Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy Will Never Truly Die for Me.

Some time in late 1980, my father, Jack B. Sowards, was approached to write the screenplay for the next attempt to bring Star Trek to the big screen. The first attempt, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, had been a box office disappointment and had cost Paramount Pictures a small fortune to make.  Though it would, through cult standing alone, eventually make back its money (and then some), the motion picture arm of Paramount had little taste for trying to bring the franchise to the big screen.

Enter Paramount Television.

Television executives at PPC, who had an ongoing relationship with ST creator, Gene Roddenberry, refused to give up on the idea that Star Trek could play to a film audience successfully, and would regenerate interest in the characters and the premise of the story.  They suggested making a second feature, but this time, producing through the television arm. Paramount had proven in the 60s that with some ingenuity and clever budgeting, they could make a science fiction space travel series on a relatively small bankroll.  The powers that be at Paramount agreed to give them another chance, and hired television showrunner Bennett (known for his penchant for coming in on budget) to oversee the production.

Bennett quickly set about collecting Star Trek's actors to participate. Almost all immediately, readily agreed.  Except one - Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy had never made any bones about being glad to move away from Spock, and had only participated in the first feature reluctantly. He had moved on, was a writer, a photographer, an artist and a poet.  The constant airplay that the three seasons of the television series provided him were enough to provide him with the ability to pick and choose how and when he worked, and he had moved on to other series work, as a regular (Mission: Impossible, In Search of....) and as a guest star (Columbo, Night Gallery). He didn't need Spock anymore, and wasn't anxious to don the ears for what might be another box office letdown.

Thus, when Harve Bennett approached my father to write the screenplay, he told him there would have to be a new Vulcan character, because the old one wasn't available.  My father (being my father) wasn't about to quit so easily.  "Get me a meeting with him," he told Bennett. "Just a lunch. I will get him to sign."

A week later, he was sitting across a table from Leonard Nimoy himself, the latter having agreed to a brief, half-hour, hard-out meeting with Bennett and my dad.  My father listened carefully to Nimoy's rational explanation for why he did not want to rejoin the cast.  Then he said to Nimoy, "What if I could give you a glorious death scene in the first 10 minutes of the film?"


Then Nimoy said, "The first ten minutes?"


"A glorious death scene?"

"Explosions. Fire. Sizzling control panels. The works."

He pushed the first draft of the first 20 pages of what would become Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan across the table. Nimoy agreed to read them.

He'd captured Nimoy's attention.  Nimoy was no fool. He knew that, should he sign on, no producer or writer in their right mind would actually agree to kill Spock off in the first 10 minutes. There had to be a catch. And, of course, there was one. But Nimoy was intrigued by a writer who seemed to be more in tune with the original concept of the show than the high-fallutin' movie producers and screenwriters who had botched the first film.  My father knew what made the series great, and Nimoy was able to see that and understand that it could be great again.

The first twenty pages of the film, for anyone who knows the movie, contain the Kobayashi Maru scene, where Spock does indeed "die" in the first ten minutes of the film. For those not familiar with the movie, it's a simulated death during a training exercise. But once Nimoy had read the pages, he was onboard. He signed the next week, and the rest is, indeed, history.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan opened in theatres in the U.S. on June 4, 1982, and went on to gross over $14 million dollars that weekend, the largest opening weekend in history at that time.  In its first release, it made $97,000,000 worldwide. And it spawned the resurgence of the franchise, which later went on to make four more films featuring the original cast members, plus three additional television series, and features made from those series.  And J.J. Abrams' remakes still continue to rake in the cash. STII:TWoK "saved the franchise", as my friend, Tony Serri, once said.

Those first 20 pages were the hook for Nimoy, who would, through the films and his appearances on the spin-offs, make peace with Spock, come to love him in fact. Without Spock, STII:TWoK would not have been the film it was. It would not have provided my father with a lasting legacy as a screenwriter.

I'm sorry Leonard Nimoy is gone. He was an artist on a lot of levels.  He took great pictures, and wrote lovely poetry, and saw the beauty in everything.  He was funny and smart and eloquent.

Safe travels, Mr. Nimoy, and may you find a new adventure waiting for you on the other side. You live on in the series, in the films, in your pictures, your paintings and your poetry.  To me, you are tucked into a casket pod, lying on a steamy, just-baked, fern-filled planet, waiting for right moment to regenerate.

(Note: For the sake of expedience and focus, I have truncated the story somewhat. A more detailed account can be found here, in this HuffPost blog by Robert J. Elisberg, for those who are interested. And it is an interesting story, because Nimoy was so key to the success of this film. No one knew that better than Nimoy himself, except for maybe my dad.  I encourage you to read Elisberg's account.)

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