Remembering the filmmaking talents of Leonard Nimoy

Posted by · 12:05 pm · February 27th, 2015

Leonard Nimoy will be remembered for many things. Foremost is creating an iconic character known the world over, but his contributions to the world of entertainment go far beyond what he achieved in front of the camera. He was also a writer, an artist and a director. As a filmmaker, he actually helmed two of the biggest hits of the 1980s, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and “Three Men and a Baby.” If moviegoers should have any regrets for Nimoy it's that he only made a few more films after those blockbusters. But his legacy lives on in many ways. It certainly lives on with me.

When you talk to most “Star Trek” fans, they are either of the age where they became fans of the franchise during its initial 60s run, when it was syndicated in the 70s or when it returned to television with “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” You rarely find anyone like me, who fell in love with “Star Trek” on the big screen. One of the first films I remember going to see in a theater as a kid was “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” It was a packed house and without social media at the time, many people were shocked when Spock died at the end of the movie. Something about “Khan” has stuck with me even to this day. It somehow felt more real than “Star Wars” (you were a fan of one or the other back then) and the film's cliffhanger tease promised something more, that there could be hope just around the corner or in the inevitable “Star Trek III.” That resurrection was given away quite early when the follow-up was subtitled “The Search for Spock,” but it was Nimoy's direction that was the big surprise.

To this day “The Search for Spock” is one of my all-time favorite “Star Trek” movies. Each member of the Enterprise crew was given his or her own moment to shine (something that had been missing in the first two films) and Nimoy, along with some wonderful ILM visual effects artists and editor Robert F. Shugrue, crafted one of best sequences in the franchise, the theft of the Starship Enterprise. It was actually a series of scenes that wonderfully climaxed with Captain Kirk ignoring a last minute warning that he'd “never sit in a captain's chair again.” In almost textbook and classic Hollywood filmmaking and screenwriting, it began with Kirk attempting to get permission from his superior to return to the newborn planet where the body of his fallen friend was mistakenly left. The audience is then treated to a series of scenes that have gone down in “Star Trek” lore. Sulu (George Takei) has his “don't call me tiny” moment, Scotty (DeForest Kelley) delivers “up your shaft” and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) rolls her eyes and takes down “Mr. Adventure,” helping her former crew mates teleport onto the Enterprise. So much is at stake for all the characters, most notably our hero Kirk, that when he ignores that last minute plea (you can guess what he ordered Sulu to do), I still remember a cheer from that suburban multiplex crowd.


“Star Trek III” had the unfortunate luck of coming right after the now classic “Wrath of Khan,” but Nimoy brought quiet moments and patience that were almost more cinematic than what Nicholas Meyer had crafted before him. Nimoy also directed his good friend, Shatner, in one of his best performances as Kirk (the death of his son wonderfully teetering on the edge of true pain and over-the-top glory), gave us one of the most underrated Christopher Lloyd performances and subtly injected humor into a film about death and resurrection. It's quite remarkable, except when you take into account his next effort, a film about saving humpback whales, earned over $109 million.

“The Voyage Home” brought “Star Trek” to heights it had never seen. It became a pop culture phenomenon ($100 million grosses were rare back then), was nominated for four Academy Awards (but shockingly not Best Visual Effects) and helped spur the television resurrection of the franchise with “The Next Generation.” The fourth “Star Trek” film was a time travel adventure that soared on the juxtaposition of our familiar Enterprise crew trying to adjust to late 20th Century San Francisco. The jokes were smart and the cast enthusiasm about shooting in real life locations was infectious. It was a rare four-quadrant “Star Trek” movie that you could bring your parents to and they could enjoy it with little knowledge of the franchise. It was such a hit that Touchstone Pictures asked Nimoy to direct an English language remake of the French hit “Trois Hommes et un Couffin.” That project should have made Nimoy an A-list Hollywood director, but somehow it didn't.

“Three Men and a Baby” found Ted Danson, Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg portraying three bachelors who find themselves forced to raise a newborn that may or may not be one of their actual offspring. Ironically, after “The Voyage Home,” Nimoy was the only sure thing in the production. Danson and Selleck where huge TV stars, but had largely failed at the box office. Guttenberg had success on a minor level with the “Police Academy” movies and “Cocoon,” but he was never given credit for the latter. “Three Men,” on the other hand, earned positive reviews and was a smash. It earned $168 million off an $11 million budget, making it a much bigger hit than iconic Touchstone releases such as “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People.” In theory, Nimoy could have done whatever he wanted at the studio. He chose to get serious with 1988's “The Good Mother.”  

The high profile drama found Diane Keaton playing a mother trying to deal with possibly losing custody of her young daughter after she joined her and her boyfriend (Liam Neeson) in bed one night. The movie was released during awards season and received mixed reviews. Unfortunately, it bombed at the box office, earning just over $4 million and also its subject matter sparked some very passionate debate. Considering how much money Nimoy had made Disney with “Three Men,” the film's disappointing performance should have resulted in simply one strike and both parties should have moved onto the next project. Not in this case. It pretty much sent Nimoy to studio director jail. In hindsight, “The Good Mother” was at the wrong studio. Even under the “edgy” Touchstone brand the project didn't go over well with family-friendly Disney, and with his lack of interest in helping the “Three Men” sequel, Nimoy was never specifically hired to direct by the company again.

Nimoy's last two directorial efforts were 1990's “Funny About Love,” a disappointing Paramount Pictures comedy starring Gene Wilder, and 1994's “Holy Matrimony,” a Hollywood Pictures (Disney) acquisition starring Patricia Arquette and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. “Matrimony” was such a bomb I didn't even realize it existed. You could feel Nimoy's fingerprints on Myers' “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” which he co-wrote, but, sadly, that was it for him behind the camera.

Nimoy's contributions to cinema will live long after his passing. Not only did his work inspire a whole generation of filmmakers, but his quiet contributions to the Sundance Institute and other artistic endeavors will have a lasting effect.   

So, while we celebrate everything that Nimoy gave us in front of the camera, excuse us for being slightly sad that there wasn't more of a legacy behind it.

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