How Leonard Nimoy Was Convinced to Join the First 'Star Trek' Movie

Star Trek The Motion Picture Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Star Trek The Motion Picture Still - H 2015

Jeffrey Katzenberg flew across the country to entreat the actor, who did not care for 'Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry, to appear in the 1979 movie.

The original script for the first Star Trek movie did not include Mr. Spock.

The project was conceived as what would have then been the most expensive television project ever, with a budget of $3.2 million. When that vision died, Paramount — which had watched other studios feast on Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — decided to make a movie instead.

With a planned $18 million budget, the studio courted director Robert Wise (West Side Story), who took the job not because he loved the old television series but because his wife and father-in-law were fans. Based on their comments on the script, he told the top film executives at Paramount, Michael Eisner and a young Jeffrey Katzenberg, that Spock was essential.

But there was a big problem. Leonard Nimoy did not care at all for Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who had engaged him and then dropped him from another project without explanation. And he was suing Paramount for using his likeness on merchandise without his permission. When his agent called about the movie, Nimoy told him, "If you ever call me again about Star Trek, you're fired."

At the time, the actor was in New York appearing onstage in Equus. Katzenberg called and said he'd like to come see the play. Flattered that Katzenberg would fly across the country for that purpose, Nimoy agreed to meet with him.

Backstage two days later, Katzenberg pressed Nimoy to have coffee with him. In three more meetings over the following days, Katzenberg listened to Nimoy's grievances about Roddenberry and Paramount. Katzenberg suggested that Nimoy could do the film while the litigation was pending, but Nimoy replied, "I just can't do that. I'm sorry."

Within a couple of weeks, Paramount settled the lawsuit. Nimoy received a check from the studio at 5 p.m. and a copy of the Star Trek script an hour later. By 7 p.m., Paramount rang to set up a meeting.

The troubles were far from over. Nimoy hated Roddenberry's ideas, for one thing. But he realized that if he quit, he'd be answering questions for years to come about being the only holdout in the Star Trek movie. "How could I answer those questions?" he said later. "I didn't like the script? I hated Gene? I was angry at the studio? I would be carrying that negative shit around with me for the next five years at least." He resolved to be the creative conscience of the film.

Production started before the script was set. As the project fell weeks behind schedule, Nimoy and William Shatner devised a workable third act as Roddenberry was pushed aside. The budget climbed from $18 million to $45 million — staggering for the time. For Katzenberg, the ordeal almost derailed his career. (He briefly quit or was fired before Eisner brought him back.) The buzz on the movie was so negative that theaters tried to get out of playing it. But Paramount held them to their contracts so they would be forced to meet guarantees that the studio believed would offset inevitable losses from the movie. To everyone's surprise, the film was a $82 million hit and with its sequels and spinoffs, became Paramount's biggest franchise.

When Nimoy wanted to make his directorial debut on the third film in the series, Eisner was reluctant to entrust him with this now-valuable property. Nimoy was clear: Eisner needed a director, and he needed Spock — both problems that Nimoy could solve. "You and I are having a very important meeting," he told Eisner. "This might be the last time we ever speak to each other. We're either going to start working together on something, or we're literally down to the final moments of our relationship!"

The result was another hit  — and Nimoy went on to direct the fourth Star Trek movie and other hits, including the 1987 smash 3 Men and a Baby. By then running the Disney studio, Eisner and Katzenberg were no longer in the Star Trek business, but they had been wise to keep Nimoy in the fold.

This article has been adapted from a section of Kim Masters' book, Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.