William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy will forever be immortalized as Captain James Tiberius Kirk and Mr. Spock. They were rivals, they were friends, and Mr. Shatner called Mr. Nimoy the “only friend” that he ever had. Their relationship spanned some fifty-odd years marked with many up and downs that sadly ended when Mr. Nimoy died in 2015. Just as sad was the fact that Shatner and Nimoy hadn’t spoken to each other in the five years before Leonard passed.
So, what happened between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy? How did their relationship go through so many twists and turns? Here’s the full story.
YOU COULD ALMOST CALL THEM TWINS
William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy share a few commonalities. The first is that both men were born in March of 1931, with Shatner being older by a mere four days. Although Bill Shatner was born in Montréal, Québec, Canada, and Lenny Nimoy in Boston, Massachusetts, they were more alike than you may imagine. Both men were born into Jewish households whose families immigrated from Ukraine.
WHAT HAPPENED BETWEEN WILLIAM SHATNER AND LEONARD NIMOY EARLY IN THEIR CAREERS
One more similarity between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy was that both of their careers began the same year. Shatner got his Hollywood start in 1951 playing a crook in the film The Butler’s Night Off while Nimoy began his career with the film playing Chief in Queen for a Day. The very first episode of Star Trek wasn’t going to be seen for 15 more years, so what were those two doing, and did it have anything to do with what happened between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy?
For Shatner, it was all about visibility. His initial goal was to get into movies, but he found himself more and more taking on guest roles on various television series. He was seen on Omnibus, Studio One, Nero Wolfe, and even Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Shatner also found time on Outlaws, Naked City, and The Doctors and the Nurses, and in 1960 he made his very first appearance on The Twilight Zone. But it was the second appearance on the series that he may be known for best. It was in 1963 and the episode was titled Nightmare at 20,000 Feet where he played Bob Wilson, a man who recently recovered from a nervous breakdown and is convinced that there is a monster on the wing of the airplane he is flying in.
For Nimoy, he enjoyed the same career path as Shatner. In fact, after his uncredited appearance in the 1954 film Them!, Leonard appeared in only two other films (The Balcony, Deathwatch) before Star Trek. Until his 1966 pilot premiere as Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy was seen in countless television series that included such popular shows as Highway Patrol, Dragnet, Sea Hunt, Bonanza, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Perry Mason, Death Valley Days, Get Smart, and Gunsmoke. During this time, there doesn’t appear to be anything that would affect what happened between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.
William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy may not have enjoyed the same screen in their early Hollywood days, but they did share it once. This came in 1964 on an episode of the hit series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It was a quick meeting with the two not sharing much screen time. And it is hard to say this was a precursor of things to come, but it is fun watching a very young Mr. Shatner and Mr. Nimoy cut it up before their Star Trek days.
In the episode, titled The Project Strigas Affair, Nimoy portrayed the villain Vladeck, while Shatner was the U.N.C.L.E. recruit Michael Donfield. You can check out their very first on-screen interaction below…
STAR TREK – THE ORIGINAL SERIES
The original series began in 1966 to some controversy. The sci-fi show was set to star Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike along with Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. Treatment for the pilot was presented to Desilu Productions (the company created by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball) by Gene Roddenberry. It is said that Lucille Ball played a large part in getting Star Trek “boldly going.” The pilot was pitched to the NBC network who paid to get the pilot made.
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NBC eventually rejected the Jeffrey Hunter-led pilot but was still impressed with the concept. So, they commissioned a second pilot, this time bringing in William Shatner to star as Captain James T. Kirk. Leonard Nimoy was the only holdout from the original pilot to be brought back as part of the main cast for the second one.
WHY DID SPOCK AND KIRK FIGHT?
Season two of Star Trek premiered in 1967 with the episode Amok Time. Maybe this was a precursor for what eventually happened between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. In the episode, Mr. Spock was going through the throes of his Pon Farr mating period and had to return to Vulcan where he was to meet with his future bride. As Spock explains, if he doesn’t get to Vulcan to mate with her, he will die. Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are invited to witness the marriage ritual, but things begin to go bad when Spock’s bride-to-be, T’Pau, says she would rather marry Stonn, who is a full Vulcan.
T’Pau then exercises her right to have Spock fight for her but instead of choosing Stonn, she chooses Captain Kirk instead. The fight is a fight to the death, paring Spock against Kirk. Immediately Spock shows his fighting superiority which causes McCoy to complain that Kirk is not used to the Vulcan atmosphere. McCoy is allowed to inject Kirk with a compound intended to help Kirk. It didn’t have the intended effect as Spock kills Kirk.
Spock eventually releases T’Pau from the marriage and sadly heads back to the Enterprise with McCoy and Kirk’s body. When he gets there, he finds out that Kirk actually didn’t die in the fight. McCoy gave Kirk a drug that made him appear dead. It was one of the very rare times that Spock showed genuine emotion.
WAS WILLIAM SHATNER JEALOUS OF LEONARD NIMOY?
If you were to ask Mr. Shatner if it was jealousy that may have started what happened between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, he’d say absolutely not. But if you ask castmates from the original series, then you’d get a resounding yes. Just about every castmate of the two men would end up claiming ego played a part in the early dust-ups between Mr. Shatner and Mr. Nimoy. George Takai, who played Sulu and who still holds a healthy grudge himself with Mr. Shatner, says Mr. Nimoy’s growing popularity as the series wore on was a massive blow to Mr. Shatner’s ego.
As Mr. Takei put it on the podcast David Tennant Does a Podcast With…, “It got more and more intense. How do I put it? It began from the TV series. There was one character whose charisma and whose mystery was like a magnet. It was Spock, the strange alien with pointy ears. That intrigued the audience and women thought ‘I’m the one who can arouse him.’ His fan letters were this many, and Leonard’s were that many, and that created a tension, that insecurity [within Shatner].” This is something that Mr. Takei has maintained for years, much to the annoyance of Mr. Shatner.
Mr. Takei’s claims finally got the best of Mr. Shatner. He took to Twitter to air his grievances by saying, “George needs a new hobby. Now he’s making things up. We never saw fan letters. That’s why there’s so many secretary signed photos. We barely saw George. He was in once a week at most-how would he know anything? The only person with jealousy is George.”
To William Shatner’s credit, he did eventually come clean and say that there was some tension early on, though he said his issues were never directed at Leonard Nimoy, but at the direction of the show. I would think that any clashes that we had in the beginning,” he admitted to The Hollywood Reporter, “…you know it was so long ago that I am forced to try and re-create what fireworks that might have been. I don’t remember any fireworks, I remember going to the producers and wondering whether they were going to change the thrust of the show as a result of the popularity of Spock. So my anxieties were never directed at Leonard per se, it was about “How was the show going to go?”
DID SHATNER AND NIMOY LIKE EACH OTHER?
The one thing that cannot be denied is the affection both Mr. Shatner and Mr. Nimoy had for each other. Their friendship spanned some 50 years and was put into book form with Mr. Shatner’s book, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man. Although written from Mr. Shatner’s point of view, it is easy to see that both men cared deeply for each other. In fact, Mr. Shatner shared with The Guardian what Mr. Nimoy’s daughter, Julie, told him after Leonard’s passing, “His daughter told me not long ago: ‘He really loved you.’ And that moved me to tears.”
It was a complicated relationship that was 50 years in the making. They survived the original TV series and the animated series. They survived the countless Star Trek conventions. They survived the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture only to go on and star in five more Star Trek movies, two of which Leonard Nimoy directed and one in which William Shatner directed. Yes, they were friends and held each other in the highest regard. Until they didn’t. So, what actually did happen between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy that stopped them talking for Mr. Nimoy’s final five years of his life?
WHY DID LEONARD NIMOY STOP BEING FRIENDS WITH WILLIAM SHATNER?
William Shatner claims he is unaware of any rift that would have caused Leonard Nimoy to stop talking to him. True they had always maintained a roller coaster type of a relationship, but for the bulk of it, they were true friends. So, what gives?
The real reason for their final five years of non-communication appears to have started in 2011 when Mr. Shatner was making the documentary called The Captains. It was a feature-length story that saw Shatner both write and direct and told the story of all the Captains in the Star Trek universe. Shatner interviewed the likes of Sir Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, and Chris Pine. He also spoke with other Star Trek veterans such as Christopher Plummer, Rene Auberjonois, John de Lancie, Jonathan Frakes, Walter Koenig, and Robert Picardo.
But the one person Bill Shatner could not get to agree to be in the documentary was Leonard Nimoy. According to Mr. Shatner, Nimoy’s refusal was not given a reason. Mr. Nimoy simply didn’t do it. “I thought he was kidding,” Shatner said. “It was such a small thing.” So, instead of agreeing to Mr. Nimoy’s wishes, Shatner’s cameraman filmed Leonard Nimoy at a convention appearance in secret. The footage he shot was used by Shatner in the documentary and without Nimoy’s permission. Although Shatner felt it was a small deal, Nimoy did not. The two never spoke again after that.
In one of Leonard Nimoy’s final interviews on television, he was speaking with Piers Morgan in 2014. When Morgan asked him if he had seen Shatner, he replied, “Not in a while… we don’t have that kind of relationship anymore. We used to.” Shatner says that he had tried over the following years since The Captains to reach out to Nimoy, but all attempts failed. He said his final letter to Leonard Nimoy read: “I have had a deep love for you, Leonard—for your character, your morality, your sense of justice, your artistic bent. You’re the friend that I have known the longest and the deepest.” This letter never got a response and Shatner is not aware if Nimoy actually ever even read it.
So, we now know (or at least we think we do) what happened between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Although the two never spoke again, they did find themselves one last time sharing the screen. This was in 2014 and it was for a VW car commercial. Rumor has it that the pair never spoke off-camera and any communication needed was done by their agents. Still, it was nice to see.
It is sad when two of the most famous TV icons, two who had shared 50 years of history, personal and professional, allow their relationship to deteriorate to the point of no reconciliation. One would have thought that as the end was getting close for Mr. Nimoy, the hatchet could have been buried, but that was not the case. If we could only turn back time to stop what happened between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.