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Interview with Leonard Nimoy

HOLLYWOOD - These are the biggest sound stages Paramount has, and just as well, too, because they're barely big enough to contain the awesome bulk of the Starship Enterprise. The ship is scattered about, of course; there's a wing on one sound stage and the space-drive mechanism in another, and here we are on a third stage, standing on the command deck of the great ship.

It is an eerie feeling for anyone who has followed the "Star Trek" series during its original three seasons and then its infinite reruns. You look around for Mr. Spock and Capt. Kirk, and then you realize that the Enterprise has undergone a lot of improvements since it was last in dry-dock.

The command deck, for example, is maybe four times as big. The exterior sets are equally large and detailed; these sets are as good as the ones in "2001: A Space Odyssey." The engine room, with its intergalactic drive, is almost a city block long, and then the designers have used a trick of perspective to make it seem twice again as long as that. Squint your eyes and it seems to stretch out endlessly, and you agree that, yes, this engine could propel the Enterprise between the stars.

And then you turn a corner and find yourself in Doc McCoy's infirmary, and even Bones has moved up in the world. His hospital facilities, which were so cramped on TV they were a kind of Space Ship MASH, have been expanded into a kind of intergalactic Michael Reese Medical Center. Paramount, having at various times considered resurrecting "Star Trek" as a TV series, a cheaper movie and an anchor for a fourth network, has now at last gathered the courage to make it the right way, as a big-budget epic. The price tag is said to be $20 million. Judging by the sets, it'll be a bargain.

I stepped down gingerly from the engine room, walked through the eerie silence of the infirmary, turned a corner and entered a dressing room, and was confronted by the rather unsettling sight of Mr. Spock himself. Leonard Nimoy was in makeup, ears and eyebrows and one-piece pullover and all, and it took an effort to remember that this was the same Leonard Nimoy I'd just seen playing a San Francisco psychiatrist in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and that there were not actually any half-human, half-Vulcans to be interviewed - no, not even at Paramount.

Nimoy's Vulcan half was terrific: Whoever thought up that makeup and the pointed ears created one of the unforgettable TV images of the last decade. His human half wasn't doing too well; Nimoy had a cold. "Feed a cold and starve a fever," Nimoy said, ordering our lunch from an aide. Not exactly the first words you'd expect from, Mr. Spock.

There have been so many different efforts to get "Star Trek" off the ground once again, after it lost the TV ratings battle while winning the hearts of millions of Trekkies, that I asked Nimoy if he could describe them for me.

"It's a series of complicated stories," he said.

"Paramount at one time wanted to anchor a new fourth TV network with 'Star Trek,' and they asked me to do the two-hour pilot movie and appear on five of the other 20 shows. I couldn't see doing a part-time Mr. Spock, and so I said no. Then there were stories that I thought I was caged by the role; I was trapped, I'd had a break down...all a lot of fantasy.

"Then there was going to be a moderately budgeted movie, to be directed by Phil Kaufman, who directed 'Body Snatchers.' I admired Phil and his work, and I said I'd do that movie, but then it was canceled. Then 'Star Wars' came along and Paramount apparently realized it was sitting on a valuable property with 'Star Trek,' and so they scrapped the Kaufman project, script and all, and started again with Robert Wise, an enormous budget, and a movie planned for release at Christmas 1979.

"My only consideration, all along, was that I didn't want to return to 'Star Trek' unless it was going to be done right. This is going to be done right. It's not enough to just put 'Star Trek' on the marquees. This movie has to be a definitive piece of work."

I understand, I said, that the screenplay is being kept secret. In fact, even the sets are off limits, and I was lucky to get my glimpse of the Enterprise command deck.

"Well, they'd like people to be surprised by some of the elements of the plot, and so of course they're keeping it under wraps," Nimoy said. "I can tell you, a few things. This will be the first time, for example, that you see all of the hundreds of members of the Enterprise crew. On TV, you saw just the characters on a given show, and there were mentions of the off-screen crew. When you see them in the movie, by the way, there will be a lot of aliens among them, some of them a lot less human than Mr. Spock."

And the plot? I said. I hear rumors it's about a confrontation with an alien intelligence....

"Yes, whatever that means," Nimoy said, grinning. "The 'Star Trek' stories have very frequently asked the basic questions: What does it mean to be? What is proper behavior, and are we qualified to define it for someone or something else? The Enterprise has been dry-docked when the movie opens, and then a vast force - I don't want to say anything more specific - is discovered entering the galaxy, and we come out of retirement and go out to meet it. It presents us with some very basic questions. For example, is it alive? Intelligent? 'Star Trek' can have all the special effects in the world and unless it involves its characters with basic ideas, with questions of the meaning of life, I think the fans would be disappointed."

"Star Trek" is going to have all the special effects in the world, though, right?

"Sensational. Robert Wise takes a lot of time; briefing the actors on what's going on, so we can use our imaginations. There'll be a small area of real space - a set, the top of a wing, something - and then he tells us what the optical guys are going to be doing after we're finished. Sensational special effects. Stars and planets and the Enterprise, which will be seen both full size and as a miniature...and then, of course, that strange alien presence, which is going to be to this picture what the sound-and-light sequence was to '2001.'"

And, ah, what will the strange alien presence look like?

"Formidably strange," said Leonard Nimoy, who at that moment seemed inexplicably a good deal more than half Vulcan.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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