Friday, May 6, 2016

Leonard: My Fifty Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man by William Shatner

Reviewed by Jeanne
Let me preface this review by saying that I am a first generation Star Trek fan.  This means that I was one of those people back in ’66 who discovered a fascinating (to coin a phrase) new show, one set in the future instead of the past.  You have to remember that the dominant genre of those TV times was the Western: Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Laredo, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, The Virginian, and on and on.  This show was a revelation.

I searched for every scrap of information I could on the show and its stars, not an easy task in those pre-computer, pre-Internet days.  On every trip to Bristol, I scoured newsstands for fan magazines, tabloids, and the novelizations of episodes. I wrote letters when NBC tried to cancel the show and was devastated when the plug was finally pulled. But then, wonder of wonders, the show was rerun on local stations and I soon discovered there were fans not just all over the country, but all over the world; and the numbers were growing.

It took the actors a while longer to catch on to the last fact. As Shatner says in the beginning of the book, actors are used to doing a job and then moving on.  While they all enjoyed working on the show (especially the steady paycheck it provided), they didn’t have any sense that anyone would remember Star Trek after it ceased production.  Then the conventions started, and interest in the show snowballed until the various revivals began.

The point is that these actors, who never expected to encounter one another again except by chance, were brought together again and again. Their lives were bound together because of this show and its fans.

It brought personal revelations as well.  Shatner says that he had never had a real friend before Leonard Nimoy.  Actors come together for a project, vow undying friendship, and then never see each other again.  Being thrown together time and again for conventions, films, and various personal appearances gave the two a chance to build a relationship that extended outside of work.  Shatner points out that the two shared similar backgrounds, even having birthdays only four days apart, but there were significant differences in their outlooks.  Nimoy was much more in touch with his Jewish heritage—he was a fluent Yiddish speaker and at one point, paid a Yiddish speaking therapist just for the chance to speak the language for an hour—and found many ways to pay tribute to his heritage in his creative work.  The best known is the Vulcan hand sign, which was an adaptation of a gesture used by Jewish priests to bless the congregation, but he also produced the “Shekhina” series of photographs reflecting a Jewish concept of a feminine manifestation of God.

Leonard is a quick read, with enough detail to entertain but not in-depth enough to ever bog down.  It’s also very much a reminiscence rather than a thorough biography.  There were a few errors which should have been easy to fact check, but weren’t.  It’s also almost as much about Shatner as it is about Nimoy: his reactions to people and events are very much filtered through his sensibilities which, apparently, don’t often involve other people.  He very much appreciates that Nimoy, a recovering alcoholic, tried to help Shatner’s wife who was dealing with the same disease.  He also recounts stories of Nimoy’s relationships with family, co-workers, and friends in a sincere, non-gossipy way.

At the end, though, Shatner admits that he and Nimoy were not on speaking terms at the time of the latter’s death.  He says he doesn’t know why, but thinks it might have had to do with filming Nimoy for a documentary and using the footage without Nimoy’s permission. It’s the sort of slightly emotionally tone-deaf note that appears throughout the book, and which explains more about Shatner than Nimoy.

I did enjoy the book, and I think any fan of the show or the actors would as well.  It’s also an interesting, if brief, look at the life of a working actor during the time period.  I was intrigued by those insights, which made me think about the working lives of many of my old favorite actors in a different way. 

(Note: I didn't consciously set out NOT to name the iconic TV characters these actors portrayed.  I didn't even notice until after I had written the entire review.  I decided this must be a first for both, post Star Trek, and decided to let it stand. Nimoy especially transcended his role and I think the review reflects that.)

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