Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Honoring Leonard Nimoy, Who Lived Long and Prospered

Like everyone in the world—no, make that everyone in the universe—I’m going to miss Leonard Nimoy. I can’t pretend to be a Star Trek expert, but even those who haven’t seen a single episode know something about the highly logical half-Vulcan with the slanted eyebrows and the pointy ears. What appeals to me about Leonard Nimoy is how he made this role his own, then used it as a stepping-stone to all the other creative things he wanted to do. He took on many roles, both fanciful  parts and highly serious ones, playing a pompous self-help guru in the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a survivor of Auschwitz in a 1991 TV drama called Never Forget. He also turned to the stage, touring as Vincent Van Gogh in a one-man play.

His celebrity led him in some curious directions. He published poetry. He became a recording star via an album titled Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space. He launched comic books, provided voiceovers for videogames, got involved with children’s educational television, and appeared on The Simpsons. He also made the leap into the director’s chair, helming several of the Star Trek movies as well as Three Men and a Baby.     

Most seriously, he pursued his lifelong interest in art photography. His work, which hung in galleries and museums, included a controversial series called Shekhina, built around images of nude and sensually draped women, combined with Jewish ritual objects. To Nimoy these photos were intended to suggest the traditionally feminine aspects of Jewish spirituality. His commitment to the religion of his forefathers was never in question. As everyone knows by now, his famous Vulcan salute was respectfully borrowed from the fingers-apart gesture made by the kohanim (or Jewish priests) since ancient times, while blessing their fellow congregants. In his own life, Nimoy made it a point to include among his charitable efforts a deep commitment to Jewish causes, including his home synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood.

In recent years I’ve loved reading about Leonard Nimoy because he was happily married (since 1989) to a long-ago friend of mine. I met Susan Bay when I was a high school kid without a driver’s license, and she was a grown-up college girl. We were both active in drama at a local community center. When The Wizard of Oz was being staged, Susan was cast as Dorothy. As for me, I was lucky to be invited to play a dual role, the head Munchkin as well as the Captain of the Flying Monkeys. After rehearsals and performances, Susan would drive me home; she’d tell me about her college acting courses and advise me to read Stanislavski. (Sorry, Susan—I still haven’t followed through on that.)  Afterwards we lost touch, but I remember being excited to see her featured in a TV drama.

Over the years, Susan has undertaken the occasional acting role and gotten involved with progressive social causes. Since her marriage to Nimoy, the two have worked together on numerous projects. He produced and she directed a one-woman play about Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway. They’ve donated major sums to L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and were important forces behind the spectacular recent renovation of the Griffith Park Observatory, which now houses the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater. Once I attended a rather esoteric concert at Temple Israel, and found both of them in the lobby, promoting ticket and CD sales. Susan and I shared a few memories, and her spouse was gracious to me too. Which, after all, was only logical.

The Wizard of Oz: that's Susan Bay on the right, and me as a Flying Monkey crouching at left.


  1. What a wonderful world of connections you live in! I have been a fan of Leonard Nimoy since discovering Star Trek as a lad of single digits. I also really enjoyed his run on Mission Impossible as the team Master of Disguise which he took on after Star Trek's cancellation. I was not aware of all of his charitable efforts and it was nice to learn of them here.

    I would have loved to have seen your Wizard of Oz - the costume design is marvelous!

  2. One more nice story about Leonard and Susan Nimoy: a professor I know at UC Berkeley once published an op-ed on the occasion of a major "Star Trek" anniversary. Her analysis of the political philosophy underlying the series so impressed the Nimoys that they invited her to attend a "Star Trek" celebration in L.A. The best part was that they opened their home to her during her stay. They turned out to be the perfect hosts; she'll never forget how friendly and generous both were.