Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hero Complex: Leonard Nimoy

I’ve seen Star Trek’s William Shatner in-person many times, including an up-close-and-personal encounter several years ago in a radio show green room (thanks Tim!). But I’ve only seen his co-star, Leonard Nimoy, three times: (1) at a “grand slam” Star Trek convention celebrating the show's 25th anniversary; (2) at a live reading of the fantasy novel The Lost World; and (3) at the BookExpo America convention two years ago. Shatner has managed to reinvent himself many times since the original TV show ended 42 years ago. Nimoy, however, will forever be Mr. Spock, arguably the most iconic television character of the 1960s.

This weekend the L.A. Times is sponsoring a film festival called “Hero Complex,” featuring well-loved science fiction movies and their directors. Last night was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (STIV), starring and directed by Leonard Nimoy. The event was sold-out. Luckily I bought my ticket within five minutes of seeing the initial ad in the paper.

The movie started at 7PM. I arrived an hour early and was greeted by a long line already snaking around the theater’s lobby. The audience looked pretty normal for a Star Trek event--I only saw one person in uniform. I checked in, got my wristband and then took my place at the end of the line. The guy in front of me attempted to strike-up a conversation by saying he’d never seen STIV.

I took the bait.

“You’ve never seen Star Trek IV?” I asked incredulously. “How's that even possible?”

“I’m a Star Wars fan,” he explained.

“Well, they’re not mutually exclusive, ya know,” I retorted as patiently as I could.

“I know,” he said proudly, “but my friends are all either Star Trek or Star Wars fans, not both. You must be a trekkie!”

“Since 1966,” I said.

He pondered that bit of news for a while, then asked: “Here’s one for you: Next Generation or classic Trek?” referring to the first two series, which are often compared and debated.

I took a moment to respond. “The Next Generation is my favorite show, but I have great affection for the original series,” I said diplomatically. Obviously I was in no mood to argue the finer points of either show with someone so clueless. We proceeded into the theater in silence.

I own STIV on DVD and have watched it countless times. Still there was something exciting about seeing it on the big screen again, even if the quality wasn’t as good as my digital version at home. The story, which has the crew travelling back to 20th century San Francisco to retrieve a pair of humpback whales that are now extinct on 23rd-century earth, holds up well after all these years. In fact, the movie, which was released in 1986, remains one of my favorite ST films. Even Tim, who jokingly calls it “Star Trek: The Whales,” likes the film and he’s not much of a ST fan.

The audience was very engaged, laughing and clapping at all the right times, especially during the opening credits when all the actors’ names were listed. I was reminded that two cast members, DeForest Kelley (Bones) and James Doohan (Scotty), have already died. But the man of the hour was definitely Nimoy who, after the film ended, made a dramatic entrance at the back of the theater (where I was sitting!) and walked, with escorts, to the front stage. I leapt to my feet as everyone gave him a standing ovation.

Highlights of the interview are available elsewhere, so I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that Nimoy was terrific, responding thoughtfully to questions posed by L.A. Times columnist Geoff Boucher. Topics ranged everywhere from STIV to the original series to the 2009 ST movie, in which he played Spock for the last time, to his recurring role in the current TV show Fringe. The interview was supposed to last only 45 minutes; but Nimoy waved away the timekeeper and continued the conversation well after an hour. I was most pleased when he admitted he was now very comfortable with his legacy as Mr. Spock--this from the man who infamously wrote a controversial autobiography, I Am Not Spock, in 1975. Before leaving the stage, he admonished us all to “Live Long and Prosper” while flashing the Vulcan hand salute. Many of us returned the salute, while the rest just applauded wildly.

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