In 1956, a 24-year-old taxicab driver named Leonard Nimoy got a call to pick up a Mr. Kennedy at the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles.
It was Sen. John F. Kennedy, who needed a ride to the Beverly Hilton. He was speaking for Adlai Stevenson, then running for president. Kennedy had yet to achieve national prominence but Nimoy, who came from Boston, recognized him. They struck up a conversation. Kennedy asked him what he was doing in Los Angeles. Nimoy explained he wanted to be an actor. Kennedy gave him some advice he never forgot.
There was something else Leonard Nimoy never forgot: The Elizabeth Peabody House. Both Kennedy and the West End settlement house played important roles in Leonard Nimoy’s journey to become the famous fictional character, Mr. Spock.
Elizabeth Peabody Playhouse
Leonard Nimoy was born March 26, 1931 in Boston’s West End. His Jewish parents had immigrated from Iziaslav, Soviet Union, now Ukraine. Max, his father, owned a barbershop in the Mattapan section of Boston. His mother, Dora, was a homemaker. Living in the same apartment were his grandfather and grandmother, who only spoke Yiddish.
He grew up in a crowded tenement in the West End among Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants. He and his older brother Melvin spent a lot of time at the Elizabeth Peabody Playhouse in the neighborhood.
The settlement house, now a community center in Somerville, was named after Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a central figure in the Transcendentalist movement. She was an educator and the sister-in-law of both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann. The settlement house once stood on the spot where for years a sign read, ‘If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now.’
The Elizabeth Peabody House had a mission to help immigrants integrate into America’s democratic society. It offered classes on kitchen sanitation, personal hygiene, language, dental care and how to apply for a job. It had a gym, sports program and a science lab.
Melvin Nimoy hung out in the science lab. He subsequently graduated from MIT and became a chemical engineer.
Leonard preferred the Elizabeth Peabody Playhouse, a 375-seat legitimate theater he once described as ‘a gem.’
Leonard Nimoy, Actor
At eight years old he was hanging around the playhouse when someone asked him to sing. He did, and the next thing he knew he had the part of Hansel in a children’s production of Hansel and Gretel.
Leonard Nimoy continued acting in children’s theater until he was 17, when he auditioned for Clifford Odets’ play, Awake and Sing. It was a story about a Jewish Immigrant family very much like his own – three generations living in an apartment. One character was even a barber, like Max Nimoy.
Leonard got the part. It changed his life. He recalled, “That Awake and Sing production was a major, major event for me. It was the first time that I was playing in an adult piece of theater for an adult audience, and I was portraying the juvenile in a family much like my own.
“I related totally to this character… I was playing this kid who was struggling with the same issues I was struggling with: How do you discover who your are? How do you figure out how to get a decent job? How do you find the right girl? And how do you work your way through the dynamics of these family issues and dramas and tensions, which were very much like my own?”
He then decided it would be a blessing to work in the theater, and a blessing soon came his way. He received a half-scholarship to the summer theater program at Boston College. The other half of the scholarship came from the director of another settlement house called the West End House.
His parents objected. They wanted him to attend college and pursue a career. Or they wanted him to learn to play the accordion, because he could always make a living that way. His grandfather encouraged him to act. He did.
Leonard Nimoy got a job selling vacuum cleaners that summer. He then saved enough money to pay for tuition to the Pasadena Playhouse. He took a train west and began studying theater.
His acting career, though, was interrupted by a stint in the Army, marriage and the birth of his first child. He started to drive a taxicab to make ends meet. Which is when he got the advice from Kennedy during their conversation on the way to the Beverly Hilton:
…we chatted a bit about acting and politics. At one point he said, “Your business is the same as mine. There’s a lot of competition.” And we laughed about that, and then he said, “But keep in mind, there’s always room for one more good one.”
“And I took those words very much to heart.”
Leonard Nimoy Day
Nimoy first played Spock in a television pilot for Star Trek in 1964 and then for another 50 years on the big and small screens. He made his final performance as Spock in 2013. He had another career as a film director, performed on stage, recorded record albums, exhibited photographs and wrote two autobiographies.
Nimoy died Feb. 27, 2015.
In 2021, outgoing Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a first-generation American, declared Leonard Nimoy Day on March 26. It would have been his 90th birthday. The purpose, read Walsh’s proclamation, was “to honor the West End native’s contribution to the arts in roles like Mr. Spock on Star Trek, as well as his dedication to the community.”
“Leonard Nimoy brought honor upon his native city with his accomplishments as an actor, writer, producer, director, poet, photographer, and philanthropist,” the proclamation read. “Leonard Nimoy, through his fictional character, Mr. Spock — half human, half Vulcan — gave the immigrant, the refugee, and the oppressed, a hero for ‘the Outsider.’”
With thanks to A Hand To Guide Me by Denzel Washington. This story about Leonard Nimoy was updated in 2021.