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Leonard Nimoy: An Alien from Boston

Leonard Nimoy -- the man who was, and was not, Spock -- speaks tonight at Boston University, on the occasion of the university receiving Nimoy's archives. Why would BU want Nimoy's archives? Well, as you know if you've ever visited the Mugar Omni Theater, "He grew up three blocks from here."

If you don't make it to his talk, never fear -- we saw an excellent excuse to get Nimoy on the phone and kibbitz with him, and we're more than happy to share.  At 80, Nimoy seems to be a pretty happy guy, content to spend time with his family (his granddaughter helped him set up his etsy store), turn the odd acting gig (most recently in the Transformers franchise and on Fringe) and of course, work on his art photography. For his latest project, Secret Selves, he asked Massachusetts residents to let him photograph them dressed as their inner alter egos. (What's Nimoy's secret self? He's been asked that a lot, but he won't give up the goods.)

At the start of our conversation, Nimoy warned me that he was sick of talking about himself. I can understand that, but if you originated one of fiction's Great Characters -- in my book, Spock is right up there with Odysseus, Richard the Third and Sherlock Holmes -- you're doomed to a certain amount of talking about yourself for the rest of your life.

Nimoy self-portrait with lightbulb

LN: I sent you some e-mails -- did you get them? I sent you three, I think. So, what are you looking at?

PHX: I'm looking at your camera.

old-fashioned camera

LN: Yeah, that was a family camera that I started using in the 1940s.

PHX: Do you still have it?

LN: Yeah.

PHX: Awesome. Now I'm looking at the Harry Rubin Credit Union.

B/W photo of two older women seated in chairs on a sidewalk

LN: That's that front of the building where I lived, and the lady on the left is my grandma.

PHX: Did you take that?

LN: No -- this is great story. Some years ago, I was asked to narrate a documentary about the Vilna Shul, which is a synagogue up on Beacon Hill. So, they sent me the script, I recorded out here, I sent them the track, and when it was done, they sent me back the video. And I sit down to watch it with my brother in Boston, and it was about the Jews in Boston, and up comes this photograph which I had never seen before. It was our grandmother, in the picture. Evidently they'd gone to the Boston Public Library to find some old photographs of the West End, and this was one of the photographs they found. That's the front of the building where I spent the first eighteen years of my life.

PHX: Wow. What floor did you live on?

LN: On the third floor walk-up. The weird thing about it is the lady on the right lived downstairs, on the ground floor. She was Irish, and my grandmother spoke no English, so I often wondered how they communicated. It looked like they were having a conversation.

PHX: The Old West End was pretty diverse. Do you have any other photos that you took of your grandparents?

LN: I sent you a picture of my grandfather. Did you get that?

PHX: I got it!

black and white photo of Nimoy's grandfather 

LN: It's a picture of my grandfather that i took on the banks of the Charles River. I don't have much more of Boston, but I do have a website. If you go over there, you can see a bunch of stuff.

PHX: So, how did you start taking pictures?

LN: Well, a kid down the street showed me how to develop a roll of film. And that was it. I just got crazy with it. I could tie up the family bathroom for hours -- people pounding on the door... There were six of us living in the apartment with one bathroom, and that was my darkroom. And I just got hooked on the idea of shooting the picture and then going into the darkroom and making a print. It was magical for me. It really hooked me. I've been at it ever since.

PHX: What about it attracted you?

LN: The ability to make an object. To capture a moment. To create something. To make an object that you could hang on the wall or give to a friend. It was a creative expression, a way of expressing yourself creatively, always.

PHX: There's something about developing your own film that's magical, too.

LN: Yeah, I've been doing it up until the most recent projects. Now digital has become so good and so easy that it's hardly worth spending the hours in the darkroom anymore, but I did it for many, many years.

PHX: Where would you get your chemicals back then?

LN: The local camera shops. When I was a kid, you could go to a camera store and for 60 cents, you could buy all the chemicals you needed to develop a roll of film and make a print. Kodak put out a little combination package of the chemicals you needed. You'd get three soup bowls out of the kitchen and develop a roll of film.

PHX: How'd your mom feel about you using her soup bowls?

LN: [Big laugh] I don't think she knew what I was doing. She would not have liked it very much.

PHX: So, how old were you when you started doing this?

LN: How old was I? I was born in ‘31, so i was about 13, 14 ...

PHX: So, tell me. What was the neighborhood like then?

LN: It was immigrants. Languages were Italian, Yiddish, mostly. I think it was 65 percent Italian about 25 or 30 percent Jewish and the rest a sprinkling of Irish and Poles. And the store keepers, many of the Italian storekeepers learned to speak Yiddish so that they could deal with the Yiddish speaking customers. There were stores in the neighborhood who spoke strictly Yiddish, and my grandmother, for example, never learned to speak English. She didn't have to; she could do all her shopping and business in Yiddish in the neighborhood.

PHX: Did you grow up speaking Yiddish? Do you still?

LN: Yeah, my brother and I. My brother, who was four and a half years older that me, it was his first language. And I went to Russian about 25 years ago and visited my parents' birthplace. It was a very exciting, emotional experience for me. It was a great time.

PHX: What was it like over there?

LN: It was still very primitive. I found some cousins who have since immigrated to the United States. It was quite a trip. My wife and I were in Moscow for a week. I was invited over to show one of my movies.

PHX: Which movie?

LN: Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home. The one with the whales. Yeah, the World Wildlife Fund was holding a celebration in Russia, because the Russians had declared a moratorium on whale-hunting, so they asked me to come show the movie in Moscow. ...

PHX: And from there you struck out to find your relatives?

LN: And photography was an interesting connection. They had no idea who I was; they were just told that someone was coming from the United States. They were very suspicious, very paranoid. They thought they were being investigated or something. So, my wife and I got there at their very modest stucco house and they sat us down and offered us some beer, vodka, some fruit, and the conversation was very stilted and tense, because they really didn't know what this was all about. And finally, the guy went to another room and came back with a white envelope, in pristine condition, with a United States postage stamp on it, and I immediately recognize my mother's handwriting on the envelope. And he opened it, and pulled out two small black and white photographs about three or four inches square. A group of children in each photograph, and he asked me if I knew who these kids were, and I said to him in Yiddish, "These are my children," and the other one, "These are my brother's children." And then of course that broke the ice, and they knew who I was and understood what our relationship was. Now, you've gotta understand that the kids in those photographs were about eight or nine or ten years old, and when they showed them to me about 25 years ago, those people were in their mid or late thirties, so they'd been holding those photographs in the envelope in a drawer somewhere for 25 years. My mother mailed it to them 25 years earlier! To show them what was happening with the American version of the family, and they had been holding on to those photographs like a connection to another world.

PHX: That must've been an amazing moment.

LN: It was.

PHX: So, when you were a kid, what would you take pictures of?

LN: Friends of mine. Stuff around the neighborhood. Birds in the park. I really didn't know what I wanted to take pictures of. I only knew that I wanted to get into the darkroom and see if the pictures came out. And that was the term in those days. You'd go into the drugstore and give them your film and then you'd come back three of four days later and see if your pictures came out. "Did my pictures come out? Oh yeah, yeah. There it is. There's Mary. There's Jack." That was a big deal. Just the ability to make the product. It was much much later that I became more concerned about subject matter and eventually conceptual photography, capturing my imagination. But for a long time I was just shooting pictures of stuff for the sake of making pictures.

PHX: Are there any places in Boston that you like to photograph in particular?

LN: No, my work now is so conceptual. I don't even carry cameras anymore. I used to carry cameras every place I went, but I don't anymore. If I have an idea that intrigues me, I'll start shooting an essay on that subject and that's the extent of what I've been doing for the last 16 or 18 years.

PHX: So, have you been taking photographs throughout your life, or...?

LN: No, I drifted away from it for a while. My photography was strictly tourist photography. If I took a camera to Europe, I came back to show pictures of where we'd been, which is very typical stuff. "This is Suzie and I in front of the Eiffel Tower," you know, that sort of thing. But around 1971, I went back to school to study photography more intensely, and I became exposed to conceptual photography as a tool of artistic expression, to express ideas and I studied under a brilliant guy named Robert Heineggan, and I considered changing careers for a minute and I decide I better not. I was going to make fine art photography, but I wasn't going to be able to make a living at it.

PHX: Well, it's not always either/or.

LN: No, that's true. And ever since the work has been conceptual.

PHX: Yeah, you've had a lot of success.

LN: Yeah, I've been very lucky. The most recent was an exhibition at Mass MOCA that was up for about five months and that was pretty exciting.

PHX: Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about "Secret Selves," because I was curious as to how you came to that idea.

LN: Well, I came across this story of some ancient Greek named Aristophanes and these guys were sitting around at a symposium where I'm convinced they'd drink a lot of wine --

PHX: Among other things probably.

LN: Yeah, right! And they were discussing human angst. What the origin of this condition? This sense of unease that so many of us carry with us for most of our lives, and Aristophanes said, "I can explain it." He said that humans at one time were double people. We had two head, four arms, and four legs. We were attached back to back and one became powerful which is weird to me. I don't know how you can become powerful stuck together like that, but that's what he said. And he said that the gods became angry about his arrogance and sent Zeus to solve the problem. Zeus took a big sword and split everyone in two, and sent them off into their separate halves, and ever since then, said Aristophanes, humans have been searching for that other part of themselves that will make them feel whole again. To re-integrate. And I was really intrigued by that and thought it was really interesting territory.

PHX: Where did you come across that story?

LN: On the Internet. I don't even know what I was searching for, but there it was. And it jumped out at me and I went "Wow! I really like that idea," because I think there is a case to be made that people really do feel not integrated. They feel somehow incomplete. So, with that in mind, I contacted my gallery guy in Northampton. A very good, energetic, gallerist who shows my work here. And i told him about this idea and told him that I wanted to photograph a lot of people's lost or secret or fantasy selves, and he helped me round it up and I came to Northampton for a couple days and did all the photography and people came with these great and outlandish and wonderful, touching, and funny stories about their lives. My work, I think if there's one single thread about all of the work that I've done over the past 15 or 18 years, I think you could say it addresses the issue of identity. You know, I have an identity issue myself, as a actor.

PHX: Really?

LN: Oh yeah. I think the work has been about that.

PHX: When you say the work, do you mean the photography work or the acting?

LN: Yeah, the photography work, yeah. Well, acting is always about identity. Who is this character you're going to portray? Identify this character.

PHX: Well, what fascinates me especially thinking about that project and hearing you talk about it, is that it comes back to the themes that are so strong in the character of Spock. Spock is so instantly recognizable to people because that's what he's all about, the question wholeness, and feeling complete with himself.

LN: Yeah, right, right. A very human condition.

PHX: It is, and I feel like that character really magnifies that. How much of that was coming from the writers, back then, and how much of that was coming from you?

LN: Well, you know, everybody makes a contribution. The writers have to give you something to say -- we don't make it up, you know. But there's a kind of a, "what goes around comes around." When you perform it, when you play it, you bring to it some certain personal ideas and aspects of yourself, an interpretation, and then they see it, the producers and writers see it and they can build on what you bring. So, it goes around and it comes back if they're watching creatively; stuff comes back and it's great, we're on the same page, we're interested in the same things and it starts to cook.

PHX: Yeah, it just seems like there is a continuing theme between your art now and that performance, as Spock, that kind of defined you for a really long time.

LN: Well I grew up feeling alien.

PHX: Tell me about that.

LN: Well, Boston is and was a very Catholic city. And I was not a Catholic; I was not a Christian, so I felt very much, the other.

PHX: Really? Where did you experience that?

LN: Well, whereever you went. St. Joseph's Church was right across the street from where we lived. I was constantly aware of the Catholicism around me. I remember as a kid, I must've been eight or nine years old when I heard my parents and some relatives and friends gathered in our apartment talking politics and somebody said, "A Catholic will never be elected President of the United States." I didn't understand that. I wasn't aware that it was only Boston that was so predominantly Catholic. I really didn't understand that! I was confused! I thought why not?

PHX: So, did you feel like an alien within your own neighborhood, within your own family as well?

LN: No, just within the culture, in the broader culture.

PHX: How were you able to deal with that as a kid?

LN: Well, when I came to California, everything changed. It just didn't have that kind of intense religious atmosphere that I experienced in Boston as a kid. The fact is that my very first validation as an actor came from a Jesuit priest. It was weird. I was acting around town, around Boston, in various plays. Some at the Peabody House, and other places, and I was in a production of a play called John Loves Mary or something like that, and it was being directed by a Jewish director friend of mine who was a student at Boston College, and he invited the head of the drama department to come and see the production, which he did. A wonderful Jesuit priest, I'll never forget him. His name was Father John Bonn. And he came backstage after the performance and we got to meet. This was in the spring of 1949. And he said to me, "What are you doing this summer?" and I said, "I haven't got any plans," and he said "Well, you do now." And he put me in a summer program at BC, eight weeks, which was really intense and wonderful and it was acting and improv and speech classes in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoon and performances in the evening. And then you'd maybe work on the set until about 2 o' clock in the morning for next weeks show, flop out on the stage and go to sleep for a few hours and then get up and do it all over again.

PHX: Sounds like paradise for a drama kid.

LN: It was great. Eight weeks of that. So, he validated my interest and my desire. And when I finished that, I got on a train and went to California.

PHX: What were you thinking when you got on that train?

LN: I was excited. I wanted to get into an environment where I could do something I understood and cared about. I hated school. Oh! I was a terrible student. I didn't want to do the homework. I wasn't interested. I didn't care about it. I didn't care about it.

PHX: Are you one of those people who couldn't do something unless you were passionately interested?

LN: I just didn't do the homework. I didn't want to read the history lesson. I didn't want to do the math homework. I didn't want to do it. I'd rather do hang out with the guys on the street, and look for something exciting or interesting to talk about or do. I'd rather go rehearse a play somewhere. I did a lot of plays in my teenage years. The only thing I did in school that I was successful at was declamation. They used to have declamation contests. I always did that. That interested in me.

PHX: So, it was different when you go to California?

LN: I walked into a place called the Pasadena Playhouse, Home of the Theatre, and I thought, "Now I'm home. This is where I'm supposed to be."

PHX: That's a great story. Did you make it back to Boston ever?

LN: Oh, yeah. I had some great experiences. I came back in ‘71 as Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, and my family just ate it up. It was so thrilling. I did it at Beverly, and I did it on the Cape. We had a great, great time. It was really the story of my family, you know. And then I came back some years later and did a one-man show called Vincent, about Vincent Van Gogh at the Wilbur Theatre. So, that was exciting. The Wilbur is where I used to go see pre-broadway shows. Boston was a try-out town for Broadway. And to be playing the Wilbur was a great experience.

PHX: There's something special about coming back to the place you were as a kid, were you looked up to, even if it's not the biggest stage in the world. It's special.

LN: Yeah, very rewarding. And I directed a movie in the neighborhood, in Cambridge and Boston, called The Good Mother, with Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson. We shot in Cambridge and the Faneuil Hall Market area.

PHX: Was it your idea to shoot here?

LN: No, the story was based on a book written by a Cambridge lady, and that was the locale of the story.

PHX: Did that draw you to it?

LN: Yeah, I was very excited about shooting there, sure.

PHX: Because it was in Boston?

LN: Yeah, and because I thought it was a great story. Unfortunately, it was a tragic story, so it didn't do very well. But I thought it was a very touching story and a powerful story and the script was so good and packed with wonderful people. It was a thrill to be doing it.

PHX: You've done so many different kinds of art. Is there one thing that you're proudest of?

LN: No, I wouldn't say proud. I'm grateful, because I've had wonderful opportunities. Acting, directing, writing, some recording. All through the seventies I did a lot of theatre, all around the country. And I was on Broadway a couple times and I've had a lot of great opportunities. [Pauses, suddenly takes a deep breath and bellows:] I'M SICK OF TALKING ABOUT MYSELF!

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  • WesternMass said:

    Think maybe you folks could get the spelling of Northampton right? I know it's west of the Continental Divide at I-495, but still, it's misspelled twice in this article. PLEASE fix.

    May 10, 2011 4:18 PM
  • Maddy Myers said:

    @WesternMass -- Fixed, thanks!

    May 10, 2011 5:31 PM

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