Famous Dads

What It Was Like Growing Up With My Father, Leonard Nimoy

To legions of fans, Leonard Nimoy was known as Spock. To Adam Nimoy, he was simply dad.

Originally Published: 
Fatherly Illustration; Michel Curi/Flickr

Leonard Nimoy earned legions of fans from his portrayal of the half-Vulcan, half-human, hyper-logical Spock on Star Trek. Nimoy, who not only played the character on Star Trek: The Original Series from 1966-1969 but also eight feature films and several other projects, was a beloved figure in popular culture, one who helped change the face of Science Fiction. He was also a poet, a director (Fun fact: did you know he helmed Three Men and a Baby?), writer, photographer, and philanthropist — The Nimoy Foundation still helps provide grants to artists. He was also an alcoholic and a man festooned with personal issues.

Adam Nimoy never wore his father’s famous ears, but he does share much of his father’s talent — and many of his demons. The 61-year-old writer and director, whose most recent work is the memoir My Incredibly Wonderful, Miserable Life, struggled with addiction. For much of his early life, had a contentious relationship with his dad, who he describes as a workaholic who often put his family second. Adam contributes his dad’s behavior to his upbringing in a working-class Russian family, but it nonetheless led to a lot of clashes and even estrangement throughout his life.

However, in the latter half of his life, Adam reconnected with his father and formed a strong bond, working with him on several projects including several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and “For the Love of Spock,” a documentary that spans his father’s career and life and their relationship. Here, Adam shares what it was like growing up with the man who encouraged us all to “Live long and prosper.”

My dad was 25 years old when I was born, but we were generations apart. I was born into what turned into an affluent lifestyle in Southern California. He had worked since he was 10 years old. He lived in a Russian immigrant household where everything was about money and generating income. I didn’t have that kind of experience. By the time he started looking at my life, I was driving around the state of California, going to Grateful Dead shows. He did not appreciate that. He did not respect that. He couldn’t identify with that.

It was predestined that he and I were going to have a reckoning. It was through our own recovery, patience, and acceptance and tolerance, and keeping the focus on our own character defects — which is a big part of what 12 step is all about — that really gave us the tools to reconnect with one another on a much deeper level.

I was 10 years old when Star Trek went on the air. My sister and I were old enough to know what life was like before his fame. My dad was very frugal. He came from Russian immigrant parents out of the West End of Boston. My dad knew how to hold onto a dollar. He was very conservative in his spending habits. It drove my mother a little crazy.

When there was a breakthrough in his career, we were very much aware of what was happening and very grateful for what was happening, and we were very excited about it. We had to accept that we were going to lose a lot of our privacy, because our dad became a public figure with a big fan base, with people who wanted his time and attention. But on the other hand, we started moving up the social ladder. We moved to a bigger house in Westwood. Life got pretty good for us. But we never really forgot our roots or where we came from. We always had a lot of respect for hard work and what dad had accomplished.

It was difficult, because for my dad, the number one priority in his life was his career. It was all understandable from where he came from. He really struggled to get out of Boston. This is a guy, who at age 18 got on a train to California with very little money in his pocket and very little support from his parents. He had a desperation to succeed, to create some economic stability so he could continue to pursue his career. It took a lot of focus and energy. He wanted to have a family. But he wasn’t really focused on raising a family.

The collision that I ended up having with my dad was that he wasn’t really paying attention. He wasn’t focused on my life, my friends, my school. When there was a lull in his professional life, around ‘73, he started to take a look at my life. By then, I was a rebellious teenager, and it was just constant clash and conflict.

I moved out and I went to school. I stayed away from home. I just was not that close to my dad. He came to Berkeley, where I went, to speak. I was there. He was talking to the students. I thought we were going to get together for dinner and I was shocked when he said he had to catch a plane back to LA because he had to be somewhere else in the morning. At that time, there was very little interaction with him, and a lot of it was negative.

It changed. I came back from LA to go to law school. I had more interaction with him and we were getting along pretty well. It changed, too, when I started directing television. But then he was going through this divorce from my mom, and his parents died, and he had an alcohol issue that he went public about, and then we had a real train-wreck of a relationship.

We were basically estranged for a number of years. It wasn’t until he went into recovery, and I went into recovery, that we started to really forge a relationship with one another. And when my second wife was sick with cancer, he and I became very, very close.

When she was dying, my dad was with me every step of the way. After that, we were not going to let anything from the past get in the way of our relationship. He was also more focused on family. In the waning years of his life, he changed his priorities.

I started having conversations with my dad about wanting to do something more challenging. I’d always been interested in film and TV. I started taking crash courses and my dad helped me meet people and gave me a lot of instruction in how to make this transition.

The first thing I directed was actually two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wanted to observe an entire series. After doing that for an entire year, I got two episodes. So those were my first two jobs. After those two episodes, my dad and I did an episode of The Outer Limits. On that show, I was directing him and working with him. He was starring in the episode (Editor’s Note: The episode in question is titled “I, Robot”).

It was a good balance of synergy between us. I had a little bit of experience by that time. I had worked hard on the script. When he had notes to give me while we were on set, he was very respectful and would talk to me in private instead of in front the whole crew. He had a lot of insight. I wanted his feedback and I welcomed it because he had a voluminous amount of experience, and I wanted to get the job done as capably and as quickly as possible, which is really what your job is on a tv show.

A lot of times I had a script that I was given to direct, I would go talk to my dad. In the early days, I would go to his house and we would sit down and go through it scene by scene. I wanted his expertise. I took a lot of notes. I brought my own sensibility to the project, but I think it was a big help to me. It was a big educational awakening for me.

There are a lot of similarities between the two of us, in terms of sensibilities, our creative desires, our work ethic. We were communicating best when we were on his turf, frankly. He loved a good story. He was a good storyteller himself, and he loved it when I told him anecdotes about my life. When we were talking about his work, which was oftentimes very exciting for me, we were bonding. When we were working together, when he was teaching me, we were bonding. When we were working together on The Outer Limits, we were bonding.

Later in life, he had a very genuine interest in family gatherings. And a genuine interest in what was going on with everybody in the family. I often say he was like Don Corleone. He’d sit at the head of the table and during the course of the meal everybody would kind of change seats and go sit next to him and talk to him about what was happening and listen to his advice, because a lot of us are in the industry. My kids are in the industry. My daughter is an executive at Paramount. My son is an artist and he’s in the music industry. My nephews are in the industry. My niece works with this company that my dad put together with her. We were all very much a part of his legacy.

At some point, I had this idea of going back to Boston with my dad and interviewing him about his life in Boston in the 30’s, as the son of Russian immigrants. We had such a good time making Leonard Nimoy’s Boston that I thought we should do something else. At that time, we were coming up on the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek the series. I approached my dad about doing another documentary about Spock. And, he agreed.

The problem was that shortly thereafter my father died. It changed the project. It became very clear that this project had to include my dad, not just Spock.

The funny thing is, the Boston documentary was a way for my father to find some closure in his own life by looking back at where he had come from. And working on For the Love of Spock had a similar effect on me. It was the process of grieving and mourning the loss of my father and finding some closure. Finding closure in that relationship.

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