Friday, June 19, 2020

"Leonard," by William Shatner--Nonfiction Review

Good morning, space cadets, today we’re going to talk about “Leonard” by William Shatner, which is an excellent biography of Leonard Nimoy. It’s a sweet look at the life of the man who created Mr. Spock, as told by Captain Kirk himself.  

William Shatner

What I love about this book:

Shatner delves into aspects of Leonard Nimoy’s life that as someone who primarily knows his work on Star Trek—and precious little else—that I found fascinating. He describes their shared Jewish heritage and what it meant to Leonard and himself. It’s neat to find out Mr. Spock could speak Yiddish like the best of them.  

One of the funny little things about him that I learned via this book was that Nimoy was a poet. He specialized in writing love poetry. Think about that for a moment. For most of his adult life, he portrayed a character who didn’t feel emotion normally, especially not love. Then in his spare time, the actor wrote love poetry. In a way, though, it occurs to me that it really isn’t all that unusual. It was something he couldn’t often express in his television career as Spock, and the other characters he played in movies and TV series, while not as tightly wound as Mr. Spock, weren’t exactly gushing with emotion. So as a deeply sensitive and creative man, he’d need to outlet that somehow.

Leonard Nimoy was also an accomplished photographer, which is another thing I learned via Shatner, and his love for art and artists ran very deep. Listening to how Nimoy starred in a play about Vincent van Gogh made me jealous that I’ll never get to see that performance. 

The thing that I loved the most about this book is how funny Leonard Nimoy was, a talent that, as Mr. Spock, I rarely got to see. So when he got to direct “Star Trek IV” and “Three Men and a Baby,” he got to flex those creative muscles, and Shatner takes the time to delve into what that meant to Leonard.

Overall, this book left me with a deeper appreciation of the friendship between Nimoy and Shatner—for its complexity and richness spread out over decades. Shatner doesn’t hide from the fact that they had their ups and downs, which lends authenticity to his words.  

What I don’t love about this book:

Shatner not being at Nimoy’s funeral still bugs me. He explains it in the book why it happened, and he talks about the distance that grew between them toward the end of Nimoy’s life that they never resolved, which Shatner will forever regret. The fact that William Shatner can own that he’s not a perfect person is admirable since to say he is without ego would be incredibly misleading. So to admit fault, must be that much more difficult for him. 

To a degree, I understand Shatner’s decision and his explanation that he was represented at the funeral by his daughter. He had made a commitment, he stood by that commitment, and he even stresses he finds it more important to celebrate the living. Still—your life long friend only has one funeral—so it is disappointing that he didn’t go, and that’s a hard thing when your heroes let you down. But to play devil’s advocate and defend Shatner—he didn’t deserve the controversy that followed. There is a fine line between being disappointed by something a person did or did not do, and then there is castigating a man who is clearly in mourning over the passing of his friend because he isn’t grieving in the way we would like him to—in public.

One of the more painful revelations in the book isn’t anything to directly with the relationship between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, but between Nimoy and Gene Roddenberry—the creator of Star Trek. Roddenberry is a creative genius, in my opinion. He’s the man who had the optimistic vision of the future that would spawn an entire universe. What’s painful to find out is that Roddenberry could be a tyrant to his actors. There is one story that I find particularly disheartening where Roddenberry told Nimoy to fire his agent after that agent got him a job, that paid well for an actor who was struggling to get by like Nimoy was at the time. What’s even worse, Roddenberry wanted twenty percent of the paycheck to “represent” Nimoy for the said job the other agent got him. Nimoy refused—and their relationship was cold ever after.

Now I’m not saying I dislike these parts, and therefore Shatner shouldn’t have included them in his book. I think he was right to include all of this with everything else, why I dislike these stories is all in the vein of it’s always your heroes that can disappoint you the most. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Gene Roddenberry were all childhood heroes of mine, so reading about their flaws as people, when I’m an adult, is a particularly uncomfortable experience.          

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Parting thoughts:

Star Trek has been a big part of my formative years, and while the bulk of his career was behind him before I was introduced to the show, Leonard Nimoy always feels present in every version of Star Trek. Unlike William Shatner’s indomitable captain Kirk, Nimoy got to define a race of fictional aliens, every actor who played a Vulcan after him, shaped their characters after his original role. Such moments of defining creativity are rare, and I can’t imagine another actor doing so with as much grace and class as Leonard Nimoy.

It’s a prevailing fear of actors to become typecast in particular roles, and Nimoy was no exception. He wrote two books about that very concept, “I am not Spock,” and “I am Spock.” The second one, where he embraced the character in “I am Spock,” was the better book, in my opinion—which is biased if I am being sincere.

Every time I find myself looking at the stars or staring at the night sky or maybe just thinking about space in general, inevitably, my thoughts will turn to Star Trek. As such, when I think of Star Trek, I think of Leonard Nimoy. For me, Mr. Spock did more for my love of space than even Carl Sagan, so when Leonard Nimoy died in 2015, it was as if one of those stars I’d grown to love because of him, went out. I’ve since changed my views on this, in no small part because of this book by William Shatner. Leonard Nimoy, like innumerable creative storytellers, will never truly die—for he is immortalized in fiction, and his life has been chronicled by those who loved him. 

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