By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST – When coming up with the title for his new children’s book about Leonard Nimoy, Rich Michelson used a word often uttered by Nimoy’s character Mr. Spock” on the 1966-69 sci-fi television show “Star Trek” – “Fascinating.”
“’Fascinating’ is, of course, a signature line which Leonard used to create the character of Spock,” Michelson explained. “But it also describes his childhood and his career, and it encapsulates his curiosity and genuine love of life.”
Michelson’s Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy, a picture book biography, illustrated by Edel Rodriguez, will be released on Sept. 8th, the official 50th anniversary of the first-ever episode of the original Star Trek series on NBC.
The book tells the story of Nimoy – who will forever be known for portraying the preternaturally stoic, pointy-eared half-Vulcan on Star Trek – from his childhood in Boston, through his years as a young actor in Hollywood, to his later years when he became a noted photographer.
An exhibit of never-before-seen photographs of Nimoy’s, “Unseen – 50,” will be held at Michelson’s R. Michelson Galleries on Sept. 9 from 6-8 p.m. in honor of the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. The evening will also include a book-signing and publication party for Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy.
Michelson, who in addition to being gallerist for Nimoy’s photos, became a close personal friend of the late Nimoy, who died in 2015 at the age of 83.
He was inspired to write the book after seeing a documentary that Nimoy’s son made about his father.
“I wrote many other picture book biographies, profiling well known figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., in my book As Good As Anybody, or people who I thought had been unfairly left out of the historical canon, like the Jewish baseball pioneer Lipman Pike, who was professional baseball’s first superstar and home run king,” Michelson said. “But it never occurred to me to put Leonard’s story down on paper, even as, over the years, I facilitated countless interviews – everyone was interested in his life. It wasn’t until I’d watched Adam’s Leonard Nimoy’s Boston that I realized Leonard’s life story would be perfect to inspire the ‘next generation.’”
Michelson met Nimoy several years ago.
“Leonard and I first met when he was visiting the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst where I live,” Michelson recalled. “I had written the picture book, Too Young for Yiddish which Leonard would later record as part of the Nimoy Library of Recorded Jewish Books.”
The two men became good friends over the years. “We emailed almost daily for the last ten years of Leonard’s life. I was blessed to be welcomed into his small inner circle of family and friends. My wife and I stayed with Leonard and [Nimoy’s wife] Susan when we were in Los Angeles, and we were included in family dinners with his children and grandchildren. Leonard’s gatherings were always about family, and never about “Hollywood.”
Rich and Leonard bonded over a love of art and literature.
“Leonard was also a serious photographer, having built his own darkroom as a 13 year old boy,” Michelson explained. “When Star Trek was cancelled after three seasons, Leonard contemplated changing careers and he went back to UCLA and studied photography with Robert Heinecken. And I became his gallerist.”
- Michelson Galleries’ first Nimoy exhibition in 2004 was “Shekhina,” Nimoy’s “exploration of religion and sexuality.” “The Full Body Project,” about body image, followed in 2007, and “Secret Selves,” which was shot at R. Michelson Galleries, also in 2007, opened at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2010. “Eye Contact” followed in 2013. In addition to the gallery’s many Nimoy exhibits, Michelson said he always has a selection of Nimoy photographs on view.
“Leonard was what is known as a ‘conceptual photographer.’ He had an idea and would then use the medium of photography to express it,” Michelson said.
Michelson learned much about Nimoy’s life as they travelled together around the country on business.
“Leonard and I spent many hours on the road together sharing meals and swapping stories, so I got to hear about his life first hand. I also had the pleasure of meeting his older brother Mel and hearing his reminiscences,” Michelson said.
Fascinating begins in Boston where Leonard was born, the son of Orthodox-Jewish immigrant parents whose “passports were stamped ‘alien,’ and that was how they still felt.”
One day young Leonard is tapped to sing “God Bless America” at his school’s talent show, and is told to “reach for the stars” by the school’s social director.
When his father takes him to shul one Rosh Hashana, he notes the older men as they “raised both arms in the air and held out their hands as if they were shooting a two-handed jump shot. What were they doing with their fingers? Fascinating.”
The book details how many years later Nimoy used the ancient Hebraic hand gesture he saw as a boy as Mr. Spock’s Vulcan greeting in Star Trek.
“Leonard grew up in a kosher…Orthodox home. He spoke Yiddish fluently, and when he was starting out he acted in Yiddish Theater with the great Maurice Swartz. He went to shul regularly as a child, and remained – if not a regular synagogue attendee – spiritually connected to his faith throughout his life,” Michelson said. “He was proud of his Jewish heritage, and doubly by the fact that people all over the world were “blessing each other,” even if unawares.”
The book continues through Nimoy’s life, from his first photographs, taken on his family’s Kodak bellows camera, to his departure from Boston to Hollywood where he drove a cab to support himself as a young actor, to his star-making casting as Mr. Spock.
After writing the book, Michelson sent the manuscript to Nimoy – who called it “an amazing piece of work.” Michelson had hoped that the two would be able to go on a book tour together. But just a few months later, Nimoy passed away from COPD.
“I hope young readers, and everyone, will understand how Leonard Nimoy’s story exemplifies the American experience and the power of pursuing your dreams,” Michelson said. “Leonard was the son of immigrants, which is especially pertinent in our times, and he ‘reached for the stars’ but he was always proud of his heritage and he never forgot where he came from.”
CAP: Good friends Rich Michelson, left, and Leonard Nimoy were often mistaken
for siblings or father and son due to their resemblence.