In 1986 Leonard Nimoy interrupted an extremely hectic day of post-production of the latest Trekkie epic, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” to welcome me to the Paramount lot in Los Angeles. Besides continuing his role as Dr. Spock, he was also director of the film. On his desk I noticed a book, “Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary,” with an introduction by Abba Eban.
He kept his proud Jewish identity strong over the years. “I feel very good being connected with it, with the culture and education. I have tried, whenever possible, to work in projects that have some sense of Jewish identity.”
The year before I met him, Nimoy, a heavy smoker in his younger years, broke the habit. “I wasn’t happy about being a smoker,” he said. “I was short of breath. I decided it was time to quit.”
Yet his smoking led to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an incurable malady that ultimately struck him down at age 83 on Feb. 27, when he died at home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles.
Nimoy found huge success in Hollywood, but he told me the biggest mistake in his career was going to the West Coast instead of Broadway after leaving Boston College at age 18. He accepted an offer to work at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“It was not a good idea,” he said. “The Pasadena Playhouse was on its last legs when I got there in 1949. I wasn’t very happy with the place.”
He felt that all those lean years of his career could have been avoided had he gone straight to New York for a richer theatrical grounding. But the palm trees swaying on the sunny boulevards enticed him to stay in L.A. After years of struggle, he finally rocketed to the top of the Hollywood galaxy on the Starship Enterprise.
This surge in his career came in 1966-69 when two Jewish boys, Nimoy and William Shatner, dominated on NBC’s “Star Trek” series. While it was the producer’s decision that Nimoy’s half-alien/half-human character, Dr. Spock, should be greenish, with bangs and pointy ears, it was Nimoy’s choice to reach back into Jewish tradition to create the unique Vulcan greeting. He raised his hand, fingers stretched apart, in the manner of Kohanim when they offer the priestly blessings during holiday services. His motto was “Live long and prosper.”
He was born and bred in a kosher home in Boston. His father Max, a barber, and mother Dora came from Zaslav, a small Ukrainian town on the Polish border. He and brother Melvin went to Hebrew school every day after public school. “I was very much attached to the social and cultural aspects of Judaism,” he said, “but not terribly attached to the religious aspects.” He was a member of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO), AZA and later the Benjamin Cardozo chapter of B’nai B’rith.
In 1953, he appeared with Yiddish actor Maurice Schwartz in the English language adaptation of Sholom Aleichem’s “Hard To Be A Jew” at the now-defunct Hollywood Civic Playhouse. That’s where he met his first wife. A replacement was needed for the ingénue. A beautiful, intelligent woman named Sandra Zober came to audition. She came from Cordova, Alaska, the only Jewish family there. She failed the test but gained a husband. Leonard and Sandi married 1954 and divorced in 1987.
He also appeared in a 1971 production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Hyannis, Mass.
Nimoy said doing “A Woman Called Golda” was “a very good experience for me.” He played Golda Meir’s husband in that 1982 TV movie. He made two trips to Israel for the filming. Nine years later, he played a Holocaust survivor who waged a courtroom battle against Holocaust deniers in the TV movie "Never Forget."
Unlike most Jews in Hollywood, Nimoy wouldn’t work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Not as a rule, not if I can help it,” he said.
Nimoy’s second wife, Susan Bay, whom he married in 1989, survives him. She is a cousin of prominent film director Michael Bay (“Armageddon,” “Transformers”) who was raised Jewish by adoptive parents.
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. At the same time he has been a columnist for The New York Jewish Week for 35 years, and editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com for 16 years. He is the author of Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame, interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.