The first time I ever saw myself in a movie I was in a state of shock for weeks. I don't really know what I expected, but I couldn't deal with what I saw. That strange skinny figure walking and talking up there on the screen set me squirming in my seat. I appeared in two or three brief scenes, and when each of them began I went into such a state of tension that I was totally unable to relate to what that person on the screen was doing. Had someone told me I was wonderful (they didn't), I would have had to believe it. If they had told me I was awful (mercifully they didn't do that either), I would have been forced to believe that as well. I simply did not "see" or experience myself, and therefore had no basis for judgment.
Years later, having watched that same person on film scores of times, I was able to relax enough to pass objective judgment on my work. Some actors claim they never watch themselves. I had to. I was too curious.
Today, I trust my own taste. I've played enough roles and have seen myself enough times that I can project my performance from the time I first read the script.
I suspect that it's similar to what happens when a block of marble arrives at a sculptor's studio. When he first looks at it, sees the image inside the block and then starts to chip away to reveal it to the eyes of others, the ability to see it is his visionary talent. The ability to chip away the excess is his craft or technique.
When I first sit down to read a script, a performance begins to grow on a screen or stage in my head. If I like that performance, if I am moved to laughter and tears, an audience will have the same experience. If it doesn't play well in my head, something is wrong. Perhaps it's simply not a good script. Perhaps I'm having difficulty relating to or understanding the character. If I can't resolve that difficulty, the chances for a successful performance are very slim. Possibly, with enough rehearsal time, some research, and the help of a good director, the problem can be overcome. But it's an uphill battle.
On the other hand, if I am moved when I read it, and I am still moved when I play it, I will be moved when I see it on the screen. I've seen enough of myself to be able to relax, sit back and be a member of the audience at my own performance.
How do you do it?
Spencer Tracy, when asked for advice on acting said, "Know your lines and don't bump into the furniture." James Cagney said, "Walk in, plant your feet, look the other fellow in the eye . . . and tell the truth." With all due respect to both of these giant talents, I would have to say there's something more.
The true creation of a being, a character other than one's self, for me is comparable to a mystical or spiritual experience. To stand in another person's shoes. To see as he sees, to hear as he hears. To know what he knows, and to do all this with a sense of control, a mastering of the dramatic moment, there must be more than a "natural talent" at work.
In Mexico and Spain, during a bull fight, an ambitious youngster will sometimes leap from the stands into the arena to take on the bull. Very often he makes a fool of himself and possibly is seriously injured as well. If he performs well and captures the imagination of the crowd, instead of being arrested by the police, he may be picked up by an impresario who recognizes his talent and will give him a start in a professional career.
If he does well, chances are he has been practicing somewhere. Possibly he's been sneaking into breeding farms at night to secretly work the bulls until one day he feels ready to make his bid in public.
For many years, Hollywood publicity men sold the public on the idea that stars are found at bus stops and soda fountains. It was very good publicity. It led every young male and female to fantasize about the possibility of being "discovered." That was good for the box office. But it made a mockery of acting as an art.
Tracy and Cagney were able to give very simple answers to the "how do you do it" question. That simplicity was beautifully visible in their work. Behind the simplicity were years of effort, study, trial and failure until all the rubbish that most actors start with was stripped away and only the clarity of finely polished work remained.
Of course, there's "luck" involved in any career. Many very fine and well prepared actors never get the opportunity to achieve wide recognition. It usually comes when the proper role in the proper vehicle finds the right performer.
Many brilliant performances go unnoticed in plays, films or TV shows which do not capture public or industry attention.
In the vast majority of cases, the actor, like most artists, must work for the satisfaction of knowing that his or her work has improved with the passage of time. This knowledge won't pay the rent, but it does help feed the soul.
In my case I had reached the point in my career where I could support my family on my income as an actor and an acting teacher. Still there was much frustration. I felt I was not working frequently enough, or in roles challenging enough to make full use of my craft. I was very seriously working at starting a career as a director when I was cast in the role of Mr. Spock. Since Star Trek the situation has been reversed. I've had no time to pursue a directing career.
I did direct one episode of Night Gallery in 1972. Jack Laird, the producer who gave me my virgin assignment on the show, offered me another one. I had to turn it down because it conflicted with an appearance in Milwaukee as "Fagin" in Oliver. Night Gallery was then cancelled, and that was that.
Someday, I'll get to it. But for now the challenges are plentiful in other areas.
In a successful mating of role and actor, there comes a day—either in rehearsal if it's a play, or during shooting of a film or TV series—when the character takes hold. The actor and his technique disappear and the magical transformation takes place.
During rehearsals of Death of a Salesman it happened to Lee J. Cobb who became "Willy Loman." Arthur Miller, who, as the playwright, had been watching the rehearsals, later said, "On that day, a man cast a shadow that was not his own."
How does that happen? It is a combination of talents. Writing, directing, and acting. But even with those elements present there is no guarantee that the magic will take place. It is not a science, it is an art.
The artists bring together a group of choices, based on experience and talent. Hopefully this combination of choices will blend to create the desired effect. When it really "cooks" the result is greater than the sum of all the parts.
In my case with Spock, there were many choices to be made, aside from the internal life of the character and the make-up and costumes. For example, how would he talk? How would he walk or sit? Did he keep his arms at his side, did he fold them or clasp his hands behind his back?
In some of these choices I was influenced by a performance given by Harry Belafonte at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in the mid-'50s. The Greek Theatre is an amphitheatre which seats several thousand people. Belafonte was at the height of his popularity and the place was packed. From where my wife and I were seated Belafonte was a small, distant figure.
During the first forty-five minutes of his program he stood perfectly still at a center stage microphone, his shoulders slightly hunched, his hands resting on the front of his thighs. He simply sang. Then in the middle of a phrase, he finally made a move. He simply raised his right arm slowly until it was parallel to the floor. For me the impact was enormous. Had he been moving constantly, the gesture would have meant nothing. But following that long period of containment it was as though a cannon had been fired.
I found this idea very useful in Spock. When a stone face lifts an eyebrow, something has happened. The effect is magnifying/magnified. Bit by bit, choice by choice, the character was put together until life was created. Until an actor "cast a shadow that was not his own." When that happens, when the actor sees the people and events around him through the senses of the character, the creative choices work easier.
When it happened to me as Spock, I knew it. I could reject a suggested piece of business with, "A Vulcan wouldn't do that." That's why the Spock neck pinch came into the series.
This was a device which was later mistakenly referred to as the Vulcan death grip. (There is no Vulcan death grip.) The Spock pinch first appeared in an episode called "The Enemy Within" which I shall refer to in more detail later. The scene in which it was introduced was one where Captain Kirk was jeopardized by a character who represented the negative side of his personality. This character was about to destroy Kirk with a phaser. The script called for me to sneak up behind the negative character and hit him over the head with the butt of my phaser.
I was jarred when I read the scene. Something about the action seemed to be totally out of context. I felt that coming up from behind and hitting people on the head with the butt of a gun belonged in the westerns of the 1890s, something one would expect to find in Gunsmoke or Bonanza. I mentioned this to the director who was willing to go along with the thought and asked what I would suggest as a replacement. I told him that since we were in the 22nd century and that Vulcans were a product of our own creation, we could take the license to devise whatever seemed to fit the situation properly. I suggested that Vulcans had made a thorough study of the human anatomy and that Vulcans were capable of transmitting a special energy from their fingertips which if applied to the proper nerve centers on a human's neck and shoulder, would render a human unconscious. He asked for a demonstration. I explained to Bill Shatner what I had in mind and when I applied the pressure at the proper point, Bill stiffened and dropped in a heap. That's how the Vulcan neck pinch was born.
I am constantly asked how I managed "to keep a straight face" while playing the character. In terms of actor's craft it was easy. I'm always amazed at the speed and deftness with which a plumber fixes a leaky faucet. That's his craft. Mine included emotional control and manipulation. I remember one day on the Star Trek set when a group of actors were listening to a story being told by one of the group. There was a funny ending and everyone laughed. I didn't.
An actress in the group said, "Leonard is in his Spock bag."
I was, deeply into it and that was sometimes a problem. I was like a pressure cooker. Plenty of emotional input, and little or no release. I was so thoroughly immersed in the character that my weekends were a gradual trip back to emotional normalcy. Or as close as I could get to it. By Sunday afternoon I would become aware of a lessening of the Spock presence. I would begin to relax into a somewhat more responsive state.
Sunday night would usually be spent studying lines for Monday's work. This in itself was the beginning of the return to character. My wife, Sandi, was very careful never to accept invitations on a night before work. I need eight hours of sleep. We socialized on Fridays and Saturdays only. Every other night, almost without exception, I was asleep by 9:30 P.M. I usually got home from work between 7 and 7:30 P.M. Often there were business calls to be made. Then there was little time left for the family, dinner and study before the 9:30 deadline. I had a phone put in my car so that I could make some of my calls while driving home.
The morning routine was up at 5:30 A.M., out the door at 6:15, and into the make-up chair at 6:30, breakfast during rest breaks in the make-up department, and watch that Vulcan take over my personality in the mirror. The work schedule was intense. My typical work day was 6:30 A.M. to 6:30 P.M. Each episode was shot in six working days.
There is a terrible, prevalent misconception that Star Trek was cancelled because it was too costly to produce. This is not the case. The show was run on a very average budget. Mission: Impossible which was shooting next door on the Paramount lot was costing approximately 25 percent more than Star Trek.
The pressure of our schedule and the demands of the work created interesting side effects. Some were funny, some were not. I remember sitting in Gene Roddenberry's office one particular day. I had a brief break and had walked over from the set. We sat discussing some minor grievance over a script problem, or whatever. As I spoke to him, I felt the emotions welling up. My voice began to break, I burst into tears, and had to leave the room. He must have thought I was crazy.
I had a few other similar incidents. When I could feel it coming on, I'd get myself to a private place as quickly as possible, and work it out. It was simply the overflowing of the pent-up emotions which were not being allowed their natural outlet in their proper time and place. It was very much like the scene in "Naked Time" where Spock finds the emotional outburst happening to him and slips into a private room on the ship to try to rebuild his defenses.
A combination of summer heat and long working hours can create a condition of fatigue on a television production set. "TGIF" or "Thank God It's Friday" is a common expression on the last shooting day of the week. Variations on that include: "It's only two days to Friday," or "Only three days to Friday" or on Monday, "It's only five days to Friday."
In the summer of 1967 on a hot August afternoon, Bill Shatner and I were involved in shooting a scene which included a fight with three or four "heavies" to be followed by some dialogue between Bill and myself before the scene was ended. The fight was, as usual, carefully staged and rehearsed and we were ready with the dialogue so it was time to shoot. We rolled the cameras and proceeded to play the scene and Bill and I managed successfully to do away with the "bad guys" and then proceeded to play our dialogue. As the dialogue proceeded I became aware of a strange rumbling sound. I couldn't tell exactly what it was or where it was coming from and something about the look in Bill's eye told me that he heard it too.
We continued with the dialogue and the intermittent rumbling persisted. Just before the end of the scene I suddenly became aware of what had happened. We managed to complete the scene successfully and my suspicion was verified. One of the stuntmen with whom we had conducted the fight had dropped to the floor "unconscious" when he was supposed to have and then had proceeded to fall asleep. The intermittent rumbling we heard during the course of the dialogue was his snoring.
The Star Trek "family" of characters, although set in the 22nd century, is a very easily recognizable group of people when related to other successful TV shows of the past. The most obvious parallels can be drawn with the characters in the Gunsmoke cast. For Captain Kirk read Matt Dillon. For Mr. Spock read Chester, the deputy with the bad leg, played by Dennis Weaver, or Festus, played by Ken Curtis. And for Dr. McCoy, read Doc, played by Milburn Stone. Of course, the style of play and interaction differs because of the nature of the setting and the actor's postures, but the similarities are fairly obvious. In the Chester character, there are obvious physical characteristics, the bad leg which sets him apart as does Spock's pointed ears. In the case of the two doctors, they are almost interchangeable. Both crusty humanists, thinly disguising their devotion to their buddies with a veneer of irascibility.
For Spock, Dr. McCoy, played so successfully by DeForrest Kelley, was the perfect foil. In Gunsmoke the humor in the relationship between the doctor and Chester, or later, Festus, was somewhat reversed.
In dealing with Spock, McCoy ventured into areas where others feared to tread. Almost masochistically, he would insult Spock's anatomy, philosophy, or anything else that popped into his brain. Usually, Spock was able to rise to the occasion with a well-placed barb, leaving the doctor fuming. This friendly combat took some time to develop. There was no indication of its possibilities in either of the two pilot films, as I recall, but once established, its value was obvious.
In the first several episodes, the character of Yeoman Rand, played by Grace Lee Whitney, was the direct counterpart to Amanda Blake's "Kitty," the silent, secret love of the leading man. This proved to be clumsy on Star Trek. It limited Captain Kirk's potential relationships with other ladies since he would have seemed unfaithful to Miss Rand. She was eliminated to give the amorous Captain more lebensraum.
Ironically, the opposite pattern developed in the case of Spock. Although he was theoretically incapable of loving, the female audience notified us very quickly that he was very much loved. This led to the introduction of the "Nurse Chapel" character, played by Majel Barrett.
It was through her character that the female audience could express itself. It was she who worried about Mr. Spock and cooked soup for him. It was she who cared about and quietly loved the Vulcan who couldn't respond.
For the sake of those readers who are interested in astrology, let me report this fact. William Shatner, Captain Kirk on Star Trek, is exactly four days older than me. We are both Aries. He was born March 22, 1931 and I on the 26th. We are as unalike as salt and pepper, but on Star Trek, I felt we complemented each other in the same way. Most of the time, I could stand the personality of my character next to that of his, and know that the chemistry was right. His romantic, dashing, flamboyant Errol Flynn approach was perfectly suited to my contained, thoughtful Spock. Yes, there were times when I felt that his character was drifting perilously into my territory and mine into his. Each of us, I think, could recognize the value of the areas we vacated and relinquished to the other. But the chemistry was at its best when we functioned in an interlaced pattern each as part of a whole. Frankly, I always felt that the relationship between myself and Jeffrey Hunter, who was originally cast as the Starship Captain, would not have been nearly as successful. Hunter was more reticent and less dramatic in his acting choices, leaving Spock's maneuvering space less clearly defined.
Working from the base of a very comfortable characterization, I had very good instinctive ideas about what was right for Mr. Spock at a given moment. The Spock neck pinch and the Vulcan hand salute were small examples. Shatner had an excellent grasp for the flow of the overall story in a given episode. Where he could more readily find the strengths and weaknesses in the story, act by act, I could best relate to the drama or lack of it in a specific moment.
There were many times, I'm sure, when Gene Roddenberry and our other producers and directors wished we would both simply act. But I believe we helped bring a lot of texture to the shows through these specific personal efforts.
I find it very difficult to play a scene believably unless I believe the scene I'm asked to play. I was never able to lie to a girl in order to achieve a desired goal or effect. I try to keep the same faith with an audience.
When an actor is out of touch with the truth in performance, either because his material has led him astray or he isn't identifying with it, an audience may not know what is wrong, but they know that something is wrong.
When the truth is being told by the actor and his material, the emotional impact on the audience is complete, and they respond with a resounding "Yes!"