Monday, March 2, 2015

He was more than just Spock

Here's a lame joke: What did the gay guy from Are You Being Served say in a deep voice to the J.J. Abrams production? He said, 'Lens flare.'

The late, great Leonard Nimoy, who once wrote a book called I Am Not Spock and a follow-up called I Am Spock, should have written a third autobiography called I Am More Than Just Spock. To me, a fan of Star Trek ever since watching the Nimoy-directed Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when it first warped into theaters, as well as someone who often enjoyed seeing most of the original cast members in roles outside of Star Trek, Nimoy was more than just Spock. He was also Dr. William Bell, the king of Atlantis, the host of the creepy In Search Of (gah, that synthy and cheesy theme music still gives me the heebie jeebies!) and the director of likable but often disposable comedies like Three Men and a Baby and Holy Matrimony, which was hardly the success that Three Man and a Baby was but is noteworthy for featuring a funny performance by a young, pre-3rd Rock Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an Amish kid who's forced to marry trashy, True Romance-era Patricia Arquette.

But of course, Nimoy's work as the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, the show's breakout character, featured a lot of his most sublime moments as an actor. Perhaps the biggest challenge in playing Spock--other than the makeup that was applied to the ears to make them pointy--was conveying empathy and inner conflict (and even some dry wit) in the role of an alien who was raised in a culture that suppresses its emotions, and Nimoy was more than up to the task. His work was one of several key dramatic elements of the original Star Trek that distinguished it from the mostly hackneyed and two-dimensional space operas that critics from Variety and TV Guide stupidly lumped it in with when it first aired in the '60s. Thanks mostly to Nimoy, Spock's experiences as an outsider and a misfit resonated with Star Trek fans, and they continue to do so with new generations of fans, whether they're mixed-race viewers or children of immigrants who relate to Spock being caught between two different cultures.

Spock's new shuttlecraft is totally gangster.

Nimoy's character was so badass on the '60s show that I dressed up as Spock on Halloween later on in that year when I first saw Star Trek IV. Just like how young Chris Rock's mom Rochelle sewed together her son's Prince costume in a classic '80s Halloween episode of Everybody Hates Chris, my mom, who was taught how to sew by her father, the town tailor back in the Philippines, sewed together my Spock costume. She based my uniform on both a 1974 Mego action figure of Dr. McCoy that my older brother used to play with (he didn't have a Spock action figure, but fortunately, Bones and Spock wore the same uniform color on the '60s show, so that made it easier to recreate the uniform) and Starfleet uniform blueprints I showed to her from the pages of either the 1987 Star Trek tie-in book Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise or some other Star Trek book (I can't remember which book it was). I still have the photos of myself as a kid cosplaying as Spock, complete with pointy ears and Vulcan eyebrows, but I'm not in the mood to post any of them right now. In fact, I don't think I'll ever be in the mood to post any of them right now. Aw, rats.

Ever since Nimoy's death last week, the remembrances of his work on Star Trek, his directorial efforts and his kind and generous personality off-screen have been pouring in (and hello once again, dumbass journalists who are asleep at the wheel and annoyingly and erroneously refer to Nimoy's alter ego in obits--or headlines that were quickly corrected but carry evidence of that error within the URL--as "Dr. Spock," as in the famous baby doctor). Without succumbing to the unchallenging listicle format I now despise and even vowed to abstain from when 2015 began, I'd like to direct the one or two readers who actually read this blog to a few non-Trek Nimoy performances that they may not be familiar with and are, as Spock would say, "fascinating."

Mission: Impossible--Folk Protocol
Nimoy and another Mission: Impossible regular, Lesley Ann Warren, in the M:I episode "Flip Side"

Netflix streaming, which carries every episode of the '60s Trek, also carries every episode of the original Mission: Impossible, where Nimoy starred as Paris, a magician and master of disguise, for two seasons. Although I'm a fan of Lalo Schifrin's "Kate Thomas" cue from the Nimoy-era Mission: Impossible episode "Takeover," which is part of the playlist for the AFOS espionage genre music block "AFOS Incognito," I've never seen any of Nimoy's Mission: Impossible episodes (I also haven't watched the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another Nimoy project that's streamable on Netflix), so I can't recommend those episodes.

Double O Section author Tanner, whose espionage genre news blog I've used as a resource while assembling the "AFOS Incognito" playlist and determining which movies and TV shows do or don't count as espionage genre material, spoke highly of Nimoy's run on Mission: Impossible. "Nimoy also introduced a twinge of humor to what had always been a very serious spy show. Paris was quick with a quip, and Nimoy always had a twinkle in his eye," wrote Tanner.

Mission: Impossible was also made during the era when spy movies and shows would frequently put white actors in inane-looking disguises--or even actual roles--as people of color. So, of course, at one point in Mission: Impossible's run, Nimoy had to pretend to be Asian and slip into offensive taped-eyelid makeup for a Japanese disguise that makes Sean Connery's Japanese disguise in You Only Live Twice look like quality makeup work. That's definitely one hour of TV that can be skipped on Netflix (James Shigeta, why?!), but if you're in the mood to laugh at Nimoy's Japanese disguise as much as you did hearing him mangle "Proud Mary," enjoy.

Okay, so not everything Nimoy touched turned to gold. But Nimoy's 1973 TV-movie The Alpha Caper is worth tracking down. I don't know if Cloo still airs it, but that channel is where I first caught The Alpha Caper and fell in love with it. I wish Universal would release it as an MOD title like they did with another enjoyable caper movie I rented from San Francisco's awesome Lost Weekend Video and just saw for the first time, the original 1966 version of Gambit. An unsold pilot for an anthology show that was intended to focus on a different crime each week, The Alpha Caper is the taut and lighthearted story of a parole officer (Henry Fonda) who loses the job he loves and then gets even with the system that forced him into early retirement by orchestrating a gold bullion robbery with the help of his parolees.

Oooh, Tenafly, you're gonna make your fortune by and by.
(Photo source: TrekkerScrapbook)

The Alpha Caper is really Fonda's show all the way, and Nimoy has kind of a nothing role as one of the parolees, an electronics genius (Larry Hagman also appears as a parolee), but Fonda is so endearing as the reluctant retiree, who's been so badly screwed over by his former boss, that you root for his character to succeed, plus it's got Nimoy in irritable and testy criminal mode, a treat for anyone interested in seeing Nimoy play a bit of a bad boy. It's Tom Joad, Spock and J.R. Ewing teaming up for what's basically an extended episode of Nimoy's Mission: Impossible, but told from the criminals' point of view and with Six Million Dollar Man production values (in fact, much of the crew that made The Alpha Caper, including Nimoy's future Star Trek movie sequel colleague, producer Harve Bennett, went on to produce The Six Million Dollar Man). The entire 75-minute movie is on YouTube, but I doubt it will be up there for long.

Much easier to find online are Nimoy's roles in Disney's animated 2001 sci-fi flick Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Fringe, which are both currently streamable on Netflix. Yes, Nimoy, who was ideal for animation voice work because of his sonorous voice, was involved with the Transformers franchise twice, first as the voice of the evil Galvatron in 1986's The Transformers: The Movie and then again as the voice of the traitorous Autobot warrior Sentinel Prime in Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but I prefer Atlantis over those two movies (and unlike much of the music in either of those Transformers movies, the music in Atlantis doesn't make me think about sticking my head in the oven; speaking of which, James Newton Howard's excellent Atlantis score cues "The Submarine" and "Atlantis" can be heard during "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" on AFOS).

Featuring production designs by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, Atlantis was supposed to be the Disney cel animation division's breakthrough into the action genre, an attempt to show critics and audiences that Disney can diversify its output and make an engaging animated film without show tunes, for moviegoers like me who hate almost all show tunes. The attempt actually worked. The problem with Atlantis--and this is the same problem that the similarly older-skewing Disney/Titmouse animated series Motorcity later experienced--was that Disney had no clue how to market the movie, even though Atlantis merch was all over the place in the summer of 2001, so Atlantis never found its audience.

It's a shame because Atlantis is an entertaining homage to Jules Verne-based movies like Disney's own 1954 live-action adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It contains perhaps my favorite cast in a cel-animated Disney movie: Michael J. Fox, James Garner, John Mahoney, Phil Morris, Don Novello, A Different World alum Cree Summer--a skilled voice actor from animated TV who frequently gets passed over by these animated movies for bigger female stars but fortunately wasn't passed over by Atlantis--as Fox's love interest and, of course, Nimoy, whose gravitas was perfect for the role of the Summer character's blind and guilt-stricken father, Kashekim Nedakh, the king of Atlantis.

Voice work isn't as easy as Chris Rock makes it out to be. You can't act with your body. You have to act with only your voice, or if you do have to act with your body to get to a certain voice, you have to decide for yourself how you want to position yourself in the booth: does your character put his or her hands on his or her hips when he or she talks or does he or she fold his or her arms the whole time? Just like he did with his minimalist acting work as Spock, Nimoy effectively conveyed all of the king's lifelong guilt using just the one tool all actors can depend on during recording sessions for animated projects: his voice, which, in the case of his Atlantis character, was quavering and frail-sounding. In one other interesting connection to Star Trek besides the presence of Nimoy, Summer and Nimoy spoke in subtitled Atlantean dialogue created by Marc Okrand, the same linguist who came up with the Klingon dialect for the '80s Star Trek movies.

Keep your eyes closed! It's Bill Shatner without his rug on!

I feel like another underappreciated Nimoy project, Fringe, doesn't get enough praise as a post-X-Files sci-fi procedural--it's one of the better post-X-Files procedurals, and that's partly due to the episodes where Nimoy guest-starred as William Bell, the best friend of John Noble's breakout character Walter Bishop, as well as the reclusive and corrupt founder of the shadowy corporation Massive Dynamic. Bell was a role Nimoy enjoyed playing so much that he reprised it a couple more times on Fringe even after he announced his retirement from acting. While once discussing why he was drawn to embodying Bell's villainous side when the scientist brought mayhem to the show's two universes, Nimoy said, "I could play aspects of a character that I haven't played in a long time."

During its run on Fox, Fringe had far less viewers than Lost, which, like Fringe, was produced by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot company, but I think it will hold up better in reruns than Lost. Narratively, it's less of a hot mess than whatever Lost ended up turning into in its final season. I wish Nimoy concluded his long career with Fringe instead of the misfire that was Star Trek Into Darkness, where his final appearance as Spock amounted to nothing more than Vulcan Wikipedia. Fringe was closer to the cerebral and exploratory spirit of the '60s Star Trek than Star Trek Into Darkness ever was, and you can see why on Netflix, where every episode of Fringe is available to stream. So yes, Nimoy was more than just Spock, and it's great how so many examples of his range as a performer can be currently viewed online. Like Dr. McCoy said when he spoke of Nimoy's most famous alter ego at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he's really not dead, as long as we re-stream him.

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