I’ve only got one Leonard Nimoy story, but I think it’s a pretty good one. Listen up, kids, and I’ll
tell you about how I directed Spock …
Around the end of the 90′s I was a story editor and producer for Steven Spielberg and Harve
Bennett, who produced four of the first five STAR TREK films, on a primetime animated series
for DreamWorks SKG called INVASION AMERICA.
Since this was the first primetime animation series expressly done by the WB, the fledgling
network was a bit nervous about their lineup including a cartoon. So Harve pulled in a solid from
his address book, a real coup: Leonard Nimoy. The two of them were a common sight on the
greens of the Beverly Hills Country Club, and Nimoy was glad to help out his weekend links
companion–and, not incidentally, make a few grand for an hour or so of work.
But when I arrived on his first day of recording, the crew was considerably subdued. I noticed it
immediately, and I’ll be the second to admit that I’m not the most perceptive of individuals.
Something was wrong.
I went in, met Nimoy, who was a nice guy, very easygoing. He’d agreed to play one character,
for a price our budget could (barely) afford. It was still a bargain, though.
Or so we thought. Evidently, Spielberg and Nimoy had gotten into a tiny bit of a row over the
phone an hour or so after Nimoy came in; a continuation of an old argument that had nothing to
do with present situations. I asked Harve if he thought it would be a continuing problem. He
shrugged. “These things either blow up or blow over; impossible to say,” he replied.
So the one day of work quickly mushroomed into several days’ worth, with Steven giving notes
on Nimoy’s performance via a phone patch from his office in DreamWorks’ temporary suite in
the top floor of Universal City Plaza, AKA 10UCP (a strange rhombic-shaped skyscraper, the
tallest building in the San Fernando Valley, which looked, from certain angles, more like a
gigantic standee of a building rather than the structure itself.) All of us were feeling less than
sanguine about the whole process by then. We’d tried reading him into the line from all possible
angles, and gotten nada. (Well, let me be clear about this: the readings were perfectly fine for
any exec producer who wasn’t an utter perfectionist. Steven wasn’t just an OCD; he was an
OCD with a bigger petty cash drawer than Scrooge McDuck’s. Any producer with even the most
tenuous connection with reality will back down when the network threatens to pull the plug.
Steven just shrugged and said, “Hell with ‘em. I’ll buy it back, start my own network and produce
The problem wasn’t that these weren’t idle threats. The problem is that they weren’t threats.
Most megalomaniacs issued ultimatums like this from the depths of their secret dormant
volcano bases just a few nautical miles south of Skull Island, with a hearty “BWA hahahaha!!!”
Steven issued them during lunch, from around a mouthful of pastrami on rye. With mustard.
The director–a very nice lady named Sue Blu–wasn’t happy about just feeding Nimoy the lines–
this was a primetime series for DreamWorks, after all, and she preferred to guide him into his
own version that was satisfactory to all concerned, rather than leading him by the hand. But
Steven was beginning to think about just starting over, which had its own ramifications. Actors
have something of a–and I mean this with all possible respect–a herd mentality. When one is
fired, it reverberates through the whole tiny community of the cast, especially when the actor
fired is as big a name as Leonard Nimoy. Then you have to take ‘em out, one by one, give each
one a brisk rubdown, often with an expensive liniment, trot ‘em round the corral to calm ‘em
down … It’s a whole thing.
I’m exaggerating, of course–often times the liniment is all it takes. Even so, no one was crazy
about firing Nimoy; he kinda outranked us all in the subtle but pervasive Hollywood caste
system. Harve could do it, but Harve didn’t want to lose his weekend golfing partner. And if
Nimoy quit, well, we could just imagine how the trades would scamper with news of that.
The proper person to do the firing, if it came to that, was Spielberg, of course. But he’d been for
several decades now above the chain of command, above the very concepts of class and
castes. His definition of resolution was simple: “My way.” The only other resolution was to
somehow convince Nimoy that repeated callbacks because his performance still wasn’t
“nuanced” enough weren’t worth it. Unfortunately, buried about a parsec deep in the fine print
was an Easter egg that allowed a flat rate one-time-pays-all deal that would test the
complacency of Surak himself. (Sorry; sometimes the Inner Geek cannot be denied.) I’m not
going to speculate on how or why Nimoy missed it on his first read-through of the contract, but I
suppose it’s possible that the laissez-faire attitude under which it had been agreed to could have
had something to do with it.
At this point it hit me; one of those ideas that seemed crazy when first thought of, but which,
upon deeper thought, only seems more crazy. But it was worth a try, because anything was at
I stepped over close to Nimoy’s mic stand and said to him, in a low voice–because if anyone
else heard me they’d wrestle me to the floor and call the asylum–”I’ll read you in, and when you
come back, raise one eyebrow on the line.”
He nailed it. One take.
And that, my friends, is how I got to direct Leonard Nimoy.