Look at the faces in this 70-year-old newspaper photograph – see anyone familiar? Yes, that’s right, the fresh-faced fellow with the tweed blazer and yearbook smile is none other than 20-year-old Leonard Nimoy, the future Star Trek icon. The photograph, which shows Nimoy with an early-career costar named Mona Knox, was published by the Los Angeles Times in February 1952.
I found the photograph while rummaging through the paper’s archives in 2009 and I marveled at the date stamped on it. I tracked down the short article that had accompanied the photo and the context it provided made the unexpected discovery even more auspicious. I learned that the photo opp captured the moment that Nimoy signed his first Hollywood contract and the setting was the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Why the courthouse? In that era, anyone under 21 was deemed a minor by California contractural law so a sitting judge was needed to approve contracts like the one Nimoy was offered by Jack Broder Productions to star in Kid Monk Baroni, a boxing film that recalls the Bowery Boys films minus the wisecracks and slapstick. Nimoy, a Jewish kid from Boston, was chosen for the title role as a street tough from Little Italy who takes a swing at redemption as a boxer.
The article ran on page A9 where it nestled between the astrology column and a furniture ad. It had no byline and was almost certainly the handiwork of a press agent (and a sexist one, too, judging by the article’s leering tone and the description of Knox as “a cute tomato.”) Still, Nimoy's subsequent career had invested a retroactive significance to the coverage. In the scrapbook of Nimoy's Hollywood odyssey, this is clipping that would have been pasted on the opening page. Later that year, the release of Kid Monk Baroni was met by a collective shrug from critics and moviegoers. The performance by Nimoy didn’t knock anybody out either but it did earn the young actor a $350 payday and a new wardrobe (he got to keep three suits he wore in the film). In the grand scheme of things, the gig got Nimoy started on an acting path that would be both long and (eventually) prosperous.
It would be another 14 years before the maiden voyage of the USS Enterprise on NBC’s Star Trek (1966-1969) gave Nimoy his signature role as Mister Spock, the intrepid Starfleet officer of the 23rd Century who hails from the logic-loving planet of Vulcan. The original Star Trek only aired three seasons but Nimoy’s work clearly captured the attention of his industry peers, as proven by his three consecutive Emmy nominations in the best supporting actor category. Nimoy moved on quickly by joining the outstanding ensemble of the original Mission: Impossible series but, thanks to relentless reruns and pent-up fan demand, the Boston native’s relationship with the saturnine Spock was really just beginning. Nimoy would return to his Starfleet role for eight feature films and two television series as well as a few high-profile video games.
When Nimoy died in February 2015 at age 83, the news was met by a global outpouring of emotion that would have tested the frosty resolve of any Vulcan. It’s no exaggeration to say that Spock ranks among the most beloved characters in all of science fiction (along with the diminutive trio of Yoda, R2-D2, and E.T.) and he remains a towering figure in American pop culture, too, which is why officials at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum were giddy last year to acquire a prized Spock artifact for the museum’s cultural artifacts collection. The last surviving pair of pointy prosthetic ears that Nimoy wore on the original series will go on display later this year in the Washington, D.C., museum.
I can vouch for the claim by Smithsonian officials that the Spock ears were Nimoy’s most prized memento from the original series. The late actor told me the same thing himself more than a decade ago after I noticed the carefully encased souvenirs on display at his bright and airy home in Bel Air, California. I didn’t see any other mementos of his Enterprise duty except for two Al Hirschfeld drawings of Nimoy in his Starfleet uniform. That was it. No movie posters, no models of the good ship Enterprise, no fuzzy tribbles on the mantel. The subtle message: Star Trek might be a great way to make a living, but that didn't mean Nimoy needed to make it his life.
(Oddly, if Nimoy had opted to keep one memento of his first major film role and Kid Monk Baroni it could have been the prosthetic nose that he wore in that film.)
I visited Nimoy’s home twice, once in 2009 and then again in 2012, and I think of those afternoons as two of the pinnacle experiences in my three-decade career as a journalist. I was a child of the 1970s and I grew up loving Star Trek, first in television reruns and then on the big screen, so I absolutely adored Spock and admired the cerebral actor who brought the green-blooded spaceman to life. (I also loved In Search Of, which Nimoy hosted from 1977-1982).
During my 21 years writing for the Los Angeles Times, I interviewed more than a few of my childhood heroes (Harrison Ford, Paul McCartney, Stan Lee, George Lucas, Adam West, and William Shatner, to name a few) but many of those the experiences were underwhelming or vaguely discouraging. That was never the case with Nimoy who was impressive, present and warm in every one of our encounters. I interviewed Nimoy on stage twice at film festivals that I programmed and hosted in Hollywood (the inaugural Hero Complex Film Festival in 2010 and the Capetown USA FilmFest in 2013) and both times he agreed to appear (with no fee, no contract and no conditions) simply because I asked. “Tell me when and where, Geoff, and I will be there, LLAP, LN” was Nimoy’s one-line email reply when I first broached the idea of the 2013 encore. (The LLAP is shorthand for “Live Long and Prosper,” the elegant salutation of the Vulcan culture, but you probably figured that out.)
There was a real warmth in our interactions and I was both flattered and somewhat amazed by interest he took in my work and my opinions. All of it traced back to our very first meeting, which was in 2009 at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. It was during the ramp-up to the terrific J.J. Abrams-directed revival of the Star Trek franchise. The one-hour interview was set up by Paramount Pictures and while I appreciated the one-on-one access I wasn’t especially enthused about the lunchtime location (restaurant interviews can be a challenge to record with the food-chewing, background din, and ill-timed interruptions). As it turned out, Nimoy and I had a quiet corner to ourselves and the interview went terrific. I think he was impressed by my knowledge of his career outside of Federation Space after I asked him about directing Three Men and a Baby (1987) and then also mentioned his Emmy nomination for the television movie A Woman Called Golda (1982) when he played opposite Ingrid Bergman in the final role of her illustrious career. “You’ve done your homework,” Nimoy said with a sigh that sounded more like relief than praise. Nimoy was clearly delighted when I also asked about his longtime passion for photography and his upcoming exhibition, Secret Selves. I told him that my editor had already approved my pitch to follow-up the Star Trek cover story by writing a second feature fronting the Calendar section that was devoted to Nimoy's photography pursuits. "That," he said, "would be fantastic."
That Four Seasons interview ran about a half-hour longer than expected until, finally, a harried Paramount publicist finally appeared at the table waving her arms like a referee without a whistle. "Time flies," Nimoy said and I agreed. As he got up to leave, I shook his hand and said goodbye but then remembered I had brought a surprise for him. I told him it was something I found in a long-forgotten folder in the archives of the Los Angeles Times. I reached into my bag and pulled out a black-and-white artifact from the Eisenhower Era. It was the 1952 photograph of Nimoy and Knox. “I want you to have this but you’ll have to keep it a secret,” I said in a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s totally against the rules to take anything from the Times archives out of the building and, well, our librarians are a pretty scary bunch if you break the rules.”
I explained to Nimoy that I decided to flout the rules "just this one time" because the newspaper had already begun dismantling its analog photo archives in favor of an all-digital system. Once they were scanned in, the paper’s analog collection of prints and negatives (representing about four million images that date back to 1918) would be donated to UCLA with the understanding that only “selected” old prints and negatives would be kept in their analog format. No reprieve was promised (or expected) for the paper’s vast collection of vintage publicity images or “handout art” from Hollywood studios.
Nimoy was shaking his head in amazement. “I haven’t thought about this photo in years. I can’t believe you found it. And you’re sure that I can take this?” I smiled and nodded. “Yes, it’s yours to keep. It’s not a big deal. It just seemed like the logical thing to do.”
A few days later I got an email from Nimoy himself with his home phone number in case I needed it. That was followed by the first invitation to his home to do the interview for the follow-up story about his photography pursuits. That article was shared on the wire and published in dozens of newspapers across the U.S. and beyond. The second visit to his home was even better. That's when we recorded a video interview for the inaugural edition of the Hero Complex online talk show, which you can watch below in two parts.
I have two favorite moments from the video interview. One is when Nimoy does an impression of William Shatner, which sort of just speaks for itself.
The other is Nimoy’s response when I playfully complained about an imbalance in our social media relationship. I follow you on Twitter, I told him, but I notice you don’t follow me. “Ah, yes,” he said in that warm and instantly familiar baritone, “but I’m aware of you.” Yes, he was very much aware of me. And I still smile every time I think about that.