Where Are They Now? Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek"
Tinseltown Talks with Nick Thomas
Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy created one of the most iconic characters in television history. Not only did he star with William Shatner in the original series from 1966 through 1969, but he played Spock in a number of movies and TV shows spawned from it. After the first series ended, he jumped to another TV classic, Mission: Impossible, from 1969 through 1971. Those are but two of his more than 100 acting and directing credits in TV and movies. But for the past two decades, Nimoy has transported his career to the other side of the camera and now is regarded as a leading contemporary American photographer.
ACTING ALMOST LOST OUT TO PHOTOGRAPHY
Beginning as a teenager with an old Kodak Autographic in Boston, and developing his film in the family bathroom, Nimoy retained a casual interest in photography even when his acting career began to take off. But he soon recognized that photography could be more than just snapshots on location.
“I carried a camera with me wherever I went and began to realize I was missing the place I was in because my eye was behind the camera so much,” Nimoy recalled recently from his home in Los Angeles. “I had the photographs, but I hadn’t had the experience. So I began using the camera when I was on a specific thematic quest.”
The photography bug eventually bit him hard at the pinnacle of his career.
“I had finished three seasons of Star Trek and two seasons of Mission: Impossible, and I actually considered changing careers,” Nimoy explained. “I went to school at UCLA to study photography under master art photographer Robert Heineken and became very excited about the prospect.”
With no enthusiasm for commercial photography, he realized a money-making career in fine art photography would be difficult. “So I decided to stay with my acting and directing, although I continued to study photography and work at it.”
LOOKING DIFFERENTLY AT LIFE
Finally, two decades ago, Nimoy became a full-time photographer (while continuing to tackle some film and TV projects), producing work that was largely concept-driven, that is, it told a story, rather than random individual photos. His subjects include hands, eggs, landscapes, nudes and dancers, all shot with black-and-white film cameras. “I have two darkrooms and do my own printing up to a 16-by-20-inch image. I like to be in touch with the whole process.”
His provocative “Full Body” project, published in book form in 2007, featured mostly naked full-figured women, some very full-figured. “My original idea was to replicate some rather famous images shot by other photographers who had used fashion models, and to use these women in those same poses.”
More recently, for his “Secret Selves” project – his first shot in digital color – he photographed 100 people from all walks of life, each acting out a fantasy identity.
Nimoy, who is represented by R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Mass., currently has three concurrent exhibitions in the Boston area that began running in March and continue through early May (see RMichelson.com). “The exhibits cover about 20 years of my career, so it’s quite comprehensive.”
Although Nimoy’s works can be pricey (from several hundred dollars up to $18,000), more affordable images with a Spock theme (e.g., the Vulcan hand salute) are sold through a site managed by his granddaughter (shopllap.com).
“She’s quite the entrepreneur and oper- ates it like a classy boutique,” said Nimoy. “There are T-shirts, tote bags and photographs signed by me. The things we do for our grandchildren!”
‘I’M NOT READY TO CASH IT IN YET’
In February, reports surfaced that Nimoy was suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung ailment that affects more than 12 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is caused primarily by smoking.
“Before I stopped smoking 30 years ago, I was deeply addicted,” said Nimoy, who turned 83 in March. “I had to go through various programs before I quit. But by then, the damage was done. In my late 70s and early 80s, I recognized that I did not have great breathing capacity, so I wasn’t surprised by the COPD diagnosis.”
The disease has had an effect. “I use medication daily and give myself a jolt of oxygen when I need it,” he said. “The main difficulty is high altitudes. We’ve had a house in Lake Tahoe for 20 years, which is a beautiful retreat. But at 6,000 feet, I just can’t go there anymore. Other than that, I’m still very active and not ready to cash it in yet!”
Despite rumors throughout his acting career that he resented being typecast as Spock, Nimoy says he regards the character with fondness. “I’ve always been proud to be identified with Spock.”
But what if J.J. Abrams, the producer-director of the new Star Trek films, approached him for reprising the role, as he did in 2009’s Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness?
“I’d take his call but doubt I’d do any acting,” he said. “I don’t want to go off on location again. I’m enjoying life with my family too much.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama. His features and columns have appeared in more than 400 newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.