September 22, 2019

Q-and-A with Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy — best known as “Star Trek's” logical Mr. Spock — wants the Griffith Observatory to go where no observatory has gone before. So he became one of the staunchest advocates of the landmark's mammoth renovation and expansion project, along with his wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, donating $1 million toward its new Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater. The auditorium, housed in a circular drum clad in perforated metal panels, is so elegantly futuristic it could serve as a set for the planned “Star Trek XI” film, which will not involve Nimoy.

The 75-year-old actor-director, who helmed two of the “Star Trek” films, has left filmmaking and fictional space travel behind to focus on philanthropy and photography. Last Friday, he was busy preparing for his latest exhibition, “The Photography of Leonard Nimoy,” at the Archer Gallery in Brentwood. But he set aside time to talk with The Journal about the observatory, where he hopes visitors will learn more about what “Trek” dubbed the “final frontier.”

Jewish Journal: How did you get involved with the Griffith project?

Leonard Nimoy: About five years ago, my wife, Susan, got up one morning and read a piece in the Los Angeles Times about how the observatory was shutting down for renovations, and that they needed funds. We immediately contacted the key people and learned about their plans and hopes and dreams. One thing we discovered was that while the Griffith has had a Planetarium where you could see laser shows, they've never had a theater for presenting films, lectures and the exchange of ideas. I was drawn to the theater because of the obvious connections: I explored the stars, the planets and the galaxies on “Star Trek,” and I got my professional start in the theater.

JJ: Specifically, the Yiddish theater.

LN: My parents were immigrants from the shtetl, so I grew up speaking Yiddish and was able to perform with visiting theater troupes in L.A. as a young man.

JJ: It wasn't until you were in your 30s that you got your big break playing the Vulcan Spock on “Star Trek.” Which came first, your association with science fiction or your interest in science?

LN: Actually I've been interested in physics and mechanical issues since I was a child in Boston, where I attended science programs at the neighborhood settlement house [an institution that helped poor immigrants and their families]. Also, one of the first movies I ever did was a [1952] science fiction film called “Zombies of the Stratosphere” — how's that for starters (he laughs)?

JJ: What did you play?

LN: A zombie, of course.

JJ: Your character intended to build an H-bomb to blast the earth out of its orbit. I remember a giant green poster from that movie in your den, across from the last pair of pointy Vulcan ears you wore on the “Star Trek” TV series.

LN: Both are still there. But of course it was “Star Trek” that introduced me to a host of information about outer space, some of it speculative, some of it real. “Warp drive” was a riff on Einstein's Theory of Relativity [where you could travel vast distances if you surpassed the speed of light].

JJ: In astronomy, an event horizon is the gravity field of a black hole where light cannot escape. I trust that visitors will have no trouble exiting the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater?

LN: For us, “event” horizon is meant to indicate a place where things happen — anything from movies to live downloads of outer space experiences to NASA projects in progress. The very first film that will show there is a documentary about the Griffith's renovation, which I narrated.

JJ: As a philanthropist, you've endowed projects as diverse as a concert series at Temple Israel of Hollywood to artist's fellowships at museums throughout the country. In the past you've given anonymously, but recently you've allowed your name to be associated with some gifts.

LN: In Judaism, there is a philosophical understanding that the highest form of charity is that which is given anonymously. The reason is that when you give to an individual, that person could feel an obligation to you if he knows whom you are. [Today,] when Susan and I give publicly to an institution, we do so in the hope that it will encourage others to do the same, so there's the difference.

JJ: Susan told a Canadian newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, that when you announced the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater, the observatory's phone “rang off the hook with all these 'Star Trek' fans. They gave money like mad.

LN: That's exactly what we had hoped would happen…. Our gift-giving comes from a very Jewish place. It's the belief that the exploration of ideas is vital to the expansion of the human consciousness of who we are, and what we're on earth to do, which I strongly believe is tikkun olam the healing of the world.

JJ: That sounds a lot like the outlook expressed by the fictional characters of “Star Trek's” USS Enterprise, although they'd perhaps call it the “healing of the universe.” So what would Spock think of Griffith's grand re-opening?

LN: He would think it was a very logical event taking place here. Very logical.