Friday, November 13, 2009

Leonard Nimoy on Eddie Murphy, Star Trek IV, Spock and Obama

If Leonard Nimoy’s acting work had been limited to that deliriously crazy music video for “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” he’d probably still be celebrated by a lot of us. Alas, in a career that spans seven decades, Nimoy has achieved a status far beyond accidental cult-kitsch pop-stardom, even if he did direct Three Men and a Baby. Playing the half-human/half-Vulcan Spock in the original Star Trek (and in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot last summer), he used an iconic mix of logical stoicism and quiet, pained loneliness to bring to vivid life the struggle of a character grappling with his identity and his destiny. He was also in two of the best Simpsons episodes ever. I talked with the Boston-born Nimoy about Star Trek, ghosts, and Barack Obama when he called from Los Angeles last week.

Do you meet a lot of Three Men and a Baby fans?
Once in a while. The strange thing about Three Men and a Baby was that the question was always, “What’s the story about the ghost in the movie?” [I.e., what looks like a window reflection of the Ted Danson cardboard-cutout standee.] People want to know what that’s about. There was a lady who said her son died in that room — which was very good for box office but was a total accident and had nothing to do with any ghost.

You mean, there was no ghost?
There was no ghost. Well — wait a minute — how do rumors get started? Maybe there was a ghost!

The original Star Trek series aired during the height of the Vietnam War. Given the appeal of the official Federation policy of “non-intervention," is it a coincidence that Trek has been successfully relaunched while we're in the middle of two wars?
Well, I think it’s true that the original overarching theme of Star Trek included non-intervention policy, but we did some intervening. I think that was a concept, but I don’t think it was a reality.

In that era, there was a whole issue about whether gunboat diplomacy was appropriate, and whether force in other sovereign countries was appropriate. And we were going through a lot of turmoil on that issue. I think Star Trek tried to be on the right side of the issue, tried to be on the humane side of the issue, but there were times when I think our intervention was questionable.

How close did Eddie Murphy get to being in Star Trek IV?
We tried to build a story that included him. He was a big Star Trek fan and very serious about it. I had a couple of meetings with him. The first time I met him, I said, “We admire you, you admire us. We don’t want to hurt each other. If we can come up with a story that works, let’s do this.”

We spent some time working on a story where we, the crew, come to Earth, just as we do in Star Trek IV during the 20th century, and he was to portray a radio-talk-show guy who dealt with subjects like the paranormal and alien visitors and began to suspect that he had spotted us as aliens. That was to be the game — him trying to figure out who we were and what we were doing. The story just didn’t hold up, finally, and we had to let him go.

Your video for “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” is a big YouTube hit. What is it like to see it now?
I have a certain kind of pride connected to that piece. It was done, I think, in the early ’70s, 30 years ahead of the Lord of the Rings cycle. It’s a fun piece for kids. It’s amazing that it now has this big life. It also points to another issue, which is that, fairly recently, some kids were having a conversation with President Obama and someone asked him advice about building a political future and he said, “Be careful what you put on Facebook, because that stuff will show up.” So, there it is.

There have been comparisons between Obama and Spock. If he's Spock, who is Sarah Palin?
Oh God. I’m not going to go there. I’ve met Obama a couple of times. The first time, my wife and I went to a very modest luncheon, very early, when he was just starting to put himself out there as a candidate. We were waiting for him outside on the back patio of this lovely home, and he came through and saw me and gave me the Vulcan hand gesture and said, “They told me you were here.”

I’m aware of the comparisons. He’s got a tough, tough job. I don’t think he’d hoped or planned to be the president presiding over two wars and a severe economic crisis. There will be people sniping at him for what Dick Cheney referred to as “dithering.” Well, for Christ’s sake, how about giving it some thoughtful process before you send thousands of kids to die? It’s painful to watch the political game, them trying to outdo each other, to get political points at the expense of reality and intelligence.