Author and gallerist Richard Michelson has written a book about his longtime friend, “Star Trek” icon Leonard Nimoy. In the illustrated “Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy,” he explores the actor’s unlikely path from a strict kosher household in Boston to stardom (literally) as a hero of countless children and their parents as Spock. It’s a glittery tale that will inspire kids and grown-ups alike. Michelson opened up to JewishBoston about the surprisingly down-to-earth actor.
What inspired you to work on a picture-book biography of Leonard Nimoy?
I’d written many other picture-book biographies, profiling well-known figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in my book “As Good As Anybody,” or people who I thought had been unfairly left out of the historical canon, like the Jewish pioneer Lipman Pike, who was professional baseball’s first superstar and home-run king. But it never occurred to me to put Leonard’s story down on paper, even as, over the years, I facilitated countless interviews—everyone was interested in his life. It wasn’t until I’d watched Adam Nimoy’s documentary about his father, “For the Love of Spock,” a project that was originally conceived as a family memoir for the Nimoy kids and grandkids, that I realized Leonard’s life story would be perfect to inspire the “next generation.”
Did Judaism affect your work or your appreciation of his work in any way?
I am Jewish. Leonard and I had similar working-class backgrounds. He brought his dad lunch and the Forvitz [the Yiddish edition of the Forward newspaper] to the family barbershop, which was three blocks from where he lived at [Boston’s] 87 Chambers St. in a four-room apartment with his Bubbe and Zayde, mom and dad, and his older brother, Mel; I brought my dad lunch and the New York Post to the family hardware store, which was three blocks from the apartment where I lived on Jerome Street in Brooklyn. But he grew up in a kosher, three sets of dishes, Yiddish-speaking Orthodox home, and I grew up a generation later in a totally secular household. I did not attend shul, as Leonard did, nor did I have a bar mitzvah, but Leonard’s spiritual connection to his faith and his joy and optimism could not help but influence my own way of seeing the world.
Tell me about the Rosh Hashanah service that inspired his Vulcan salute.
My book begins with the Rosh Hashanah service that Leonard attended when he was 8 years old. He accompanied his father and was fascinated when a group of men went to the bima and started chanting and swaying. His father instructed him, as tradition dictates, to cover his eyes during the “Shekhina blessing.” Leonard would later publish a book of his photographs, titled “Shekhina.”
But Leonard was an 8-year-old boy, and he couldn’t help peeking. He watched the men pull their prayer shawls over their heads, and as their chants got louder, he watched them raise both arms in the air and hold out their hands “as if they were shooting a two-handed jump shot.”
It was in the second season of “Star Trek,” when the Enterprise visited the planet Vulcan for the first time, that Leonard’s most lasting contribution to the lore occurred. As I write in the book:
The script told Spock to shake hands with the Vulcan queen. But Leonard wanted to have a special greeting…Leonard thought for a while, and then he remembered his time in the temple when he was eight years old. He held up his hand in the ancient Hebraic gesture. And he blessed the actors he worked with, and he blessed the audience, and he blessed everyone all over the universe.
“Live long and prosper.”
How did you two become pals?
Leonard and I first met when he was visiting the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, where I live. I had written the picture book “Too Young for Yiddish,” which Leonard would later record as part of the Nimoy Library of Recorded Jewish Books. We bonded over a love of art and literature. Leonard was also a serious photographer, and I own R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, and I became his gallerist. We shared a sense of humor, and our wives also got along very well, which always helps! Plus it certainly didn’t escape notice that we looked a bit alike, and were often mistaken for siblings or father and son.
Take us briefly on his journey from small-town Massachusetts guy to Spock. How did it happen?
At age 17, Leonard fell in love with theater when he was asked to be in a local production of “Awake and Sing!” by the playwright Clifford Odets. It was about three generations of a poor Jewish family who lived together in one small apartment, and the director needed someone to play the part of the teenage son, who yearned for a better life. As I write in the book: “Lenny read the play. Could the author have known the Nimoys? How did Mr. Odets understand what Lenny was thinking—thoughts he hadn’t shared with anyone?”
As it happens, the priest Father John Bonn came to the production and offered Leonard a scholarship to the Boston College summer theater program. When the program ended, Leonard decided to follow his dreams, and he saved enough money selling Ace vacuum cleaners to afford the train fare from South Station to Hollywood, where he drove a cab—and once picked up a young congressman named John F. Kennedy, who encouraged him to never give up. Leonard worked regularly for 13 years and even started his own acting school to teach younger actors the trade. Then Gene Roddenberry offered him the part of Spock.
What would people be surprised to know about him?
Leonard wrote poetry and plays, learned to fly his own airplane and was interested in everything. But I think most people still don’t realize what an accomplished photographer he was. As a 13-year-old boy, he turned the family bathroom into his own darkroom, which didn’t exactly please the rest of the household. When “Star Trek” was cancelled after three seasons, Leonard contemplated changing careers, and he went back to UCLA and studied photography. When he first “retired” from acting—before he was lured back by the 2009 reboot films starring Zachary Quinto as a younger Spock—Leonard spent his time immersed in his original passion. You can see a sampling of his work at LeonardNimoyPhotography.com, and an exhibition of his photographs, “UNSEEN,” opens Sept. 9 at R. Michelson Galleries, along with a publication party for the book.
Did Jewishness affect his career or acting?
When he started out as a professional actor, Leonard played in a production of Sholem Aleichem‘s “It’s Hard to Be a Jew” at Hollywood’s Civic Theatre with the great Yiddish actor and director Maurice Schwartz. Leonard would later go on to tour the country as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” as well as playing Golda Meir’s husband in “A Woman Called Golda” and Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein in “Never Forget.”
What is his legacy, in your opinion?
Leonard was a renaissance man. He had a deep intelligence and curiosity. He read widely and loved art. Mostly, however, he was just pure fun to be around. The most optimistic person I have ever met, he had a great joy of life, close bonds to his family and no “star attitude”—he took Amtrak when he came to visit me from New York, and he picked me up at the airport when I visited him in L.A. He was a great storyteller, and laughed more than anyone I know. We used to say that the sunshine followed Leonard wherever he went.
Still can’t get enough Spock? Beam yourself and your family to Amherst’s Yiddish Book Center at 2 p.m. on Sept. 18 for a screening of “For the Love of Spock,” an intimate look at Leonard Nimoy, directed by his son, Adam, narrated by Zachary Quinto and full of interviews with “Star Trek” cast-mates and fans.