Leonard Nimoy’s son pays tribute to his dad, warts and all

Star Trek is having a big year. September will mark a half-century of the multimedia mega-franchise, and the year has been full of 50th anniversary commemorations, including a presentation of footage from Star Trek movies and TV shows that was backed by the San Francisco Symphony last week.

“Star Trek Beyond” opened in theaters across the country this week, and in January a new series will bring the franchise to television for the first time in more than a decade. But Leonard Nimoy’s death in 2015 cast a pall over this year’s celebrations.

“For the Love of Spock,” a documentary by Nimoy’s son Adam, may be one of the more low-profile 50th anniversary projects, but it’s one of the highlights of this Trek-packed year. It’s screening twice in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, including a July 31 showing at the Castro Theatre that will be its West Coast premiere (director Adam Nimoy, a U.C. Berkeley graduate, is scheduled to be there in person).

The film originally was going to be made by Leonard and Adam Nimoy together, about the impact and legacy of the “Star Trek” character Spock so famously inhabited by Leonard Nimoy. When the elder Nimoy died partway into production, Adam switched tracks.

His death meant that the final piece “would have to be about his life, too,” Adam says in the film. Portions of it are narrated by Leonard Nimoy, at turns eerie and endearing.

The result is a documentary about Nimoy’s life, his often-fraught relationship with his son and — of course — the relationship between Nimoy and Spock.

The line between the two is sometimes hard to see. Nimoy famously wrote a 1975 autobiography titled “I Am Not Spock.” He followed it up 20 years later with “I Am Spock.” While many know that Nimoy created some of Spock’s iconic elements — he famously based the Vulcan greeting gesture on the priestly blessing he had seen in synagogue growing up — he was key to the creation of Spock’s most essential trait: logic.

“Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry had a pointy-eared alien name Spock, but virtually everything else about the character was Nimoy’s invention. He saw in William Shatner’s Captain Kirk a charismatic, energetic presence. For the sake of contrast, Nimoy made Spock into the calm, logical, ever-reserved scientist we all know.

In an archival interview in the film, Nimoy discusses Spock’s identity as it related to his: “Half-human, half-Vulcan — he was the embodiment of the outsider, like the immigrants that surrounded me in Boston in my early years. How do you find your way as the alien in a foreign culture?”

The impact on fans and on pop culture is a major focus of the film. At times, montages of Spock-related images fly past the screen — street art, T-shirts, figurines, album covers and so on. It is in these moments that the breadth of Spock and Nimoy’s impact on pop culture becomes most clear.

Highlights of the film include interviews with “Star Trek” co-stars Shatner (Kirk), Walter Koenig (Chekov) and George Takei (Sulu). All of them have heartwarming things to say about Nimoy, remembering him as intense but caring. An image of Adam, now 59, on a childhood visit to the Enterprise bridge set is priceless; the makeup department  outfitted him with pointed ears to match his father’s.

Leonard Nimoy was a loyal friend, they all say. In 1973 when a Star Trek animated series was about to begin, Nimoy nearly refused to participate when he heard that Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) and Takei hadn’t been invited to be a part of it. “Star Trek is about diversity,” Koenig says in the film, recalling what Nimoy had said. “The two people who most personify that in our cast are Nichelle Nichols and George Takei, and if they’re not going to be a part of this,” then Nimoy said he was out too. “That said a lot about Leonard.”

Some of the film is spent on his pre-Star Trek work:  Clips of Nimoy as a Native American in a Western and as a leather-jacketed greaser are amusingly incongruous.

This is no hagiography. Some of the most compelling material in the film concerns the personal story of Adam’s difficult relationship with his father. As a child, Adam says, the relationship was strained because Nimoy spent too much time on set, and when he was home, he was reading the next script and/or recharging. Substance abuse on both sides contributed to their problems with each other.

The two were estranged for many years, and things didn’t change until Leonard became more focused on family in his later years.

The film also covers Leonard’s later non-Star Trek work, including a run on stage as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and his love of photography — his series on the Shechinah, the Jewish feminine aspect of God, traveled widely.

“For the Love of Spock” isn’t the smoothest or most slick documentary ever, but it is full of the honesty and compassion Nimoy always tried to contribute to the world. It is also a warm portrait of one of the 20th century’s most original and unique Jews. For anyone with even a passing interest in Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek or influential Jewish personalities, it’s a must-see.

“For the Love of Spock,” 7:45 p.m. July 31 at the Castro Theatre, S.F.; 8:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at Roda, Berkeley. (Not rated, 105 minutes) www.sfjff.org

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is a member of the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].