Thursday, March 17, 2016

Book Review: "Leonard"

Leonard Nimoy performs “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” on a variety show in 1967. Video source: SputnikMonkey YouTube channel.

In 1975, actor Leonard Nimoy published a book titled I Am Not Spock to show the world that he as a person was far more than a character he'd performed for three seasons on a cancelled television show.

Twenty years later, Nimoy published a sequel, I Am Spock, as a tacit surrender to the inevitability that forever he would be identified with the character that became symbolic for the Star Trek universe and pop science.

Trapped in the same bubble was his castmate, William Shatner.

When hired for their Star Trek roles in the mid-1960s, both were young actors just entering the prime of their careers. Both were born in 1931 — Shatner four days older than Nimoy — so when the show premiered on September 8, 1966 they were 35 years old. Both had appeared on stage and on television. Both were lead characters on a television network series for the first time.

Shatner and Nimoy had crossed paths before, working an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 1964. They had no relationship although, like thousands of other actors, they were struggling to raise families and keep the bills paid.

Yet fate brought them together on a low-rated TV show that, like it or not, would join them at the hip for the rest of their lives.

Shatner has published a book titled Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man that explores the relationship he had with a man who began as a co-worker and occasional rival, later business partner and finally personal friend.

Many books have been published with Shatner's name on it, although in reality written by someone else. The TekWar universe was largely Ron Goulart. A series of Star Trek novels resurrecting Captain James T. Kirk after the events of the movie Star Trek Generations, starting with The Return, were written by Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens.

How much is Shatner, how much his writing partners, is known only to those who were in the room.

Leonard is co-written by David Fisher, a professional ghost-biographer for celebrities ranging from lawyer Johnnie Cochran to actor Leslie Nielsen to umpire Ron Luciano. Having been a writer-for-hire myself, I assure you a lot of money can be made if you're willing to allow someone else's name to be on the book.

In the acknowledgements, Shatner rightly gives credit to Fisher:

There are many people I would like to acknowledge, but this book would not exist without David Fisher, with whom I have worked before and hope to work with after (soon, David, because there isn't much time left). With a deep bow and a wave of my hand, I acknowledge my cowriter, David Fisher.

Shatner's comment “There isn't much time left” I think may be a clue to the inspiration for this work.

Shatner turns 85 on March 22.

In 2001, Shatner produced a 75-minute video titled Mind Meld in which he and Nimoy sat in the latter's backyard to discuss their careers, separate and together.

Near the end of that film, in the section titled, “Final Frontier,” Shatner comments on his compulsion to always find new projects:

Perhaps the reason I'm running as fast as I can is I see, very clearly, my own death. What with the death of my wife, and the lady I've married nursed her husband through cancer to his death, I see death and mortality very very clearly. It's just over there. He's coming on. And it still doesn't relieve me of all the irritations of every day life where I should be able to say, “Oh, I'm not going to let that bother me because, y'know, how many years do I have left.” You can count them. Very conscious of my death and my fear of dying. I'm truly afraid, and when I'm asked what am I afraid of, it's ... inchoate. Loneliness. Of loss. Of aloneness. Name the thing, and I'm afraid of it. I don't know how to deal with it.

As I read Leonard, I found much material lifted from Mind Meld and other works, such as Nimoy's two books, Shatner's earlier biographies with ghostwriter Chris Kreski, as well as the biographies written by other Trek actors. If you're a regular attendee of Star Trek conventions, you've probably heard many of the tales about on-set hijinks recounted in Leonard.

Watch the trailer for the 2001 documentary “Mind Meld.” Video source: Cinedigm YouTube channel.

The stories of their personal lives, including Shatner's marriage woes and Nimoy's alcoholism, have also been told before.

I found myself asking, “Why was this book written?”

Leonard died a little more than a year ago, on February 27, 2015.

Shatner was at a Red Cross fundraiser in Florida. He was criticized by some for missing the funeral, although his daughters attended in his absence.

The one revelation in Leonard I found, well, fascinating is that Nimoy had stopped talking to Shatner a few years before. Shatner claims it was a misunderstanding over Shatner's cameraman filming Nimoy without permission at a convention for a Star Trek documentary Shatner was producing called The Captains. Shatner writes that he and Nimoy were friendly on the flight back to Los Angeles, that Nimoy said nothing about it, so he doubts this incident was the cause. In any case, Nimoy rebuffed Shatner's gestures of reconciliation, to his deathbed.

As I closed the book, this revelation brought me back to that 2001 Mind Meld scene where Shatner discussed his fear of death and abandonment.

Nimoy's rebuff, if as described, had a purposeful motivation. Leonard is gone, so we'll never know what it was. But given Shatner's Mind Meld comments about his deepest fear being “aloneness,” denying him his best friend unto death may have sent a message only the two of them will truly comprehend.

If you read the other Trek actors' biographies, you'll find that most of them don't have kind things to say about Shatner.

In her 1994 book Beyond Uhura, Nichelle Nichols wrote about Shatner requesting to interview her for background material for Star Trek Memories. Nichols wrote on page 304:

Contrary to what Bill subsequently wrote in his first book, I did not “conspire” with other cast members to use these interviews to “confront” him. That is just one of many, many distortions and inaccuracies he presented ...

Over the course of twenty-eight years, I'd witnessed Bill change from my hero to an insensitive, hurtful egotist and had seen his callousness affect everyone around him, including myself.

Nichols proceeded to tell Shatner how thoughtless and insensitive he'd been to his castmates. In Mind Meld, Shatner tells Nimoy he believes that the two of them carried the bulk of the load during the series' three years of production, but that once the conventions began in the 1970s the other cast members began to believe that their contribution equated to those of Bill and Leonard.

Contrast that with the Next Generation cast, who always treat each other as equals, as an ensemble.

The 2009 documentary, “The Captains' Summit” featuring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes. Whoopi Goldberg moderates. Video source: Nathan Travis YouTube channel.

None of us were there on the Desilu lot fifty years ago when all this happened, so none of us can truly judge whose version is true.

But in the context of Leonard, I have to wonder if Shatner's comments about mortality and loss may have been the driving force behind why he wrote this book.

Early in Leonard, Shatner recalls a near-death experience when he was in his 20s acting in Canadian repertory theatre:

One day while I was driving to Toronto in a tremendous rainstorm and as I crossed a bridge, a mammoth eighteen wheeler coming from the other direction raced by me, spraying water from its front tire wells. The combination of a massive blast of water and the wind generated by the truck almost blew me into the Ottawa River. I realized something about myself at that moment: if my car went into the river, I would have left no tracks on this earth. Beyond my family, there was no one who truly cared about me. I had no close friends; I knew a lot of people, I'd worked and shared experiences with a lot of people, but there was no one who woud miss me if I disappeared beneath the river. And conversely, there was no one other than my family that I cared enough about to miss if something happened to them. That understanding left me with a terribly empty feeling, but I didn't have the slightest idea what I could do to change that.

I've no doubt that Shatner's affection for Nimoy was genuine and sincere. But given comments by almost all of his castmates, I'm left to conclude he still hasn't figured out how to create and sustain loving relationships of self-sacrifice.

And that may be the reason why Leonard was written.

It may be Shatner's way of acknowledging what he lost.

But I'm left wondering why it had to be aired publicly.

I've known more than my fair share of celebrities — actors, politicians, athletes, astronauts.

It's hard for a celebrity to lower the guard. Most people want something of them other than a friendship. Maybe it's an autograph. Maybe it's money. Maybe it's exploitation.

Years ago, I joked to two actor friends, “How do I know you're really my friend and you're not just acting?”

They looked at each other, shrugged, and replied, “You got us.”

It was my metaphorical wink that this uncertainty goes both ways.

For someone who's a cultural icon like William Shatner, it must be incredibly difficult to establish a trusting relationship.

The media of books, of documentaries, of videos are all one way. Bill can be Bill, portray Bill as he wishes, and not risk a heartfelt rejection.

I have to wonder what the Nimoy family thinks of Leonard. The book is certainly loving, but I can see how they may view it as exploitative. Bill, not Leonard, gets the final word on their relationship.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that very well written review. I'll will very definitely get the book .

    Bob Clark