Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy & Desilu Diversity

He was a life-long liberal whose TV series catchphrase, "Live long and prosper," became part of our pop culture language.  Veteran actor/director Leonard Nimoy, famous for originating the super scientific Spock character on NBC's Star Trek, died Friday at age 83 in the affluent Bel Air section of Los Angeles.  The beloved actor definitely made his mark in American TV history as first officer onboard the Starship Enterprise.
When it comes to his portrayal of Spock, doesn't it seem like the role was seeking him more than an actor needing employment was seeking that role?  The show aired only a couple of years on NBC.  But  years of repeats on TV gave the series a huge, devoted following that made the original, short-lived series the beginning of a TV and film franchise.  In my South Central L.A. neighborhood, we minority kids loved Star Trek.  It was a fun sci-fi series, it had special effects, there was a black woman in the cast (gorgeous Nichelle Nichols), an Asian dude (George Takei) and we totally dug Spock.  That logical bi-racial crewmember was cool.  He was half-Vulcan, half-human.
I loved his vocal delivery, his economy of movement and the architecture of his face.  The haircut, the shape of the eyebrows and the pointed ears suited actor Leonard Nimoy.  His dramatic face has the plains to carry the line and angles of that look and make it hip.  That's what I mean about the role was seeking him.  He owned that character.  He was pretty much a veteran TV actor but the time he got around to being cast in that prime time sci-fi show.  Viewers had seen him on shows such as Twilight Zone...
...and NBC's ratings champion, Bonanza.
After his TV years as Spock, he'd do other projects and TV hosting.  He'd also direct.  Remember the big 1980s box office hit comedy, Three Men and a Baby?  Steve Guttenberg, Tom Selleck and Ted Danson were directed by Leonard Nimoy.
He followed that 1987 comedy with a 1988 drama that's worth a look today.  Nimoy directed 1988's The Good Mother.  Diane Keaton starred as the divorced mother fighting to keep custody of her daughter to her ex-husband.  There were allegations of inappropriate behavior conducted by the mother's boyfriend.  The cast included Liam Neeson, Joe Morton (now Olivia's father on TV's Scandal) plus Hollywood classic film veterans Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright.  But it was that 1966 to 1969 sci-fi series on NBC that would, in time, have that little something extra to send Leonard Nimoy's popularity into orbit.  The same could be said for his fellow cast members.

Co-star William Shatner acted in key scenes opposite Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster and Best Actor Oscar winner Maxmilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg.  The all-star, historical post-World War II courtroom drama also earned Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Montgomery Clift), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Garland), Best Director and Best Picture of 1961.  William Shatner would be one of those good big screen actors whose major stardom came from a small screen project.  Actors like Shatner, Buddy Ebsen, Raymond Burr and Andy Griffith found bigger stardom on TV than they had noteworthy films.  That also goes for the TV superstar couple whose gamble became the company that gave us Star Trek.  That company was Desilu Studios, the home of Desilu Productions.
Cuban-born musician and Broadway performer Desi Arnaz, went to Hollywood to repeat his Too Many Girls Broadway role in the 1940 movie version starring screen newcomer, Lucille Ball.  You know the story.  It was love at first sight.  Lucy and Desi married.  Their film careers continued though the 1940s.  Hers did better than his, although she wasn't a top 1940s star like her buddies Ginger Rogers and Betty Grable.  Desi had a band and did records plus music engagements.  In the early 1950s, they took a big chance.  They started their own production company and pitched their sitcom production to CBS.  The rest is TV history.  Not only did the gamble pay off, it made them internationally famous TV legends thanks to their original show with its lively Cuban flavor.

I Love Lucy was a groundbreaking sitcom on the small screen that made them bigger stars than they ever had been on the big screen.  Lucy reigned as the Queen of Comedy.  The sitcom success established Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball as a top Hollywood power couple with Desilu Productions.  Then came Desilu Studios.

Desilu Productions gave TV viewers other shows that became huge hits -- like The Untouchables starring Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, The Danny Thomas Show, Our Miss Brooks starring Eve Arden,  The Andy Griffith Show, My Favorite Martian, Family Affair and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
During this year's Oscar season, racial diversity in Hollywood was a hot topic.  In the 1960s, Desilu Productions and Desilu Studios (which Lucille Ball headed after her divorce from Arnaz) gave a green light to shows that boldly embraced racial diversity in casting.  African Americans actors had work as regulars.  There was Star Trek, there was the detective series Mannix starring Mike Connors with Gail Fisher as his excellent secretary, and there was Mission: Impossible, another Desilu production that became a hit film franchise.  The original cast featured Steven Hill, Greg Morris (up top), ascot-wearing Martin Landau as the disguise artist and Landau's then-wife, Barbara Bain.
Years later when Landau and Bain left the cast and silver-haired Peter Graves had replaced Steven Hill, Greg Morris and muscleman Peter Lupus remained in 1969 to welcome Leonard Nimoy, on the left, as the new disguise artist.  I admit it.  I was more a devoted fan of Mission: Impossible than I was of Star Trek.
Here's something I discovered about the Desilu diversity on the Star Trek set.  The liberal Mr. Nimoy must have been so proud to be a part of this television team.

In this black and white photo, you see Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner with the late Charles C. Washburn.  From 1967-1969, definitely the decade of the Civil Rights movement, Washburn was an assistant director on Star Trek.  He was a Tennessee native who arrived in Hollywood with a scholarship for the Director's Guild of America trainee program.  Mr. Washburn made history as the first African-American DGA trainee graduate in Hollywood.

He moved up to work on such popular network shows as Batman and The Six Million Dollar Man.

Washburn was first assistant director on Sounder and Lady Sings The Blues, films that made Hollywood history in that the black women in the lead roles, Cicely Tyson (Sounder) and Diana Ross (Lady Sings The Blues), were both in the Oscar race for Best Actress of 1972.  That was the first time more than one African-American actress had been nominated for the Oscar in that category.  In the 1980s, he worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the popular TV spin-off starring Patrick Stewart and Levar Burton.

Reportedly, the grateful Charles C. Washburn said that back in 1967, there were only three black people on the Desilu lot.  He was there with Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek cast member, and the third person was the gentleman who operated a food truck.  Charles Washburn passed away 2012 at age 73.

 Mr. Washburn was seen in an Oscars "In Memoriam" segment.

"Icon" is an overused word nowadays.  But Leonard Nimoy truly was a pop culture icon with his intelligent work as Mr. Spock.  On Twitter, NASA wrote "So many of us at NASA were inspired by Star Trek.  President Obama said, "I loved Spock."  William Shatner said of the late actor, "I loved him like a brother."  Mr. Nimoy and Mr. Washburn left us with fine work to enjoy.  They contributed to significant work in the TV and film arts, work that embraced diversity.  And both benefitted from Desilu Productions, the company started by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.  May diversity also "Live long and prosper."

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