By Luaine Lee
It didn’t sound like a fortuitous beginning for a television series. The original star of the show was fired. The entire cast was changed, except for one, lone player. And the initial pilot failed to sell.
It took a year, but when “Star Trek” finally made it to television it began what would turn out to be an historic run.
September 8 marked the 48th anniversary of that premiere. It not only produced legions of fans the world over, four hardy television spin-offs, an animated cartoon, and soon-to-be 13 movies, but it produced a lifelong friendship between its two stars, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
Today the dynamic Capt. James T. Kirk and the ever-logical Mr. Spock sit side-by-side on pale green brocade chairs in a hotel in Beverly Hills and remember those days as both inspiring and debilitating.
“We were in a crucible,” says Nimoy, shaking his head. “The work was extremely intense. They were long hours and very few days. The work was jammed into a tight, very short period of time. You get a script maybe a day or two before you’re going to start shooting it.”
“Or sometimes you didn’t even get the script, you got pages,” adds Shatner.
Often the actor would have ideas or suggestions to contribute, recalls Nimoy, but they would fall on dead ears.
“Maybe you’d see some opportunity for something that had been missed, and you’d go to the producers and you’d say, ‘Gee, I wish we could do such-and-such.’ And they’d be impatient because the pages they shipped you, they were done with that. It was, ‘We’re done with that, my God, let’s move on to next week because we don’t have a script for next week!’ Here was some the actor saying, ‘Wait a minute, I need your time and energy on this.’ That creates a tension.”
“Yes, but there were artistic, passionate discourses,” adds Shatner, raising his hands.“But on the whole it was very much a creative atmosphere.”
First Pilot Rejected
That ‘creative atmosphere’ only arrived after the first teleplay, written by the now venerated Gene Roddenberry, had been rejected. “The first pilot, a one-hour show, I acted in was written by Gene,” recalls Nimoy.
“At first it was called ‘The Cage’ and later ‘The Menagerie’ . . . In the first pilot Jeffrey Hunter was the captain of the ship. And it did not sell the series. Then a subsequent pilot was made about a year later in which Bill Shatner became the captain, and several other cast changes were made.”
“In fact, the only cast member that wasn’t changed was Leonard,” says Shatner, who looks like his famous Denny Crane character from “Boston Legal,” in navy blue slacks, a navy blue-and-white checked, long-sleeved shirt.
“That pilot was not written by Gene,” reports Nimoy. “It was written by Sam Peeples (titled by Peeples “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”) Later Gene took that original one-hour show ‘The Cage’ and created a two-parter by adding some material to it and giving it a surrounding, envelope story. That was called ‘The Menagerie.’
Nimoy’s character as the stoic second-in-command, Spock, with the pointy ears and the laconic demeanor was difficult to describe on the pages of a script. “I remember what Gene told me when I met with him, though. He said, ‘The character is going to be a character with an internal conflict because he is half-Vulcan, half-human. He wants to live as a Vulcan. His human side is something he has to contend with constantly.’ And I was excited about that because I thought it would give the character an inner life, something to work with.”
Shatner interjects, “In addition to that, from what he did on the first pilot, as the second pilot evolved, he began to see the possibilities of how to perform the character. And it became uniquely his by the second pilot.”
Captain Kirk, an Unknown Quantity
The description of Captain Kirk is also lost in history. “I don’t recall how he was described except he was the typical leading man,” says Shatner. “And the books about ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower ‘by C. S. Forester were the basis of the hero. So I read several of those.”
The work required long, grueling hours on the set, producing a massive 80 episodes in the span of three years. Nimoy, who had to undergo three hours of makeup to glaze his skin a sickly green and perk his ears to attention, started his day at five-thirty in the morning. “I had to get eight hours sleep at night, I had to,” says Nimoy, who’s dressed in a white shirt, navy blue suede jacket and beige slacks.
“We’ve never talked about this, but by three or four o’clock in the afternoon, when I felt my energy dissipating, I was gulping honey. I always had jars of honey to give myself an extra kick to get through the last two or three hours because you wanted to stay on top of the work. It was exciting and demanding, and you have to find the energy to keep going. You weren’t just phoning it in. You wanted to bring something to the party every time you stepped on the stage.”
By contrast, Shatner thrived on the rugged schedule. “I seemed to have developed the ability to deny fatigue,” he smiles. “So somehow I can go until I crash or get sick.”
But the pressure did affect their personal lives. “My marriage broke up because of it,” sighs Shatner, who still looks great at 83.
“I’m sure my kids didn’t get the attention they should have or might have if I hadn’t been so involved,” says Nimoy, whose birthday is four days after Shatner’s.
Canceled After Three Years!
In spite of their hard work, the original “Star Trek” lasted only three years. It was slumming in the depths of the ratings when NBC canceled it. “The audience was not big enough to keep us on the air, but they were extremely vocal and intense. I thought we would see a couple years of reruns and then fade away,” Nimoy recalls.
“Then after two or three years, when the series went into syndication and stations around the country would schedule according to their own local audience and find out where this show might work, they began to discover there was a very interested audience waiting for the show. Then suddenly it became a news story and ‘Star Trek’ was being run every night at six o’clock and the family dinner-hour was being disrupted. When we were stopped at the airport, people would say, ‘My family won’t sit down to dinner because “Star Trek” is on.’
“College professors were discovering that at three o’clock in the afternoon they couldn’t hold a class because ‘Star Trek’ was on, and all the students were in the student lounge watching ‘Star Trek.’ So they started introducing ‘Star Trek’ into their educational programs,” says Nimoy.
“They were doing courses using ‘Star Trek’ as a vehicle for studying psychology, sociology, planetary problems, and so forth. It became this gigantic thing happening in the ’70s that nobody anticipated. Then came conversation about the possibility of bringing ‘Star Trek’ back in some form or another. There was talk about making another series, a two-hour television series, talk about making theatrical films and finally it happened late in the ’70s. But we were out of production for 11 years.”
The juggernaut roared after the ’70s. Television spin-offs “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” kept the airwaves seeking new horizons. Hollywood managed to exploit the franchise with 12 films, so far– two of which were directed by Nimoy and one by Shatner.
The recipe for a successful “Star Trek” movie? “Leonard knows the secret. He never told me,” jokes Shatner, whose “Star Trek V: the Final Frontier” was less successful than Nimoy’s “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” or “Star Trek IV: Voyage Home.”
“You have to be fortunate enough to bring together a lot of successful elements. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” says Nimoy. “Sometimes very, very talented people get together with the intention of making a great film and it doesn’t work. Sometimes it does. You need a great story, a good script and talented people to execute it. Actors, technicians, cinematographers. There’s alchemy involved and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Fave Episode of Nimoy & Shatner
In spite of its long trail of episodes and spinoffs, Shatner and Nimoy have no trouble picking their favorite episode. ‘Amok Time,’ they say simultaneously. “It was a very wonderful script written by Theodore Sturgeon, a very poetic script. It had all the elements of great, classic drama — and a very strong interaction between the two of us,” says Nimoy, passing his hand between the two of them. “It was a very good script.”
Being so closely identified with a television character can often damage an actor’s career. Performers like Henry Winkler, who played Fonzie on “Happy Days,” or Peter Falk as the pestering “Columbo” were forever identified with those roles.
While Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk have become indelibly incised in people’s memory, neither Shatner nor Nimoy resents the fact.
“I don’t have any regrets,” says the Canada-born Shatner. “This character was a leading man. He ran and jumped and fought his way through a myriad of women that he bedded – yes, it’s true – and so to be typecast as that was not a terrible thing. It gave me celebrity so that subsequent work was enhanced because of the identification. I have never regretted being Captain Kirk.”
“I always considered myself a character actor,” says Nimoy “and I’ve always believed — and I’ve taught acting classes — and I always taught that the most successful thing that an actor can accomplish is to have an audience believe the character. If the audiences came to believe my performance as Spock, I found that flattering. That to me was a degree of success. The fact is, that from the moment that ‘Star Trek’ went on the air in September 1966 to this very day, I’ve never had to worry about where my next job is coming from. This was a big change for me because for 15 years prior to that I was always, always worried about where my next job was coming from. So since September ’66 I’ve had no problem.”
Perks of the Gig
The notoriety they enjoyed from the show brought them other perks, as well. “The association with science and the concept that I knew something more than I did know gave me – and this also applies to Leonard – access to fields of endeavor that I would never have been,” says Shatner, leaning forward.
“For example, we were invited on a regular basis to NASA. I was at Cape Canaveral prior to the moon shot. I was in the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) that landed on the moon prior to it going. Those kinds of thrills would not have been part of our lives.”
“We were out in Mojave the day the first space shuttle was rolled out,” remembers Nimoy. “It was the shuttle called Enterprise, named after our own ship on ‘Star Trek.’. And it was the shuttle that was put piggyback on top of the 747 to practice landings for the first time. When they rolled it out, we were all out there and the Air Force Band played the theme from ‘Star Trek.’ What greater thrill could you have? It was fabulous.”
There was something about Roddenberry’s original concept that made it somehow universally popular and timeless. For Shatner it was the positive philosophy underlying the text. “In addition to the stories, it was the action and adventure; it was the idea that the world still existed 200 years from now. So that fact in itself gave a rosy hue to the whole show – that the future was gong to be hopeful. Just the fact that this is coming to you 200 years from now indicated hope. So there was this hopeful note, this entertaining thing between the characters. And it was the cast of characters who wormed their way into your love and affection and you watched them week after week to see what they were going to do.”
For Nimoy, who started in community theater when he was 8, it was always about the substance of the stories. “I believed that the series had content that was timeless,” he says
. “What makes a classic story in any media, whether it’s television or novels, literature? Universal content that has to do with the human condition, that has to do with planetary concerns; content that has to do with social issues that will always be relevant, to some extent. I think we really did get in touch with things that were relevant then and are relevant today. The writers deserve credit for having been in touch with thematic ideas that were meaningful then and are still meaningful today.”