After my dear cousin Leonard Nimoy passed away, I put down these thoughts on what it was like growing up with the same last name as a worldwide icon. I’ve had some success in the world of voice over, and now as a filmmaker with the release of “Fame-ish” (dedicated to Leonard), but of course, as the title of my movie suggests, not nearly the success Leonard enjoyed while establishing his last name in the public lexicon. Having the last name of a mega-famous person has had its advantages and disadvantages throughout the years.
I was born in June of 1966, and later that year Star Trek was born. My earliest memory of Leonard was as a child, being sat down on a weekly basis in front of the TV by my parents and being told, “That’s your cousin Leonard!” My grandmother told me later that for years before Star Trek, word would come from Leonard’s parents in Boston that Leonard would be on TV on a particular night, so everyone should tune in to watch. “Leonard’s going to guest star on Bonanza tonight, everyone watch! He gets shot and falls off a horse playing an Indian, so make sure you recognize him!” My grandmother would show me clippings of all his early work, including a starring role in the film “Kid Monk Baroni.” After my grandmother died, I showed Leonard all the clippings and he got a kick out of it that the whole family watched from different parts of the country; my immediate family watching from Brooklyn, NY where we lived. By the time I came into consciousness of the world around me, Star Trek was established and Leonard was a household name.
When I started going to public school in 1971, I realized how famous my last name was. Upon hearing my name, the school nurse was the first person I can recall to make a joke that I came to know very well over the years. “Nimoy? Oh yeah, I noticed you have pointy ears.” Hilarious. Especially the first trillion times I heard it. It was either that, or the variation, “Nimoy? Then how come you don’t have pointy ears?” It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard pointy ears jokes over my 53 plus years. And everyone thinks they’re the first to come up with it. Eventually I learned to smile and chuckle as if it was the first time I ever heard it. It’s one of the burdens of having the last name Nimoy. I’m sure all the other non-famous Nimoy’s experienced the exact same phenomenon. I also had to learn what “once removed” meant because I got so many questions about how I was related. Here’s the deal: Leonard’s father Max and my grandfather Irving were first cousins, and along with other relatives, came over to America together from Russia. So that makes Leonard and my father second cousins (children of first cousins). So that makes Leonard’s kids and me third cousins (children of second cousins). That makes Leonard and I second cousins once removed (referring to the one generation that separates us). Whew, that’s a mouthful. Imagine trying to explain that to William Shatner at a party as his eyes gloss over trying to follow along. I don’t have to imagine, it happened to me!
Many people didn’t believe me growing up that Leonard was my cousin. They thought I was making it up. But as far as my family can tell, all Nimoy’s are related (we’re a small group). Even the Nemoy’s are related to us. When they came off the boat from Russia (the name was spelled phonetically and translated to “mute,” which is an ironic name for a voice actor), some spelled it differently, and some pronounced it differently (in Boston and Chicago they pronounced it “Neemoy,” whereas in Brooklyn we pronounced it with a soft i, like in the name Tim). Anyway, many didn’t believe me, but I didn’t care, I was very proud to have a famous relative.
Some even thought I changed my name to Nimoy so I could lie to people that I was related to Leonard. Who would do that? And if they did, why pick Leonard Nimoy to lie about? Personally I would’ve picked DeNiro, or Brando to lie about as a famous relative. Or even Shatner! At least I sort of look like I can be related to Shatner, Leonard and I don’t resemble each other at all (although George Takei says he noticed a family resemblance when we met). And why lie to people that I’m a second cousin once removed? If you’re going to lie, go all the way! “Yes, Leonard is my father. The reason he doesn’t live with me is he’s on a five year mission in space.” Those that did believe me usually referred to Leonard as my uncle, rather than my cousin. An easy mistake, considering that Leonard was 35 years older than me, and my father’s generation, not mine. I used to correct people constantly, but after 30 or so years, you just kind of stop correcting, and whatever they say, you go with. Cousin, Uncle, Father, it’s all good.
You have to be guarded when you’re a Nimoy, because many people are just befriending you to get close to Leonard. “I have a script he’d be great for…” is usually the last thing you hear before throwing away that person’s contact info. I once had a meeting with an agent, a pretty famous agent at that, who called me Leonard throughout the meeting. After about the fourth time, I stopped correcting her. I think she really wanted to sign Leonard, but she was stuck with meeting me.
It can get pretty dark too. I was once phoned by a woman looking to get in touch with Leonard, who turned out to be a stalker of his. Just a week or so earlier before finding my telephone number, she had been found outside of Leonard’s home. Apparently she was driving slow by his house trying to sneak a peak inside his front gate. She obviously wasn’t paying attention to the road, because she crashed right into his garbage cans. The police were called, but she wasn’t arrested. However she called me looking for Leonard’s daughter (both our names start with the same letter so she took a shot when calling J. Nimoy). This woman was so desperate to meet Leonard, she enrolled her child in the same school as Leonard’s grandson, and was trying to arrange a play date between the two children. The police were definitely called again after that one, and the proper security measures were taken. Scary.
Another time a voice actor whom I directed many times invited me over to his house to see his Star Trek memorabilia collection. But when I got there, I was greeted by a Canadian news crew, and the actor yelling, “Hey everybody, this is the guy I told you about, Leonard Nimoy’s cousin!” Not cool. They shoved a release form in my face, and I did an about face, and left. You have to be guarded as a Nimoy. I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times for my own projects, but when the interview is 100% about Leonard, they’re just trolling for tabloid news.
When I was fortunate enough to win an Emmy Award, no one was happier for me than Leonard. He told me a story of meeting songwriter Sammy Cahn who won so many Oscars, he would have tiny statuettes made and would add another to his key chain every time he won another. I joked with Leonard I would probably only win one Emmy, so I’ll just wear the real one as a necklace. Leonard let out a big booming laugh. Leonard had this incredible broad beautiful smile, which was made even more intense by the fact you rarely saw him smile on TV while playing an emotionless Vulcan. That’s the one thing I wish more people knew about Leonard, what an incredible sense of humor he had. He was very quick witted, and loved to laugh. If you’re not familiar with how funny he was, just check out “Star Trek 4” (which he directed and co-wrote), “Three Men and a Baby” (which he directed), the Bruno Mars video for “The Lazy Day” that he starred in, the opening piece he did on Comedy Central’s William Shatner Roast, or the Audi commercial he did with the younger Spock, Zachary Quinto. Leonard could be fall on the floor funny!
Being related to Leonard had its advantages as well. When I was a teenager I was obsessed with The Howard Stern Show, which at the time only aired on WNBC radio in New York. I would call in to the show constantly. This was long before Howard befriended any celebrities, and was still a pariah in show business, circa 1981. One day while listening to Howard complain that no celebrities liked him, I fell right off my seat when Howard yelled, “The only celebrity I know is Leonard Nimoy’s dopey cousin!” I was in heaven to be insulted by the King of All Media!
Being related also came in handy when attending a Star Trek convention. I’d flash my ID, and that last name would get me right backstage to any Star Trek event. When Leonard gave me a job on one of his movies, I got treated like a VIP, even though it was either a tiny acting gig with one line, or a lowly production assistant job (the lowest on the totem pole on a film), like I did on “Three Men and a Baby.” It was much easier to introduce yourself to Ted Danson when your last name is Nimoy. At the wrap party for that film, I was amazed to see that Ted Danson was actually bartending, just like in “Cheers!” Ted asked me what I wanted, and I just asked for a 7-Up, not being old enough yet to drink. Ted scowled at me and poured me a triple vodka and 7-Up. I didn’t see Ted getting any other lowly production assistants drunk. Score one for being named Nimoy.
But mostly, not to sound ungrateful, it’s annoying being named Nimoy. You get sent every article and photograph ever published about Leonard constantly from everyone who’s ever met you. It used to not be as bad when people had to physically mail you things, but now with the convenience of the Internet, it’s an every day occurrence. But the day Leonard died was the worst of this. I got completely flooded with posts, tags, emails, messages, tweets, etc about Leonard. It started around 9am Friday morning when the news broke, and the messages came in all day long. I’m talking correspondence in the thousands! It was completely overwhelming. I always knew how famous Leonard was (he’s in the Smithsonian for goodness sake), but I never contemplated exactly how many millions he touched. I understand most of these people are not consoling me, most don’t know me, they’re actually consoling themselves for their loss because Leonard touched their lives over the years. But I’ll tell you, it is quite surreal when the President of the United States releases a statement about your cousin. You forget at times what an icon Leonard was, when to me, he was just my cousin Leonard.
I think everyone will be happy to learn that unlike some celebrity horror stories you hear, Leonard was not a jerk. He was a great guy, so warm and friendly. But the word I would use best to describe him was generous. He was the most generous man I ever met. I’m not talking about money, I’m talking about his giving of himself! When I wanted to get a college summer job, Leonard made me a part of “Three Men and a Baby.” When I wanted to be an actor, Leonard hired me for one line in Epcot Center’s “Body Wars,” which he directed, so I could get my SAG card (in other words, he got me into the Screen Actors Guild union, which isn’t the easiest thing to get into). He threw me another line on his next directing project “Funny About Love,” and we spent so many hours talking privately in his trailer. He never ignored an email, or didn’t return a phone call. He had so much advice for me, and he never tired of me asking him questions. He recommended agents, and lawyers and all the other things you need when you experience a little success in the Entertainment Industry. In 2012, I created a now dufunct dating site that Leonard thought was a great idea, so he tweeted about it several times to his millions of followers. I would have people signing up, writing on their profile, “I don’t know what I’m doing here, I just signed up because Leonard Nimoy told me to!”
And talk about a sharp mind, how many octogenarians do you know that tweeted??!! Leonard used technology and social media right up until the very end. When my mother was in her 70’s she still couldn’t figure out how to work the VCR. I know Leonard lived long, and prospered, but he was still taken way too early. He was the sharpest 83 year old I ever knew. Unfortunately, even though he had quit smoking for 30 years, the previous 30 years he was a smoker took its toll. He finally succumbed to COPD, so if you were a fan of Leonard’s and you’re a smoker, learn from him, and please stop. Leonard’s daughter Julie produced a documentary about the dangers of COPD. It’s not a pleasant disease to have (the third leading killer in the USA). Yet, even when the tabloids would post unflattering photos of him suffering from his lack of oxygen, he never complained about his plight. Not to me anyway.
The last time I spoke to Leonard was a couple of months before he died. His grandson, a great kid, was thinking of getting into comedy, and the voice-over industry, so Leonard asked me personally if I could open any doors for him. I was completely flattered that of all the people in show business that Leonard knows, he asked me to help. I told him I would do everything I possibly could to open some doors for his grandson, and I will. Then I got the chance to thank Leonard for everything he’s ever done for me, from the jobs to the advice, to the friendship, and for being the most generous guy I know. I got to thank him and tell him exactly what he’s meant to me over the years, and how grateful I’ve been to have him in my life. He was touched. Two months later he was dead. Many don’t get to tell people how they feel about them before they die, but I did, and it warms me that he left knowing how thankful I was.
Leonard died on a Friday, and I had plans to attend a famous weekend workshop on micro-budget film producing, in order to help with the making of “Fame-ish.” Leonard’s funeral was on a Sunday and I was torn about staying at the workshop, which wasn’t going to be taught for another year, or going to the funeral. I wrote to Julie and asked her to put my name on the security list just in case, but I won’t decide until that morning. Then I thought, what would Leonard do? One hundred percent I know he’d tell me, “filmmaking is extremely hard, keep honing your craft.” I know he’d want me to keep pursuing my dream of making a movie. So I stayed. And I wouldn’t have made my movie if I hadn’t.
The morning after the funeral I got a call from a TV tabloid looking for an interview. I turned them down. Leonard would’ve liked that I think. He and I bonded once over our individual brushes with the tabloids, and I think he would’ve been proud that I declined the interview, despite what individual publicity it might have brought me. One last small favor I can do for him to return the countless favors he did for me.
Other Stories by Jeff Nimoy:
About the Author:
Jeff Nimoy has been a writer, voice director, producer, and voice actor on many top American anime franchises, such as Digimon, Naruto, Bleach, Trigun, and Stitch. He’s an Emmy Award winner, and 3-time nominee, for his comedic work with NFL Films. His live-action romantic comedy “Fame-ish” is being distributed by Random Media worldwide.
Originally published at medium.com on February 26, 2016. (updated 5/21/20)