By Geoff Boucher
May 15, 2013 at 05:22 PM EDT
Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto in 2009. Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
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Star Trek fans everywhere have been watching, sharing and re-watching The Challenge, a sly Audi ad that, as a comedy vehicle, comfortably seats a pair of mismatched Spocks: Leonard Nimoy, the television and sci-fi icon, and his on-screen heir, Zachary Quinto, who wears the ears in Star Trek Into Darkness.

They are trash-talking frenemies in the mini-movie, but Trek producer Bryan Burke says that in grand Spock tradition there’s a vast emotion hidden behind that frosty artifice.”Their relationship is not a working relationship at all,” Burke said.  “They’re family.”

As Hollywood relationships go, the bond between Nimoy and Quinto is an anomaly. Not only does it bridge a vast generation gap (Nimoy is 82, Quinto is 35), it defies the Hollywood undertows of rivalry and status anxiety, which have made actors in similar situation behave like Betta fish when paired up.

”We spend a lot of time together, we keep in touch,” Quinto said in February just a few days after he filmed the Audi ad. “He’s a great friend. I value his presence in my life far beyond the experience we had making the first Star Trek movie and I’m grateful that it brought us together but now the friendship is a thing — it’s own thing. I love Leonard a lot.”

That affection comes across in a special video made by Quinto and J.J. Abrams to introduce Nimoy when he appeared last week on the closing night of the Entertainment Weekly CapeTown Film Festival, a week-long celebration of sci-fi, horror, animation and superhero cinema.

The Spocks United friendship began in August 2007, when the pair met in an elevator at Comic-Con International in San Diego. They were on the way to Hall H where (in front of 6,600 fans) they were announced as the first two cast members for Abrams’ brand-reviving Star Trek, the 2009  film that puts Spock face-to-face with a time-traveling version of his future self.

Nimoy had been consulted on the Quinto casting and heartily approved of the idea of the Heroes and 24 costar. Susan Bay Nimoy, the Trek legend’s wife since the 1980s, also vouched for the casting, in a way, with her reaction to seeing the resemblance in person. “This,” she said, “is creepy.”

Will fans see Nimoy and Quinto together again in the 12th Starfleet film, which opens this Thursday? On Twtter, the proudly mischievous Nimoy stirred up rumors with this cryptic message: “I’ve been told I’m in the new Star Trek movie. I’ll see for myself when I attend the LA premiere…”

Either way, the Spocks stage their own reunions month in and month out. Star Trek Into Darkness writer and producer Damon Lindelof said the friendship is light years removed from that photo-op first meeting.

“Zach and Leonard mind-melded in first sight and have been inseparable ever since,” Lindleof said. “I have never seen a more wonderful shared respect between actors.”

The commonalities go beyond the saturnine eyes. Both are the sons of barbers and grew up in working-man neighborhoods, Quinto in Pittsburgh and Nimoy in Boston. Neither has been content to stay in front of a camera. Nimoy became a director (his Three Men and a Baby the No. 1 film of 1987 in domestic box office) and Quinto was a producer of Margin Call, which picked up an Oscar nomination for its screenplay.

Both of them began as child actors on stage and the shared passion for the boards remains. For that February interview (for an EW’s Trek cover story), Quinto was on the line from Cambridge, Mass., where he was in his final night of prep for new production of The Glass Menagerie.

“The first preview night is tomorrow so we’re right there on the precipice,” said Quinto, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama. “It’s an exciting time but it’s also the most uncertain time. Leonard is coming next week to see the play.”

Quinto’s not only got glowing reviews (a “benchmark performance” was the New York Times appraisal), he will be making his Broadway debut in September when The Glass Menagerie starts 17-week engagement. And, yes, his Starfleet mentor also gave the show a thumbs up.

“I told him he was terrific, absolutely terrfic,” Nimoy said last week. “And he was wonderful. But that’s no surprise. He’s a very talented actor and he works hard and he is going to have success after success for years and years.”

Nimoy made his own Broadway debut in 1973 in Full Circle (which costarred Peter Weller, who plays a strident Starfleet admiral in Star Trek Into Darkness) and he returned with Equus in the summer of 1977.  That season was a momentous one for the future of Starfleet. Star Wars hit theaters with a mega-success that inspired Paramount Pictures to launch the Trek brand as film franchise in 1979. Also that summer: the Quinto family brought home a baby boy named Zachary.

Nimoy, a Boston native and the son of Russian peasants, was born back in March 1931 — just four days after William Shatner’s birth in Canada, it turns out. The generation gap that separates 1931 and 1977 is the playground for the Audi commercial. Is it memorable as Harold and Maude or Up? No, it’s a car commercial. But it is fun and satisfying.

In tone, the ad could be a rideshare buddy to Honda’s Super Bowl revival of Ferris Bueller or Volkswagen’s cute-kid ode to Darth Vader. (Audi, which has a big Iron Man 3 campaign underway, is part of the Volkswagen Group.)  The Spock commercial’s conceit — a lunch wager between between larger-than-life frenemies — bounces pretty close to those old McDonald’s ads that had Larry Bird and Michael Jordan sinking shots and busting balls.

So what are the chances we will see a sequel commercial with William Shatner and Chris Pine, the actors who played Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise? Pine was the voice of BMW in their 2011 Super Bowl commercial (and the Kirks are already linked by a quirky commercial coincidence), so it’s not hard to visualize. It would, however, be illogical to think the two Captains could ever enjoy the process (or each other) half as much as Team Vulcan.

Read more:

Preview: Star Trek Into Darkness

Abrams talks Trek with Jon Stewart

Trek star Chris Pine looks to Stretch

Roddenberry’s son: Trek belongs on TV

Follow @geoffboucher

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