Exclusive: Leonard Nimoy on Theo Van Gogh

Exclusive: Leonard Nimoy on Theo Van Gogh


The following is an interview I conducted with Leonard Nimoy in March of 1980 when he settled into a suite at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill to perform for a few weeks in a one-man play. It was to be a challenge to talk to Nimoy, for television’s Star Trek had made him a popular entertainment figure across the world. And I knew it would be a cover story for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Datebook, for which I was then a full-time writer. At the time I was also hosting Creature Features at KTVU, Channel 2, in Oakland’s Jack London Square, and that too led to some exciting moments that can be found in my 2007 book I Was a TV Horror Host. But for the moment, here is the van Gogh-related interview as it first appeared on March 23, 1980:

Theo van Gogh: Is This the Character
Who Will Replace Mr. Spock of Star Trek?

nimoy-leonard3-1000THERE WILL always be the matter of the ears. But hold it! It’s not a subject he despises; he merely wishes his supporters (and they number in the millions) would take a broader view of Leonard Nimoy the actor. Certainly he played Mr. Spock for three seasons on the enormously-popular Star Trek series, making the Vulcan one of the most enduring characters in television, and earning three Emmy nominations. It was all spelled out in Nimoy’s 1975 book, I Am Not Spock. Despite its title it was not a repudiation of his characterization of a crew member of the starship USS Enterprise but an attempt to make fans understand that he was an actor seeking greater horizons, that he was capable of a greater range as an actor.

But please, consider all the other things Nimoy has achieved: Two seasons as undercover agent Paris (master of disguises) on Mission: Impossible; narrator-host three years running on In Search of . . . ; the psychiatrist Dr. Dysart in the Broadway drama Equus; a strong role in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; and 18 weeks playing Sherlock Holmes with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

nimoyastheo2-1000Now there is another ear that has entered Nimoy’s life: The one that Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh mutilated in 1889. He cut off the lobe and sent it to a prostitute. Yes, that is an undeniable fact about van Gogh. But there is so much more about this remarkable artist – considered to be one of the founders of modern art – that Leonard Nimoy wants you to know. As the ears of Spock are a superficial key to its wearer, so is this act of self-mutilation by a genius painter who, soon after damaging that ear, committed suicide at the age of 37.

Nimoy will star in Vincent: The Story of a Hero, a one-man show at the Herbst Theater, in the War Memorial Veterans Building at the corner of Van Jess and McAllister in San Francisco. Ironically, Nimoy does not portray Vincent van Gogh but his loving brother Theo, who watched Vincent die in his arms after the painter shot himself in the chest in 1890. The show is multi-media in concept, featuring a collection of van Gogh color reproductions that is now one of the largest in the world, thanks to Nimoy’s underrated detective work in tracking down all the van Gogh work available to him.

When I met Nimoy at the Fairmont Hotel, I told him I wanted to talk about the $40 million Paramount films Star Trek–The Motion Picture, which at the time was quickly becoming the biggest grosser of 1980 despite mixed reactions from movie critics and science-fiction fans.

Once and for all, I told Nimoy, settle all the conflicting stories about the history of the film’s production. “It started,” replied Nimoy, “when San Francisco-based director Philip Kaufman was hired to helm a major feature to be produced by Gene Roddenberry [creator of TV’s Star Trek] and Jerry Isenberg. [Oddly, Isenberg was mostly associated with animated TV producers including work for Hanna-Barbera and The Muppets franchise.] First of all, I found Kaufman to be one of the most stimulating film-makers I’ve ever met. I felt that creative things would happen with him directing. He’s a man of energy and imagination. And he understands actors.

shatner-william-1000Meanwhile, I’d been contracted to star in Equus on Broadway, and while I was in New York I learned from Jerry that the Star Trek movie project had been cancelled. Paramount had decided to make Star Trek into a new TV series and use it to launch a fourth network. At the time I was under contract, and couldn’t do the series even though I had been offered four out of 20 episodes. Besides, I wasn’t interested in doing Spock on a part-time basis. Meanwhile, sets were built, costumes designed, scripts written. A party was held at William Shatner’s home to celebrate the launching of the TV series. Hundreds of people showed up. Suddenly, to my dismay, the series was cancelled and so was the proposed network.

“Me, I could afford to be bemused by the whole thing. Consider me an interested observer, but not a participant. I was in California, at a theater in Westwood, when I ran into Bill Shatner. He’d been through a terrible letdown and told me he felt awful. I had no basis of fact for this, but I told Bill not to worry, that we were going to make a feature film sometime in the future. I told him, ‘They’ll hire another director because that’s how studios think. And then the director will come in, look at the sets and costumes, and say they’ll never do. Why? Because he wants to make a movie, not a TV series.’

“As it turned out, I was right. The Star Trek film was produced for a lot of money and it’s making a lot of money. I don’t think that kind of success is necessarily reflected by the film’s content. I think it reflects the great need for a Star Trek movie.”

Lust 1000I turned Nimoy’s attention back to his one-man show. “Vincent van Gogh,” he said excitedly, “is the most important project I’ve ever worked on. I first saw the script by Philip Stephens four years ago and knew immediately I had to do it. Three years ago we started with a stage show in Sacramento and might have died. But audience turn-out was strong and critical response was good.

“And now, after much rewriting and working out of bugs, we have a fully mounted production. We’ve tons of equipment requiring 18 to 20 packing crates and a large set. We have voice tracks, music tracks, effect tracks. We’ve developed a fine rear-projection system that flashes a large collection of van Gogh reproductions. I started with just a few but now it’s grown to at least 100. It’s a visual feast; never has van Gogh been so well presented.

“I’m touching the audience with the work of an extraordinary man. Most of us have this image of a driven, insane man with a red beard and mustache who looks like Kirk Douglas [a reference to the 1956 motion picture biography Lust for Life], but believe me, van Gogh was outrageous, funny, mystical, loving, mentally sick, impossible to deal with . . . but he was a genius. I believe he suffered from epilepsy, but we shouldn’t judge his paintings by his life. We should look upon them for their own beauty.

“Did you know that Vincent died after having sold only one painting for about 400 Belgian francs? Yet in a ten-year period he had painted 1800 pieces. In the last 70 days of his life alone he painted 100 pieces. Vincent would tell Theo, ‘Don’t tell them how fast I paint, they will think it’s no good.’

vangogh-vincent1According to Nimoy, Theo worked in an art gallery and tried to get his brother’s works displayed throughout France. Van Gogh was broke and Theo supported him for ten years, believing that “My brother is to art what Beethoven is to music.” After Vincent died of suicide, continued Nimoy, “Theo lived only five months longer, grieving over the loss. There is the broken heart theory, but Theo was known to be in failing health and I suspect uremic poisoning. His wife Johanna took on the responsibility of gathering and cataloguing Vincent’s works. Some of it was lost, other pieces are still unaccounted for. It’s a known fact that some paintings were used for target practice by two young boys.”

Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the abdomen while standing alone in an orchard on July 27, 1890. Without help he walked back to his room in a nearby inn, where the landlord found him in a pool of blood. It was 36 hours before Theo arrived.

“Do not cry,” said Vincent to his brother, “I did it for the good of everybody.” Vincent was upright in bed, smoking his pipe. It was apparent to Theo that he had given up the will to live and was ready to die, even though doctors felt he would recover if the bullet could be removed. After talking to Theo through the night, Vincent’s grip on his brother’s hand grew more feeble and his voice began to falter.

Nimoy told me: “Theo later wrote: ‘He closed his eyes and I felt his heart stop.’ Because his death was judged a suicide, the Church refused to accept his body for burial and a funeral was held with nimoyastheo3-1000Vincent’s body atop a billiard table, covered by a sheet. Johanna published Vincent’s letters in 1914, only after she was certain had been recognized for his talents. She was afraid that his letters would cast him into a literary prominence that would conflict with his artistic genius. There were three volumes in all, 681 letters written to Theo, 36 letters from Theo to Vincent, 135 miscellaneous to family and friends. Considered literary masterpieces because of van Gogh’s vivid descriptions and acute analyses of life, the letters have been newly reprinted, and take a prominent place on the van Gogh research field beside the numerous biographies that have been written.”

Nimoy admitted that it might seem strange to do a one-man play. Yet “it allows the character of Vincent to be seen from the perspective of his greatest admirer; it allows Theo to say all the things he couldn’t say at the funeral, to say things about Vincent that Vincent could never had said about himself.”

spock5I asked Nimoy if the Spock image didn’t stand in the way of the other characters he has played in the eyes of his audience. “It isn’t a problem at all after three or four minutes because my roles are so different that the Spock image is quickly forgotten. I’m expressing myself in a totally new way and moving the audience in a totally new way.”

Nimoy summed it up: “I know I’m Spock but I have something else I want to tell you about. Give me a chance to meet and touch you and entertain you. I guarantee it will work.”

To find out what happened when Leonard Nimoy came to Channel 2, KTVU, to be my guest on Creature Features, turn to my chapters on Nimoy in my 2007 release, I Was a TV Horror Host, which is on sale on this website. And be sure to see a segment from that 1980 program that includes a presentation of photos of Nimoy as Theo, paintings by Vincent, and music by Miklos Rozsa from his score for Lust for Life. You will find it directly below this line.


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