When it was announced at Senior Breakfast that actor Leonard Nimoy, best known for his role as Mr. Spock in the iconic 1960s television series Star Trek, would receive a Doctor of Humane Letters degree at BU’s 2012 Commencement, the room erupted in cheers, many seniors spreading their fingers in the Vulcan salute he made famous.
The fact that most of the students weren’t born until 20 years after Star Trek first aired spoke to Nimoy’s status as a Hollywood legend. Over the course of a more than six-decade career, the 81-year-old actor has earned four Emmy Award nominations, three for his performance as Mr. Spock. But Nimoy is also an accomplished director, poet, musician, and photographer.
On Saturday, the day before he receives an honorary degree, Nimoy will deliver the College of Fine Arts convocation address. Benjamin Juarez, dean of CFA, says Nimoy, whom he calls “an inspiring educator and a most generous philanthropist,” is a perfect choice to address graduating students.
“His career has taken the highest path to which a CFA graduate can aspire: that of a citizen artist,” Juarez says. “He has chosen to use the forums and resources he has accessed as an artist to educate and help others, and it is my hope that he will inspire generations of citizen artists to do the same.”
The Boston-born Nimoy began acting as a child and landed his first bit part in the 1951 film Queen for a Day. Small parts in movies and TV shows, including episodes of Dragnet, The Twilight Zone, and Bonanza, followed before he was cast as the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock in the now-classic sci-fi series Star Trek in 1966. Despite its short run (the series was canceled in 1969), Star Trek became ingrained in American pop culture. Nimoy continued to play the character in more than a half dozen Star Trek movies and directed the 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Nimoy has appeared on stage in Equus, Camelot, and Oliver, was the host of two popular television series, In Search of… and Ancient Mysteries, and has published several volumes of poetry, as well as two memoirs, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock, in which he recounts his relationship with the character that made him famous. His photographs are in the permanent collections of some of the nation’s leading museums.
Despite his announcement two years ago that he planned to retire, Nimoy continues to act. His recurring role as Dr. William Bell on the Fox series Fringe has earned him a whole new generation of fans.
Nimoy’s appearance at Commencement marks his second visit to BU in a year. Last May, he came to campus as part of the Friends of the Libraries of BU Speaker Series, sponsored by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. His archive is part of the holdings at the Gotlieb Center, and his letters, photographs, and personable memorabilia are currently on display in the exhibition “What’s New in Our Vault.”
BU Today recently spoke with Nimoy from his home in California about his Boston roots, his career, and the season finale of Fringe.
BU Today: You grew up in Boston’s West End, the son of Ukranian immigrants. How has the neighborhood changed?
Nimoy: It’s not the West End anymore; it’s become something completely different. It was a tenement neighborhood, all attached three- or four-story brick walk-ups. It was an immigrant neighborhood, mostly Italian, some Jews, some Irish and Polish. It was bordered by Mass General Hospital and North Station on the other end, and the Charles River. On Charles Street there was a building known as the Elizabeth Peabody Playhouse. Peabody was renowned for starting the kindergarten movement in the United States.
The playhouse was given the mission of helping immigrants find their way into the culture, so they offered various classes in social issues, cultural issues, homemaking, how to open a bank account, classes in English because most of the immigrants were not English-speaking people, a basketball court and a sports program, and a beautiful little theater.
When I was eight I started to hang out there after school, and I became involved in the theater almost by accident. They asked me to sing a song one day, and then they cast me in the lead of a production of Hansel and Gretel. I found I liked acting. They would call on me time and time again to be in this play or that play. When I was 17, I acted in my first adult play, and that started me on a serious path to become an actor.
Boston was wonderful for me. The academia and the arts in Boston were very strong, and I was heavily influenced by all of that. The Peabody Playhouse took us on trips to museums and theaters and concerts, and a lot of that formed my awareness. I found Boston to be very stimulating, but I left when I was 18 to go to California to start pursuing acting.
The season finale of Fringe was last week. What can we expect from next season?
I’m on Twitter, and based off of that and the fan emails I receive, I think that people understand that William Bell is a very dangerous character now. It’s just a question of how it will play out. The season finale had some twists and turns that I thought were pretty remarkable. The writers of Fringe are so wildly adventurous and think of some pretty crazy stuff. I think they do a brilliant job. It’s a lot of fun for me. William Bell is the kind of character that I haven’t had the chance to play in a long time.
I would call William Bell mean, I’d call him crazy. He’s bizarre! He sees himself as a god in the finale.
There’s a new Star Trek movie scheduled for release next year. Does it make you happy to see the franchise still going strong 45 years after the series debut?
I can’t say I’m surprised, but I am pleased. It’s very flattering to know that we were part of something that has durability, that has a long, long life.
I’m not surprised, because even when we were making the series, I thought it could have a long future. It is set in the future, so it wouldn’t outdate itself very quickly. The way it evolved was very surprising. We finished making the series in 1969 when we were canceled, and I thought it might be in syndication for a few years and then gradually disappear. But in the ’70s it took on this whole burst of new life in syndication.
Who are some of today’s actors and directors you admire?
I think Johnny Depp is an amazingly creative and inventive person, and Robert Downey, Jr. I love to see their inventiveness and their adventurousness in character choices and performances.
I can’t honestly tell you that I have any favorite directors at the moment. But I always try to see Woody Allen’s films because he is so unique; you don’t always see people doing what Woody Allen does. He is always interesting, if not wonderful.
Clint Eastwood has had an incredible career; his longevity impresses me. And his continued energy impresses me. In Million Dollar Baby, he pulled off euthanasia without any problems. I remember sitting there stunned how Eastwood euthanized that young woman, played by Hilary Swank, out of sympathy and empathy, and there were no people marching in the streets. I didn’t see anyone getting up in arms about it. I think Massachusetts is about to put Death with Dignity on the ballot. My wife has been very active in raising funds to get it on the ballot.
I read that you met Barack Obama early in his first campaign for the presidency and told him he should become president. Can you tell us about that?
The first time I met him was very early on, long before he was attracting sizable crowds. I was invited to a luncheon in Los Angeles at a private home, and we were gathered on the back patio. I don’t think there were more than 50 or 60 people. When he came out on the back patio and saw me, he raised his hand in a Vulcan greeting gesture. He said, “They told me you were here,” and we shook hands. I said to him, “I think it would be logical if you were to become president of the United States.” I saw him again much later in the campaign when it was full-blown, with the big crowd scenes, and I was ushered up to see him.
What are you working on these days?
It’s really hard to say. I’m trying to find my way now. My path is not as clear to me as it was in the past. In the past I knew precisely what I was doing. I like to say that I was majoring in career and minoring in family, and now I think it’s shifted. I’m much more interested in my family now and less in my career. I’m making some choices, working on what I find interesting. I won’t go away on long jobs or travel far distances to work on projects. I’ve acted all over the United States and a number of countries, and it doesn’t intrigue me like it used to. I’m now much more interested in being with my children and six grandchildren. I’m enjoying my life. I do an occasional voice job or on-camera appearance. I did a voice appearance on the Big Bang Theory a few months back. It’s a very smart show; I enjoyed doing it.
Any advice for students trying to break into the business?
I am going to say in my speech that I have three words of advice: persistence, persistence, persistence. Bring yourself to the work, bring us what you have, we need it, we crave it, we want and need what the arts offers us. And don’t create any more reality TV shows.
The College of Fine Arts Convocation is Saturday, May 19, at 11 a.m. at the Track and Tennis Center, 100 Ashford St. The event is free and open to the public. The University’s 139th Commencement is on Sunday, May 20, at 1 p.m. at Nickerson Field.