Best piece of advice I ever got was from John F Kennedy when I was driving a taxi in and out of the Hotel Bel-Air. He was a senator then. I was just out of the army and I needed to make some money, so I got to talking about the difficulty of making a living as an actor. And he said, “Just keep in mind, there’s always room for one more good one.”
Actors are crazy people. To be desperate for the work and then start complaining the minute you get there! I was so happy to get a job, I didn’t care if I had to stand on my head all day. But there is that tendency: “When’s the fucking food going to get here?” “Why do I have to be out here in the cold?”
Love is not struggle. Love is love. You can have arguments and love each other. You can go through hard times and love each other. If you can find a relationship where it’s easy to give it and get it, then a lot of that stuff takes care of itself.
People assume that the Star Trek cast are a family and that we get together on weekends for barbecues. We’re not.
We were shooting an episode where we were going back to Spock’s home planet, and I was very conscious of the Vulcan culture question. Asians bow, military people salute each other, others shake hands — what do Vulcans do? And days after that thing was on the air, people were greeting me on the street with it. I was like, whoa, that took root!
First time I met President Obama was very early during his campaign, at a luncheon with maybe 50 to 60 people. He came out to the patio, where we were all waiting, and he saw me and did the Vulcan greeting. It’s in the culture. It’s amazing.
We may not find it in my lifetime, but with so many billions of planetary possibilities, I think there’s life on other planets, yeah.
Coming from a Jewish family in Boston, a very Catholic city, I was definitely in the minority, if not a complete outsider. So when I got to play Spock, I felt completely at home. I knew what that was all about.
When I told my dad I wanted to be an actor, he said, “Learn to play the accordion.” His understanding was that accordion players could make a living — you could play weddings, bar mitzvahs… I never learned.
America is still a place where people can dream about what they would like to accomplish and there’s a chance that they can achieve it. It may be more difficult now than it used to be, but I have hopes.
We are the curators of our own lives. Curators make choices. Like when I was 21, 22 years old, I was selling vacuum cleaners, and probably making $125 to $150 a week. But when an opportunity came along to act in a play in Hollywood making $50 a week, I took it readily. That’s a curator’s choice. I felt my selling vacuum cleaners wouldn’t do anything for me as an artist.
I loved Spock. I felt so totally at home in that character — the alien with a logician’s eye, curious, trying to understand the human condition — that was my job as an actor. It’s a vast and deep study.
I have a sense of comfort now. I don’t feel I have to strive as I did for years, always striving to accomplish. I have a great family, great homes, a very wonderful and rewarding personal life. It’s easy to need less when you have everything you need.
I taught acting for years and people used to say, “Why don’t you try being a director?” And, to tell you the truth, I was kind of insulted. Are they telling me that my acting isn’t good enough?
After Star Trek II, Paramount wanted to see me. So I thought, “Oh they want me to come back as Spock. And that’s fine, I’m sure they’ll give me a lot of money. But what can I do to broaden my life?” So I was sitting in this executive’s outer office, waiting for him to finish his meeting, and I said to my agent, “What if I said I wanted to direct this movie?” It was literally a last-minute thought. And he said, “I think it’s a great idea.” And that’s what happened. We walked in and I said, “I’d love to direct the movie.” And the executive said, “Frankly, I’ve had that thought myself.” And I thought, “Wow! Is this how easy it is to direct a major feature?”
I gave up alcohol in 1989. Stopping wasn’t difficult once I understood that I had to stop. I was trying to control it, but I had no control. I’d promise myself that on a Sunday I’d only have a beer or two, but within a few hours, I’d be drinking heavily. So I realised that I can’t drink at all. They say with alcoholism that one drink is too many and a gallon is not enough.
I’m a secular Jew. Not a terribly religious person. So I don’t know what happens when we die. That’s what Shakespeare called “that Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”.
I don’t have any regrets about the choices I made. But I might have had an easier life if I had stayed in academia longer — I finished high school and then I decided to self-educate for a long time. I didn’t get my first college degree until I was in my mid-thirties.
My parents were very unsophisticated, ghettoised people. They had a tough childhood, trying to survive — I mean actually stay alive — and they were scared. I never had that kind of fear. I left home at 18 and never lived at home again.
It’s so easy to say about young people, “We had it harder than them.” But in many ways, it’s true. Of course, young people didn’t choose this, they’re just dealing with the environment they have. Life is a drama, everybody has to experience it.
Trust is the key to enduring male friendships. That’s major for me.
This interview was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Esquire