts a complex man to get on with only after he accepted his Spock legacy in later years did he mellow a little but even then he cut Shatner off which whatever the reasons behind it were is a little cruel. He also did something similar to Harve Bennett on ST4s set over creative power again its not a secret.

Nimoy the great actor & creative force is the ONLY person I prefer to remember most people in the film industry have selective memories when it suits their bank balance!

TUP

Any effort to say Nimoy was anything less than a saint wont be tolerated around here. Its always that Shatner is a jerk and I suspect Gene was too and Harve and everyone else who Nimoy wasnt nice to. lol

Tongue in cheek. But when everyone started piling on Shatner for his and Nimoy’s split I did suggest maybe it was Nimoy. We dont know. People grow apart.

People are critical of Shatner for taking the Generations role in a move that ultimately didnt work and praise Nimoy for declining. But then rip on Shatner for not agreeing to a cameo in 2009, a film in which Nimoy was happy to do. And while 2009 was decent, Nimoy returned for STID which was awful.

Nimoy just wouldnt Generations unless he got to write it. If Shatner declined a role in Star Trek unless he got creative control, he’d be lambasted here.

Humans are complicated.

Kev-1

I think Nimoy said his Spock role consisted of lines “anybody could speak” — he would just have been standing around wondering what happened to Kirk. He wanted to make changes in the script and was turned down — don’t know if Kirk’s demise would have been one of those changes. Generations would have been a no win for Nimoy, a cameo role which likely would have made Spock useless — especially because had Spock witnessed Kirk’s disappearance, and remained in character, he would have had to begin some kind of rescue– which could never happen in a TNG movie.

TUP

Oh I agree. Generations would have been much better had Nimoy been involved creatively.

Nachum

They almost lost the ears later because NBC feared (wrongly, tellingly) that conservative audiences would think he was the devil. They even airbrushed them out of some PR shots.

Ah, the good old days.

Disinvited

Nachum,

Roddenberry was aiming directly at the Bible Belt with Spock. In the original treatment that he gave the Network suits he described Spock as a red-skinned Martian with not just pointed ears, but a tail too. The way Solow tells it, the character lost the tail and the red because Solow knew the character would never get on the air with those features so he planned to sacrifice them in negotiations before they ever crossed the executive suite’s office threshold. But he knew the character had to have some strange feature to define him as alien and unearthly so he decided to dig in on the ears.

It’s one one of the main reasons I remain incredulous, when people on this side of the millennium try to assert that Roddenberry never intended for STAR TREK to take on the Bible Belt’s issues with such as that, race relations, etc.

Nachum

I did not know about the tail. Nimoy said that they dropped the red skin because it would look black on black and white TVs.

Of course Roddenberry was a progressive, but I got the feeling a lot of that (like seeing himself as a humanist visionary) came later.

Disinvited

Nachum,

Well, that’s how Solow tells it. FWIW, I haven’t been able to find the final edition of the pitch that was sent but here’s the 1st draft:

http://leethomson.myzen.co.uk/Star_Trek/1_Original_Series/Star_Trek_Pitch.pdf

And here’s a letter:

http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/06/science-fiction-should-be-mainly-about.html

Where Roddenberry says he deliberately gave Spock the look of the devil.

Disinvited

Nachum.

https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/mobile/uk_news/wales/mid_/7072803.stm

“Initially, Gene had Spock with a red face, pointed ears and a tail, and he looked just like Satan.” – Herb Solow, 2007

Disinvited

“No network or advertiser was going to buy a show [STAR TREK] where one of the heroes [Spock] is the devil.” — Herbert Solow

Lyle

It’s interesting that this interview was done around the same time that “I Am Not Spock” was published. I remember seeing a copy of that book sometime around ’78 or ’79 (can’t remember exactly but I’m pretty sure it was before ST:TMP was released) and being somewhat horrified at what I thought was Nimoy attacking Spock and Star Trek. But when I started reading it, I realized what the book was really all about – his affection for Spock shines through from the first page to the last. But I know many others had the same reaction I did when they saw the title and the impression stuck for several years.

Even Mr. Nimoy admitted in later years that titling the book “I Am Not Spock” was an awful mistake. I loved it when “I Am Spock” was published later in the 1990s around the time of “Unification”.

I miss you, Mr. Nimoy.

Tiger2

LOL I never read that book but yes even when I heard the title later in life I thought it was a cold hard dis. I think everyone misinterpreted the title but then again it kind of proves it probably wasn’t the best title to go with. My guess is the publisher thought it was a great ideas since it would get people talking but it probably soured fans for years, maybe even decades that he didn’t really appreciate the character. And this was a guy who was trying to find ways NOT to do more Star Trek so it probably confirmed to a lot of people he wasn’t happy with the role or just moved on.

Lyle

Actually, according to Mr. Nimoy, the publisher tried to talk him out of “I Am Not Spock” as a title as they felt that “people don’t buy books with negative titles” – Nimoy came back with “what about Gone With The Wind?” and the rest was history. Supposedly the impression that Nimoy hated Spock lasted long enough to complicate his negotiations to get the job of directing The Search For Spock…

Disinvited

I was alive as an adult in the 70s and in the middle of that decade, heard Nimoy speak at a Trimble Con. While it may be true Nimoy got more unintended consequences from that book title than he may have deserved, it is a retcon to attempt to portray Nimoy as not putting out that he felt he was done with the television character.

He was approached to sign for Phase II and he turned it down:

https://archive.org/stream/starlog_magazine-012/012#page/n25/mode/2up/search/Nimoy

“It appears that we may not have Leonard Nimoy, who’s deeply involved in a Broadway play and has a number of times announced that under no circumstances would he be involved in a [Phase II] television show.” — Gene Roddenberry, last paragraph on p25 of STARLOG #12, March 1978

In fact, while it is true he did not introduce it as part of his second STAR TREK motion picture negotiations, he was the one who lobbied for killing Spock off in the Phase II television show contract negotiations which he continued through the morphing of it into the 1st movie. That’s where the Paramount execs got the idea that Spock’s death was part of the successful movie contract negotiations with him.

The interview excerpts should have been proofread. I know that this isn’t the Times, but come on.

Athlan

I like that he says “my profession is acting”. He does not say “my job”. I like this! :)