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In his new book, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, William Shatner reflects on his 50-year friendship with his Star Trek co-star Leonard Nimoy. As the original James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock, Shatner and Nimoy found their fates tied together by the devotion of fans long after the original series ended its three-season run in 1969. Born just four days apart, Shatner writes that he and Nimoy — like a pair of odd-couple twins — started out as rivals on set before settling into many years as professional allies and friends.
Shatner spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his respect for Nimoy as an artist and the mystery of why the man he calls “the only friend I ever had” shut him out in the last years of his life.
So much has been written about both you and Leonard. Having known him for so long both professionally and personally, is there something you feel you understand about him that other people might not really know?
Well, he was a guy who had a mission. That was one of the things that we had together. We both wanted to be actors from a very early age, and it’s a lot to maintain and sustain that because of the exigencies that you go through. His were worse than mine — he had a harder time getting started than I did. And that drive is part of a person’s personality. That edge. That essence of rage, really, that people who are driven all have. Leonard had that — that fire — and fire is both beneficial and harmful.
Speaking of fire and rage, you two had some fairly notorious battles of ego in the early days of the show. Do you feel you were both equally responsible for that tension?
I think so. Nothing is ever one person’s fault — one hand clapping doesn’t make a sound. I’ve got to think that Leonard had his chance and he was single-minded about on maintaining that. And at the same time he had created a unique character with Spock, and it’s a beautiful example of an actor bringing pieces of his own life to bear on a character that he’s playing. When I realized that, I found that admirable. I was filled with admiration for Leonard on many levels. His intelligence and his creativity and his passions and his focus as an actor.
So yes, I would think that any clashes that we had in the beginning … you know it was so long ago that I am forced to try and re-create what fireworks that might have been. I don’t remember any fireworks, I remember going to the producers and wondering whether they were going to change the thrust of the show as a result of the popularity of Spock. So my anxieties were never directed at Leonard per say, it was about “How was the show going to go?”
The way you describe your characters and your personalities on set, it almost feels in the book that Leonard was a little bit more vulnerable in the beginning, a bit of the underdog. He wasn’t as big a name as you were. And he was playing an alien with pointy ears, while you were the handsome star, Captain Kirk.
I’ve never thought in those terms of “underdog,” no. On the contrary, he was in demand. In fact, only when I was doing my due diligence on Leonard, doing biographical research, that I begin to understand how much in demand he was at that time. I didn’t know he was going out to do all these things on the weekend and striving hard so that, unbeknownst to me, he was doing really well.
Several times in the book, you write about your feeling that he was the only real friend you ever had. But you say it as if it’s not so much a sad thing, more just a fact of life for an actor …
It’s difficult when you have a measure of celebrity because you can’t help but think that’s why people are being friendly. Also the nature of the work — on a movie, a play, a series — it’s over and everyone goes their own way and you’re the best of friends during that moment. You’ll sit around a set and talk, and you’re best friends forever. Then the event is over and you’re gone — everyone has gone their separate ways. I spent five years with James Spader on a series and I loved him, he’s a great guy, but I haven’t seen him since we left. He’s been busy on his series and I’ve been busy on my things. We communicated on occasion but we’ve never seen each other.
The structure changed that dynamic in Star Trek in that it was canceled and nobody saw each other, but then slowly the movies began and then we did six movies together. And then there were the personal appearances … and suddenly we were back in each other’s worlds on and off for years and years, and that propelled the friendship between Leonard and I.
You write about the fact that Leonard stopped speaking with you at the end of his life, but your only guess as to why has to do with his refusal to participate in a movie you were making. Do you have any idea why he wouldn’t appear in it?
I don’t know. I thought he was joking at first and treated it as a joke because he sometimes would pretend and say, “No, I’m not going to do that” and then say, “yes,” so that’s what I thought he did. (Laughs.) But that time he really meant, no. … I just don’t know, and it is sad and it is permanent. I don’t know why he stopped talking to me.
But you’re still in contact with his family …
Yes. I’m helping his son with a documentary he’s making about his father.
Do you have any Star Trek memorabilia from Leonard? Anything that you hang on to from those early years?
No, I have nothing of Leonard’s. I have no Star Trek memorabilia at all. I have a picture of him and me laughing in my office. I have the echo of the laughter that we had between us but that’s all that I have.
Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man (Thomas Dunne Books, on sale Feb. 16, 2016)
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