George Takei worked closely with Leonard Nimoy as Sulu in the Star Trek series. EW talked with the actor about his favorite memories of Nimoy and the brilliant actor – and friend – he remembers him to be.
EW: What were your initial thoughts upon hearing about Leonard’s death?
GEORGE TAKEI: He was a great man. I learned of his passing in a sad irony. We were in Boston just coming in from JFK now, but I learned at Logan Airport of Leonard’s passing—at his birthplace. It was almost a kind of a bookend. The place where he was born and to learn of his passing there. I know that it’s a very difficult time for his wife Susan and his children, Adam particularly, who himself is a director now. A chip off the old block. I send my heartfelt condolences to them.
What part did Leonard play in fighting for equal pay among the Star Trek cast?
Beyond pay, it’s the job itself. When Star Trek became an animated TV series, they had a budget, and they hired Bill Shatner, and Leonard, and Jimmy Doohan, and Majel Barrett to do the voices. When Leonard found out about that, he asked, “Why aren’t Nichelle and George on board as well?” They said, “We don’t have the budget for them.” And Leonard said, “Star Trek is about diversity, and the two people who represent diversity most are Nichelle and George, and if they can’t be a part of this project, then you don’t want me.” He was willing to walk off that show for us. That takes guts and principles and loyalty. It was because of that strong position that he took that Nichelle and I were hired to do the voices on the animated series as well. He’s that kind of guy.
Can you speak to his accomplishments as an actor and artist?
Leonard was a—you know, the word extraordinary is often used but I think it’s an appropriate word for him. First of all, he was a brilliant actor, but a rare thing about him was that he worked collaboratively with the other actors involved. He understood that what made a scene work was everybody working in concert. I think that helped him be a good director as well. First of all, he had the power to analyze a scene, in depth, very quickly, and be able to communicate that to others. And because we worked together for a long, long time, he was able to communicate in shorthand. He knew our strengths, he knew our weaknesses, and he gave us the reign to do our thing.
I’m particularly impressed by the creation of the character of Spock, which really was Leonard Nimoy’s singular creation. He used everything he had. The Vulcan greeting was from his Jewish faith. The Vulcan pinch, that weakened his adversaries, was something that he invented on the set b/c in the script, one of the early writers had him punching out an adversary, and he said, “Why would logical Spock expend all that unnecessary energy and create all that damage breaking bone and sinew when what he has to do is incapacitate his adversary? Vulcans have great strength and all he has to do is pinch that critical nerve and the adversary is incapacitated.” I saw him create on the set. These sorts of things, I think, make the character of Spock a very original creation of Leonard Nimoy’s.
Watching him work, the second film, I think it was, The Wrath of Khan, he was absolutely brilliant in that. I was most impressed with him in that death scene he had in that radiation chamber.
What did he mean to you as a friend outside of your Star Trek days?
He was a very supportive actor for me. He played Dysart in Equus on Broadway, but when I played the part in Los Angeles in the smaller theater, he came to root for me and when he came backstage, I asked him, “Well, how’d I do?” And he said, “You are better.” [Laughs] Which obviously is a joke, but he’s that kind of supportive guy. When I did Allegiance at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, he drove all the way down from Los Angeles to San Diego to give me that supportive hug backstage. The last time I saw him was this past summer. He came to a screening of our documentary To Be Takei. He was quite ill by that time. He came in a wheelchair and he had that nose breathing device on, but he still came and I was very much touched by that. He’s a supportive friend. You know, Leonard played an alien, but to me, he was the most human person I’ve ever met.