Leonard Nimoy talks about 'Fringe' and breaking his vow to retire from acting
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alt2012 May 11

By Carla Hay Link

Even though Leonard Nimoy announced in 2012 that he was retiring from acting, he changed his mind. But he says he will remain very selective of which acting projects to take. 

One thing he says he won’t turn down is a chance to be on the Fox sci-fi series “Fringe,” since he admires the show, as well a sits cast and crew. (It also helps that “Fringe” co-creator J.J. Abrams is a friend of Nimoy’s.)


In “Fringe,” Nimoy plays William Bell, a mysterious villainous character that takes different forms. He appears in the show’s Season 4 finale that premieres on May 11, 2012, at 9 .m. Eastern/Pacific Time. Fox has announced that it has renewed “Fringe” for the 2012-2013 TV season, which will be the last season for the show. In a telephone conference call, Nimoy talked about why may be in store for his William Bell character in “Fringe,” why he changed his mind about retiring from acting, and whether or not he will be in the “Star Trek” movie that is due out in 2013.

altWhat was it about the role of William Bell that enticed you to return from retirement to reprise the character?

Well, it’s not just the role of William Bell. It’s the show. I think “Fringe” is a wildly imaginative show. The writers and the creators of the show, the producers, are very bright and very theatrical. All the characters are fleshed out wonderfully and the chemistry amongst the cast is terrific. I wanted to be part of this project. I enjoy the project.

Of course, the character of William Bell started out to be rather ambivalent. We weren’t quite sure whether we were supposed to enjoy him or be afraid of him. We couldn’t quite figure out what his motivation was. At the end of last season, he seemed to come around to be less dangerous. This season, I think things have taken another turn. He’s in another universe and has taken on other characteristics. There were challenges in the character itself that were attractive to me. I could play aspects of a character that I haven’t played in a long time, so it was very welcoming to me.

Lately you’ve been playing a lot of these bad guy roles, such as William Bell and your character in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Do you prefer playing the bad guy or the good guy?

I don’t have a preference for bad people. No. I have an interest in playing a broad range of characters. Obviously, I’m mostly identified with a character who is very responsible and very solid and very intelligent, but there are plenty of questionable characters in my past career. I’m interested in exploring theatricality and characters with some dimension. William Bell certainly has that.

About two years ago, you said, “I’ve quit acting. I’m not going to come back. I’m not going to do anything anymore.” How long have you held onto that secret of your return to “Fringe,” and what was involved in keeping that secret?

I’m not sure exactly the amount of time. I would say somewhere around two or three months from the time that I knew I was going to do it until now. I’m a sucker for a good role. And J.J. Abrams, the executive producer of the show, is a friend of mine. He calls. I take his call.

The writers and producers, Joel Wyman, Jeff Pinkner, and the cast, they’re a wonderful bunch of people and I enjoy being there. When they called and asked me if I would do it, it was pretty easy to convince me that there was an interesting challenge in the character and a very wonderful company to work with.

While you were gone, we got to see Anna Torv do an impression of you on “Fringe.” Did you see it?

I saw that. I thought she was brilliant. I was very flattered. I thought she was wonderful.

Now that you’re back on “Fringe,” are we going to get to see you do an impression of Anna Torv?

I don’t think I could do justice to her the way she did for me. I don’t think I’m capable of that. She was quite wonderful and I told her so.

“Fringe” just had the great news that it got renewed for one final season. You probably can’t say exactly what’s going to happen with William Bell in the series finale, but if there is an opportunity to see him again somewhere in those final 13 episodes, is that something you’re open to doing?

I’m sure that we will be having conversations about that before too long. I haven’t heard anything new about William Bell or the show, except that it has been picked up for 13 episodes, which I think is wonderful. I know the company was hoping for that that they could have another season to close out successfully.

I haven’t heard anything about Bell coming back, but I’m sure I’ll be getting a call. We’ll talk about it. It will depend on my schedule. It will depend on what they have in mind for the character. There are a lot of issues that have to be dealt with, but we’ll be talking.

Can you talk about working with John Noble on “Fringe”?

Yes. John is a wonderful actor. They all are. Working with John is always a treat and I think the relationship between William Bell and John’s character has been very well written so that we have some delicious scenes to play with each other. I look forward to it.

When I began working with him, I admired what he was doing. We kind of hit it off personally and in character. I think the chemistry between the two characters has worked very well. It was a very satisfying experience working with him.

Like you said, “Fringe” is a very imaginative show. It’s very well-received with critics. It’s got obviously a great loyal fan base, but kind of like with “Star Trek,” it has struggled to get that large television audience. Why do you suppose that is?

If I could answer that question, I think the networks would all be on me for explanations of what to do about their schedules. I’m not an authority on ratings and how these things happen. You’re absolutely right in the comparison to “Star Trek.” We did very poorly in the ratings but eventually, the show started to become more and more popular until it became a news story where stations were carrying the show at various hours and various time and sometimes in marathons on weekends and 6 o’clock every night in syndication.

The same thing could happen with “Fringe.” I can tell you that when “Star Trek” was put on a Friday night, which is a date night, not a good night for a show like this, it did very, very poorly. “Fringe” has the same kind of audience, a very intense audience, a small audience, but very intense and very committed. I think it’s commendable that the people at Fox decided to honor that commitment.

Now I understand that the show does particularly well in DVR recordings and I don’t know how that works or how they measure that. What that means is that people who are out on Friday nights record the show and watch it some other time. That’s a sign of the commitment to the show.

Is it important for you to keep up with what was going on with the “Fringe” storylines?

I have a general picture. I haven’t watched all the episodes but I have a general picture of what has been happening and where my character fits in the story, in the overall arc of the story. I think they’ve done a really wonderful job of finding ways to reinvent the story and reinvent the characters. When I was asked about coming on this season, I said I think the mystery of William Bell has kind of gone away by the end of the last season because it was pretty clear that he was a pretty decent guy.

I said, “Where are we going to go now?” It was explained to me that we’re opening up a whole world and a whole new can of peas, so to speak, and William Bell is being recreated as something else. That intrigued me and I was excited to go back to work.

In the last episode, we did see that William Bell was willing to basically sacrifice David Robert Jones to get where he needs to go. Is there any length that he won’t be willing to go?

You’re going to see some interesting activities on the part of William Bell. This character has gotten himself out on a limb and is doing some very wonderful theatrical and bizarre activities. He has become a world of his own. Take that as a hint.

How does it feel to be portraying a character (William Bell) who turns people into monsters?

I’m going to have to talk to him about that. That’s not a nice thing, is it? Well, if there is anything I can do about it, I’ll see if I can change his attitude about turning people into monsters. I’ll have a conversation with him very soon. I’ll say, “William, cut it out.”

Considering your supposed retirement, what’s leading you to accept small roles, like in “The Big Bang Theory”?

“The Big Bang Theory” has been an ongoing conversation for a long, long time regarding an appearance. Some time ago they asked me if I would provide a napkin that I had used and I did. They used it on the show as a gift to the Sheldon character. It has become one of the most highly talked-about and most highly enjoyed shows of all time I understand. They are a wonderfully talented bunch of people, and it is a smart show and a show full of talent.

They asked me to appear on the show. For various reasons, a physical appearance didn’t work out but when they came up with this idea of a voicing of the Spock character with Sheldon being given a “Star Trek” transporter, the whole idea was wonderful. It was a way for me to deliver a kind of appearance on the show and to work with those very, very talented bunch of people.

You say you’re open to being on the final season of “Fringe.” If the right show and the right film or the right role came along, are you now seeing yourself as a little more open to doing some more acting or do you still mostly consider yourself retired?

The door is not completely closed. Obviously, I said a couple of years ago that I was retiring, and here I am talking about a performance that I just gave. There are certain special situations that come along that can intrigue me. This one did. As I said before, J.J. Abrams is a friend. Jeff Pinkner, Joel Wyman, they’re all friends — the producers of the show.

I think the writing is wonderfully imaginative. It’s a fascinating character and a great company. It’s nice to get off the couch and throw the clothes on and a little makeup and go back to work every once in a while. I still enjoy it. In this case, as I said before, it’s all of the elements that come together at the right time in the right way and I was happy to do it.

There have been that you’re actually going to be appearing in the next “Star Trek” movie. Can you talk about that at all?

Well, my feeling is they don’t need me. They’ve got a wonderful cast. Zachary Quinto has taken on the character of Spock and I think is wonderfully suited. He is a talented guy. He is a very intelligent actor, very well trained. They’ve got a great company of people replacing all of us. I don’t think they need me, frankly. t’s flattering to be talked about, but I just don’t think they need me.

I understand, by the way, that they have just finished shooting and they’ve got a wonderful actor, Mr. [Benedict] Cumberbatch, who has a great reputation in the U.K. and I think is going to build a reputation here in the United States very quickly. The “Sherlock Holmes” series that he is famous for in the U.K. is coming to the United States, and I think he’s going to be very quickly recognized as a major talent. He’s in the movie. I think they’re going to do just fine.

You got to revisit the Space Shuttle that was named for the Enterprise as it was delivered to New York on display. What your feelings about that incident and just the importance and the impact of that early role on space exploration and American history?

Yes. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced to see that 747 fly by with the Enterprise Shuttle piggybacked the way they did. I was out there at JFK when they did their flyby at about 500 feet. It was an amazing site and then they went around the city. They went around Manhattan. They landed right in front of us and I was asked to get up and say a few words.

I talked about the fact that we, the “Star Trek” company, had been invited to be there in 1976 when that shuttle was first rolled out, out of the hangar and the Air Force band played the theme from Star Trek. It was thrilling then and it was thrilling now just to see that amazing ship come back home. It’s going to be parked on the Intrepid in New York City as a part of their permanent museum. I’m looking forward to being there to visit it there.

The whole space program has given us, I think, an enormous lift as a people. It was President Kennedy who said we were going to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. And we did it. I give so much credit to the scientists and engineers who make these wondrous things happen and I encourage young people to think about the sciences as a future for themselves.

You’ve played different versions of William Bell now. Which is kind of the most interesting for you to play and why?

I think what you’re going to see [in the Season 4 finale] is probably the most interesting of it all because the character has become very exotic; very exotic is the best word I can come up with at the moment. He’s got himself out on a limb and doing some very strange and fantastic things with his powers.

I think what you’ll see is probably the culmination of a lot of wonderful eyes coming together. I’m very excited. I’m looking forward to seeing it myself. I haven’t seen it in context, so I’m pretty excited about what people are going to be experiencing tomorrow night.

What kind of a journey would you say William Bell is on?

Well, the William Bell character started out to be a very intelligent and rational character. I think he’s still very, very intelligent but I’m not quite so sure he’s rational anymore. I think you’ll see some behaviors tomorrow night that have taken him quite a distance from where he started.

The journey that I’ve been on has been a blessed journey. When I was 17, I set out with the hopes of making a living as an actor and I feel that I have been blessed with the kind of opportunities I’ve been given. I’ve acted all over the United States. I’ve acted in countries all around the world. I’ve acted on stage as much as I’ve wanted to, a couple times on Broadway, toured several times in various productions around the United States, and met all kinds of wonderful people in wonderful cities. Television, film, radio commercials — I’ve had a taste of it all. I’m a very, very thankful person.

You have an incredible voice and I’m sure you’ve been told this before. You’ve done some voice acting roles in the last few years for movies and television, even video games. How do you feel voice acting has helped you to further explore theatricality and character?

The voice thing is a blessing that I was given. I did have speech problems when I first started out as an actor. I came from Boston. I grew up in Boston and when I began to think about acting it was pointed out to me that I sounded very, very much like a very clearly defined Boston person and that it might limit me as an actor.

I spent some time working on my speech. The voice was always there but my speech needed some work in order to make it more acceptable as sort of a broad American kind of sound. The voice has been a blessing.

You’re right. I’ve had opportunities to do voice work of all kinds. I did the “In Search Of ...” series for seven years, which was almost entirely voice work. It was something that was given to me and I was able to make good use of it. I’m grateful for it.

Are we going to be seeing anything of you in terms of music or getting back on stage?

My wife’s son, Aaron Bay-Shuck, is a record producer at Atlantic Records. He’s the producer that brought Bruno Mars to the label and signed him. I’ve been on his case to let me into the recording study to make some smash hit records. He hasn’t succumbed to my pleas yet. I would love to make a smash hit record but we don’t have any definitive plans.

I do still do some of my photography work. I have a photography website. It’s Leonardnimoyphotography.com if you want to take a look at the kind of work that I do. I’ve enjoyed photography ever since I was a teenager and I’m still at it. I’ve had shows in various cities around the country and I have a number of pieces in permanent collections in museums around the country that I’m very proud of, but as far as the music is concerned, I don’t have any specific plans yet.

William Bell, has shown up in a new and exciting way each season. Can you briefly tell us a little bit about how those worked for you and if you’re able to do Season 5, what new media would you like to be in on “Fringe”?

The William Bell journey has been really interesting to me and I don’t take any credit for it. I’m only the performer. I’ve given the material on the printed page. They hand it to me in a script form. Conversations first about which way William Bell is going now and then it comes to me on the pages. I have been very grateful for having been given some wonderful, rich opportunities as an actor in the William Bell character. We started out, as I said before, very ambiguous, didn’t quite know whether to trust him or not, and gradually it was revealed that he could be a helpful and reasonable kind of guy.

Now in this particular season, this particular work that’s on tomorrow night, I think you’ll see quite a dramatic shift in the character. There is another dimension of him. We have not yet spoken at all about another season. I know that the show has been picked up for 13 more episodes, but there has been no conversation yet about whether they want William Bell. And if so, what will William Bell be all about next season? What’s on [the Season 4 finale] I think is quite extraordinary.

Would you be open to doing more comedy, like you did with “The Big Bang Theory”?

I love comedy. I’m not known for comedy, but I love comedy. I’ve done a lot of it in my lifetime. The most recent comedy opportunity I’ve had was on “The Big Bang Theory” show where I had that wonderful funny interaction with the Sheldon character. It’s not something that I’m known for, but I have done a lot of comedy in my work over the years, mostly in the theater. Of course, I directed “Three Men and a Baby.” Most people are surprised to hear that I made a funny movie. I love to laugh and I love comedy. Thanks for the question.

Do you have any closing remarks?

I thank you all for joining us this morning. I’m excited about the show. I’m proud to be connected with “Fringe.” I think it’s an intelligent and imaginative and theatrical show.

I told the company when I finished shooting on this particular episode a few weeks ago, I said, “You are superior company. I have never worked with a better company in my entire 60-year career.” I thanked them all for being who they are and doing what they are and told them how proud I was to be a part of it. I’m looking forward to [watching the Season 4 finale]. I have not seen the show put together. I think it’s going to be exciting for everybody.

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