Today amidst tears I celebrate the life of Leonard Nimoy: a lovely, gentle, funny, sweet man who was an actor, a writer, a poet, and much more. I had the pleasure of meeting him several times many years ago. I’d like to share those unusual memories, because they’re not what you’d expect.
Nimoy is best known for his television and film work, but I first met him stretching his wings on stage in 1972 doing, of all things, musical theatre! I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We had a summer stock theatre company called the Melody Top Theatre that staged musicals in a big-top tent (eventually replaced with a wooden dome) from 1963 through 1986. The theatre brought in Hollywood and Broadway leads to headline their shows and build their audience, with the rest of the roles performed by local actors. Nimoy appeared there three times: singing Fagin in Oliver! in 1972: the King in The King and I in 1974, opposite Anne Jeffreys; and Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in 1976.
The Melody Top was a theatre in the round, with the stage down in the center and actors making their entrances and exits down the aisles. One of the best features of it, for me, was its custom – with those lead actors who were willing to do it, anyway – of having the actor come back onstage after the performance to chat with the audience. Nimoy did that every time, and he was a funny, friendly, self-deprecating delight! During the post-Oliver! session, he sat on a tall stool and proceeded to remove his old-man makeup while he talked, joking about how much faster it was to get it off than to have it put on – something he knew very well from his years playing Spock! He confessed to having been nervous about taking on the whole musical theatre gig, and he thanked Milwaukee for being a friendly and forgiving audience who made him feel welcome.
During The King and I, he laughed that he’d called Yul Brynner – a friend with whom he’d worked on the Western film Catlow back in 1971 – to say he’d be doing the role Brynner had made famous on film in 1956. He said Brynner teased him about it, asking if he was going to steal Brynner’s trademark by shaving his head, to which Nimoy responded that he wouldn’t shave his head so long as Brynner didn’t barb his ears! He made fun of his own singing in the session after My Fair Lady, chuckling that since Rex Harrison had always talked his way through the songs rather than singing them anyway, he was in good company.
I saw Nimoy onstage in Milwaukee one more time after that. I left Milwaukee in August 1976 to start law school at Georgetown in Washington, DC, but I wound up back in Wisconsin for the summer of 1978, working as a summer law clerk for Kimberly-Clark Corporation in Menasha. I lived with family friends in Appleton during the week and spent my weekends at my parents’ house in Milwaukee – and I was over the moon when I read that Nimoy was bringing his brand-new, one-man show Vincent to the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee in June 1978. We were part of his initial experiment in seeing if the show would work. He’d opened it with a one-night performance in Sacramento, CA, moved on to another experimental one-night-stand at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, MN, and then came for a six-show, four-night run at the recently renovated, elegant Pabst. As I recall, the run sold out – and I was one of those who bought tickets. When asked why he was bringing the show to Milwaukee for this longest part of its maiden run, Nimoy said Milwaukee had been very good to him, citing the big audience turnouts for his Melody Top performances and the friendly reception he’d always gotten in the city. I can say the show was great, and I never looked at Vincent Van Gogh the same way afterward.
I’m happy I got the chance back then to shake his hand and tell him what wonderful life he brought to all the characters I’d seen him play. I’ll never forget his crafty, cruel, sly, and scheming Fagin, who started on the page as almost the classic, insulting stereotype of a grasping Jew and gradually transformed on the stage into a broken, poignantly alone old man you couldn’t help but pity in the end. The character of Fagin couldn’t have been further from the reality of Nimoy himself, and yet – on that stage, Nimoy breathed, and Fagin became real.
Thank you, Mr. Nimoy. Thank you for joy and welcome, for art and truth. You lived long and prospered, and my life is better because you did. Thanks for being an honorary grandfather to me and many others.
I echo your wish to all: Live long, and prosper.Share