NORTHAMPTON, Massachusetts — Total strangers have mistaken Leonard Nimoy and Richard Michelson for father and son. In fact, Nimoy, the late actor known worldwide for his signature role as the alien Mr. Spock on Star Trek, and Michelson, acclaimed poet, award winning author of children’s books, and owner of a fine arts gallery, were like family, in an unlikely relationship that developed over more than a dozen years.
Now, as fans across the globe celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Star Trek with a new blockbuster film, a new television series, international conventions of Trekkie fans and a newly issued US postage stamp, Michelson has penned “Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy,” a new children’s book illustrated by Edel Rodriguez that traces Nimoy’s early life, growing up in an Orthodox Jewish immigrant family in Boston, to his quest to become an actor.
The book, awarded a 2016 Junior Library Guild gold medal, reveals for a wide audience the story of how Nimoy used an ancient sacred Jewish prayer ritual as the inspiration for the split-finger Vulcan hand greeting that Nimoy made famous in his role as Spock.
In one of Edel Rodriguez’s striking illustrations, the young Nimoy is seen focusing intently while practicing the hand gesture, his split fingers taped together, held up in front of his eye.
Concurrently with the book launch, Michelson has also mounted “Unseen,” an exhibit of photographs by Nimoy at R. Michelson Galleries in this Pioneer Valley town that includes 50 images that have never before been on public view.
Together, the book and exhibit broaden the lens on Nimoy’s lifelong creative pursuits on both sides of the camera and shed light on the important role of his Jewish roots.
Nimoy behind the camera
Many people are unaware that the three-time Emmy nominee was also a serious photographer, attracted to the medium when he was young. Years later, after wrapping up three seasons of Star Trek, he studied photography at UCLA.
On view at the gallery through October 25, and on the gallery’s website, “Unseen” features more than 100 photographs that reflect the range of Nimoy’s aesthetic interests and the breadth of artistic output. Most were shot in black-and-white and developed by Nimoy; some later images are in color.
The images are drawn from different series including “Shekhina,” “The Full Body Project,” “Secret Selves,” as well as some self portraits and landscapes. His childhood Brownie cameras are also displayed, with full proceeds from the sale of the cameras being donated to the COPD Foundation in Nimoy’s memory.
The “Shekhina” series was Nimoy’s visual interpretation of the female image of the divine spirit. The photographs portray women, many nude, in sensual, ethereal poses, draped in tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, or with phylacteries wrapped around arms. The series was also exhibited at Michelson’s gallery in 2004.
The photographs sparked some controversy and drew national media attention in 2002, when Nimoy published the photographs in a book and toured the country speaking about it. Some called the images profane. There were some canceled events at Jewish institutions, but others, including rabbis, offered to host Nimoy’s presentation, which drew large crowds.
In a phone conversation before the 2004 exhibit, Nimoy said he was taken by surprise with the controversy and didn’t set out to be provocative.
“I understand that some people have sensitivities about the kind of images I’m showing,” he said. “I believe that it all comes down to the fact that Judaism is a male-dominated religion. This book empowers women in Judaism and there are some males who are upset by that.”
“It shows you a woman of power,” he continued. “This is a female divinity. That’s a powerful image, isn’t it? She’s not subjugated. She’s not an underling. There are some men who are nervous about that.”
Nimoy and Michelson, like father and son
Nimoy is attracted to classical forms and the interplay between light and texture, Michelson said as he paused beside some of Nimoy’s photographs.
Michelson first met Nimoy about a dozen years ago at an event at the National Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst. Nimoy had recorded a reading of Michelson’s children’s book, “Too Young for Yiddish,” about the center’s founder, Aaron Lansky. Michelson was familiar with Nimoy’s photography and was interested in exhibiting his work. It took some creative strategies to reach out to Nimoy, but his persistence paid off when Nimoy agreed to a show.
The first collaboration, in 2004, was Nimoy’s “Shekhina” series. Viewers and collectors who were merely curious or even skeptical at first became admirers of the art. They recognized that Nimoy was not a dilettante but a serious artist, Michelson recalled.
It was the start of what would become a deeply personal relationship between the two, forged over their similar interests in art, literature, and Judaism. Over time, their wives also became close. By the time of Nimoy’s death, they were like family, Michelson said.
The similarities in their looks became most obvious to them when they started traveling together across the country for exhibits.
“The question I get asked more than any other is ‘are you Leonard Nimoy’s son?’ It became a joke between us,” said Michelson, who admitted he used that resemblance to snag a hard-to-get New York City restaurant reservation.
It wasn’t until Michelson saw “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston,” a 2014 documentary made by Adam Nimoy, his actual son, that the children’s author realized that Nimoy’s inspiring story was a perfect subject about the power to follow one’s dreams. On Thanksgiving morning, in 2014, he emailed a draft to Nimoy, who responded right away, delighted and flattered.
Michelson takes great comfort recalling that the last conversation between the two, in February 2015, was about the book. Nimoy was hospitalized but they had no way of knowing he was so close to death, Michelson recalled. They were looking forward to the book tour together. Nimoy died soon after.
In the last few weeks, since the publication of “Fascinating,” Michelson has found himself in the spotlight, including at a book launch at the NYC Star Trek convention where he read from his book and signed copies for thousands of Trekkie and Nimoy fans. While it pulls at his emotions, it is uplifting as well.
Adults who are buying the book feel a tremendous love and affection for Nimoy and want to learn more about him. “Everyone felt connected to him,” Michelson said.
He’s delighted that the book, a PJ Library selection, will reach a new generation. Nimoy’s wife, Susan, and his children, Julie and Adam, wrote favorably about the book, as did actor Zachary Quinto, who played Spock in the reboot “Star Trek” film, and in the new “Star Trek Beyond.”
“Not that he needs it, but the book will keep his memory alive. It will keep alive a different side of his memory,” Michelson reflected. “His Judaism was very important to Leonard,” Michelson said.