Back in high school when I was utterly clueless about what I might do for a living I thought about being an actor. I had done numerous plays in the local community theatre in Western Michigan, where I went to high school. I was the lead in our high school musical. I played a Greek guy, Zorba the Greek, in fact, in the Kander and Ebb show, "Zorba." The opening song from that show was “Life is…” The first line, “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,” is a compelling, if questionable concept for a kid in high school thinking about what he might do when he grows up.
Belting that song out on stage to cheering audiences as a teenager caused me to embrace the notion that I could be an actor, that I could homestead in the wilderness of Northwestern Canada, that I might even be a traveling musician playing the banjo and guitar and writing songs for a living. I would test all three of these lovely youthful delusions before settling down (or what my kids will no doubt call selling out) as a journalist.
Acting was the first test. I became an apprentice at the Cherry County Playhouse summer stock theatre in Traverse City, Mich. It was a star theatre and each week a new star would be in plays that ranged from really cheesy goofball comedies to classic Broadway fare. That summer I met Vivian Vance ("The Lucy Show"), Murray Hamilton (evil mayor from "Jaws"), Forrest Tucker ("F Troop"), June Lockhart ("Lassie"/"Lost in Space"), and Leonard Nimoy. That’s right, Mr. Spock was in the play, "6 Rms Riv View," and I had a walk on part as the grocery boy with a delivery. No lines but I was back stage with Nimoy every night for a week.
We talked to Nimoy today on the show and it allowed me to convey to him how his life was something of a beacon for one confused teenager just starting out. Back in 1974 the staff at the Cherry County Playhouse was thrilled to have Nimoy that season. He was a big TV star from "Star Trek," but they didn’t want any funny business from the young apprentices. We were told in no uncertain terms that Nimoy hated the whole Vulcan hand gesture Spock thing, he was a serious actor/ artist, and if we were caught joking around and referencing any Trekkie stuff during his stay we would be sent home. Yikes, the warning scared us all pretty good.
Nimoy flew his own plane to Northern Michigan with his young daughter, Julie (who was immediately the object of the affections of some of the apprentices — not me). He was a very erudite, lovely man. I wondered why he was so bitter inside about Spock. "Star Trek" was just another cancelled TV series back in 1974 and the coming global cult immortality of "Star Trek" and Nimoy was hard to envision. I thought it was so sad that Nimoy felt he was in this box as Mr. Spock. Years later when Nimoy came back to the movie versions of "Star Trek" and even directed one of my favorites ("The Return Home") I felt that he had found a certain kind of redemption by embracing his inner Spock and becoming a gigantic star for all time which was hardly limiting and in fact led to many more acting opportunities. Nimoy is also a regular voice for public radio listeners on "Selected Shorts" among other programs. But I kept that summer stock theatre experience as a parable whenever I was worried about whether I was chasing or being chased by my fears and dreams of what I would do with my life.
It was thoughts of Nimoy embracing Spock that helped me to embrace the task of writing a memoir about my experiences as a man in a wheelchair and a global reporter back in the early nineties. That became a successful book “Moving Violations,” which still sells even though it is desperately in need of a sequel, five kids after it was originally published. Today on the show I got to ask Nimoy about the admonition to not mention Spock around him back in 1974. He laughed a big long laugh, remembered vividly that summer and even little old me, and insisted he would never have made such a rule. “I’ve always been a very happy and grateful guy.” He said.
Hey Leonard Nimoy, that makes two of us! Thanks for the memory, Mr. Spock. Live long and prosper!