Interview: Leonard Nimoy from ‘Fringe’

We had the honor of speaking with Leonard Nimoy, who plays William Bell in Fringe. He shared with us about his experience on Fringe, his imminent retirement, and his thoughts on his past career.

What brought you to appearing on Fringe. Were you watching this show? Did somebody approach you about being on there? Was there a specific role set up for you?

I had a wonderful time working on the new Star Trek movie with JJ Abrams, who directed it. When it was done, he asked me to look into the possibility of playing William Bell on Fringe. I was frankly not terribly aware of what it was all about. I began looking at some episodes that William Bell, the character, had been talked about rather frequently, but had never been seen. I felt that I owed JJ a favor. He did a great job on the Star Trek movie and treated me extremely well.

I’m very happy I did it. The work on Fringe has turned out to be exciting and interesting. It’s a terribly well produced series. The character was a wide open canvas for me to work with. I had a great time doing it. Next week’s episode is particularly special for the William Bell character.

Your character has been a mysterious one. We’re never quite clear of his motives. I’m curious how much did they tell you beforehand as you started to play the role what he was up to, and if you weren’t quite clear, did you think about how much do I play him? Is he perhaps evil? Is he perhaps good?

The ambiguity is the trauma of the character. I think all of those questions will be answered next week in the final episode. We are still not quite clear, as of last night, about what his intentions are. He keeps telling Olivia that she should trust him. Maybe she has to. I don’t know if she has any choice really, but there will be very strong involvement with Olivia and with Peter and particularly with Walter, which will, I think, answer the questions that you’re asking. Those are the questions that everybody’s asking. So, what’s it all about with William Bell? We’ll find out next Thursday.

You’ve talked recently about how you’re going to be retiring from acting. After you had done Dr. Bell on Fringe, was there something that felt like there was a finality, like you had cleared what characters you wanted to play, or is it just a time and space that you just don’t feel like acting is going to open any more experiences for you? Some thoughts on why this show is going to be your last?

It’s really coincidental. It wasn’t anything about the Fringe job or the character of William Bell that made me decide I didn’t want to do this anymore. It’s a coincidence. I’ve been at this for 60 years. My first professional work in film was in 1950. 60 years, I think, is long enough.

I had decided not to do anymore acting and directing several years ago. I was called back to work to do the Star Tre movie, which was very attractive. I thought it was going to be a wonderful film. I read the script and a great handling of the Spock character and an introduction of wonderful new actor to play Spock.

Then, JJ Abrams who is the executive producer of Fringe asked me to do the William Bell character. I thought I owed him that. I’m very glad that I did it because it was an exciting project. It’s just coincidental that I decided some time ago that I really didn’t want to do this anymore. I just this last job as a favor to JJ Abrams. I’m glad I did it. I think we’ll see an exciting episode next week. It’s a very good note to go out on.

Even though you’ve had a lot of exotic material over the years that you’ve done, it seems like Fringe takes us to another level here because we’re into things like alternate existences and people being in two different places in one time and so forth. Are there times where some of the Fringe material that just takes you out to get your head around it, or you have to stop back and think, “Whoa! This is even more strong than anything in Star Trek“?

The best answer I can give you is that the Fringe television series is extremely well produced. The production is far more sophisticated than anything that I was ever involved with in television. Only the previous work that I was involved in was much more simplistic, production-wise, and these scripts are extremely complicated and very nuanced, very intelligent scripts. I’m intrigued with how well they do these shows, not only in the concept, but in the execution. I’m amazed. Particularly the episode next week, I had a chance to be involved in some major production scenes, the likes of which I had never experienced in television. You’re right. The stories are unusually complex, but fascinating for an audience. I’ve become a great fan of the show.

There were some lingering reports online that you might actually be in the next Star Trek film. Doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen, but any word on maybe whether or not your good friend, William Shatner, might be in the next film?

Leonard I have no idea about the next film regarding Bill Shatner. I’m quite sure – I think I can be definitive about the fact that I will not be in it. I have said that I think it’s time for me to get off the stage and make some room for Zachary Quinto who is the new Spock and a wonderful actor, looks a lot like me. And I’m very flattered that the character will be continued by an actor of that caliber. He’s very well trained and very talented.

I have no expectations whatsoever even being asked to be in the next Star Trek film. I cannot speak for JJ Abrams or Bill Shatner. If they have a common interest, I hope it works out.

Obviously, you can’t reveal too much about the season finale, but can you give us maybe a few more hints? Also, can you tell us do you expect to be on next season at all?

No, I don’t expect to be on next season. I have announced my retirement. I will not be doing anymore television or movie acting or directing. I can tell you that I feel very fulfilled with the work that was given to me to do in this final episode, coming up next week. I admire all of the people on this show: Anna Torv, Josh Jackson, and John Noble, and all the rest. I had some wonderful scenes to play with John Noble who I think is a wonderful actor. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to seeing it edited. I have not seen the edited version, but the work that we did on the soundstage and on the streets of Vancouver felt really creative and productive. I’m happy that I did it.

Tell me a little bit about what you’re doing after acting. I understand you do a lot of photography these days and have other interests. Is it hard to say goodbye? What’s next?

No, it’s not hard to say goodbye. I’ve had 60 years of working in films and television. I’m very grateful for all the great opportunities that I’ve had and all and the people that I’ve met, the people I’ve worked with, the Fringe company. I said on my final day of shooting was as good as any company I’ve ever worked within the 60 years of my experience.

What I’m working on now is making the prints for an exhibition of my photography, which will open July 31st at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. I’m excited about it because it’s my first, solo exhibition in a major museum. It’s a show called, “Secret Selves.” It’s about lost or hidden or secret identifies. It’s a series of portraits. I’m excited about it. If one cares to see what some of images look like, you can go to my Web site, which is Go to “Secret Selves.”

People have talked a lot about the fact that William Bell’s character had to be scaled back a little bit when you were cast because of your availability. You’re not in as many episodes as they were hoping to feature the character. Do you know what some of those things that they were hoping to do with the character that they didn’t get to do, or do you feel like there was stuff that didn’t get to happen?

This is actually news to me. I haven’t heard this before. I don’t think it’s accurate. I was asked to do five episodes. I did. So, I don’t know where that information is coming from. It’s true that, in the first three episodes that I did for them, or even the first four, I would say that my involvement was minimal. In this final one, coming up next week, I’m heavily involved. I don’t know of any other plans that they had, or anything about scaling back. I don’t think it’s accurate. They asked me to do five episodes, and I did.

About next week’s episode in terms of your scenes with John Noble. I assume there will be some Walter-William showdowns I can look forward to?

Very strong. Very strong scenes between Walter and William. Exactly. I would say that’s at the heart of the episode. Yes, very strong. It was a great pleasure for me to do those scenes. I admire John. I call him, “Noble John.” His name is John Noble, of course. I call him, “Noble John.” He’s a wonderful actor.

I also am an admirer of the rest of the cast. I got to do some interesting work with Anna Torv who I think is a wonderful actress too. Yes, there’s a very strong relationship resolution between Walter and William next Thursday night.
What do you think is the most interesting aspect of William Bell’s character?

The interesting thing about him? I think it’s the fact that he’s disarmingly unpredictable. He keeps saying, “Trust me,” but then you’re not quite sure if you should. That is probably the most interesting thing about him. He’s obviously a man of great intelligence and a powerful figure, but most intriguing is what his intentions are. What is his agenda? What is he really after? What’s he trying to accomplish? We’ll find out more about that next Thursday.

Could you perhaps tell us what has made a career in this industry rewarding for you, would you say after all these years?

Well, I set out to be an actor when I was 17 or 18 years old. I left Boston, traveled to California to try to build a career. My very first efforts were very humble. I worked in a Saturday afternoon serial called, “Zombies of the Stratosphere.” It was very primitive and very crude, but I was eager to do the work and happy to get it. It’s been exciting to me to work on soundstages and on locations all around the world.

I’ve worked with some great, great talents. I worked with a number of Academy Award winners and a number of Emmy winners, with wonderful, talented people. The Star Trek character, Mr. Spock, has been a blessing to me because I find it a very dignified and a positive character and a great role model for a lot of people. I am one very, very grateful guy. Ever since Star Trek put on the air 1966, I have never even had to consider myself with whether or not I would work again. There was always work available to me. So, it’s all about gratitude for me these days.

You’ve had opportunity to star in many, many different shows, particularly your role as Spock and even the one of William Bell right now, really make people think about all kinds of philosophical discussions. For example, you said yourself, Bell is a very complicated character. Can we trust him? There’s the ethics of the work he did with Bishop. Is what he did wrong or right? I’m thinking also that you have to deal with the whole fan psychosis. I’m wondering if how do you deal, as an actor, but also as a humanitarian, someone who’s into photography and to the deeper meaning of things—how do you deal with the fact that fans tend to sometimes superficialize these deep characters?

I think I heard you say “fan psychosis.” I’ve never heard –

Yes, fan psychosis. Those are the words.

I can’t – I’m sorry. I can’t deal with fan psychosis. The fans have been wonderful to me. They’re greatly supportive. It’s a very heartwarming experience to be in my position to know that, day after day, I have these great fan comments. People very often say to me that Star Trek and Mr. Spock was a very positive influence in their lives. Many, many people have told me that they’ve gone into the sciences because of Star Trek and Mr. Spock and made a career in science. We certainly do need great scientists in this country and this world today. So, on the contrary, fan psychosis has not been a problem. I’ve had a great time with the fans.

You found in your work in science fiction, Star Trek and Fringe, that sort of going into deep, scientific thought and things like that, has that had any influence on your artistic pursuits with photography and things like that?

They’re quite different. My photography is very concept-based. I’ve done three, major projects so far. The first was called, “Sophino,” which was about the feminine aspect of God. There’s a book with that title, which shows those images. The second is called, “The Full Body Project,” which is about the body image in our culture, particularly in this country. This most recent one is called, “Secret Selves.” None of them really have anything to do with science fiction. So, the work is quite separate. The Secret Selves project is an exhibition, which will be opening in Massachusetts July 31st at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The Secret Selves images are available on my Web site,, but all of this is quite different from science fiction.

What was it like for you on the last day of filming on the set of Fringe since this was the finale?

It was very moving. I had the same experience on the last day of filming on the Star Trek movie about a year-and-a-half ago. This was a very moving experience. It was a night scene, a very brief scene. In fact, the last night, the last work that I did was the scene that was on last night between myself and Olivia, Anna Torv. I had mixed feelings about it. I didn’t want it to end because the experience had been such a positive one, but of course, we had to get it done.

When it was done, the entire company gathered around. There was a lot of love exchanged. I said to them, “I’ve been at this for 60 years. I have never worked with a better company.” I meant it. They do an amazing job on the Fringe series. It just feels really good to know that I’m saying goodbye to the work on a very positive, good note. I feel very good about the work that was done. I’m looking forward to it being on the air next Thursday.

What have you noticed about society, and how it’s changed as compared to Star Trek, after working on Fringe?

About how society has changed?

Yes, in relation to science fiction.

Well, science fiction has become much more sophisticated and complicated than the science fiction that I worked in many, many years ago. My first science fiction work was in a series of short films called “Zombies of the Stratosphere” in which three of us came from Mars, landed on Earth, and stole a pick-up truck and a couple of revolvers and announced we were going to take over Earth and knock it out of its orbit because Mars has an orbit of lesser equality. We want the orbit that Earth has. It was a very simplistic, fantastic notion.

What we’re dealing with today is much more nuanced, and much more sophisticated. The writers are doing fascinating work. The scripts show it. The production values are much more complex and much more sophisticated than what we used to be able to do because of the advancement in the technology.

Everybody is facing off against their alternate universe doubles in these last two episodes. Will we be seeing an alternate universe, William Bell, and if so, does evil William Bell have a goatee?

Does evil William Bell have what?

A goatee.

A goatee. We’re getting close to doing a spoiler here, but I think it’s safe to say there’s only one William Bell that you’re going to see next Thursday night. You’re right. All of the others do have alternates. The alternates are fascinating. I watched last night’s episode and was delighted with the way the actors have taken on different personalities for their alternate roles. I was only given one William Bell to play. That’s the William Bell you’ll see in closure next Thursday night.

As you’ve said, you’ve spent 60 years in film and TV. How does the job change for you, or from “Zombies of the Stratosphere” to Fringe? Was it all same once the camera turned over?

The work is the work, of course. When they yell, “Action,” it’s time to deliver the goods. My position in the industry, of course, has changed drastically. When I came on the set of Fringe, I got a sense that people who said, “Uh, oh, here he comes, the old timer is coming.” When I first started out, I was in awe of the people who had great stories to tell about different locations they’d been to and different directors they’d worked with, different actors they’ve worked with and so forth. Now, I discovered I was the guy doing that, telling the stories about directors I worked with 40 years ago. It’s time to get off the stage. I think we’ve had our run.

Have you given any advice to hopefully help Zachary Quinto’s career get going the same way as yours did in 60 years time, or is there anything you wished you’d have been told when you were his age?

Oh, Zach Quinto? He’s a wonderful actor. He’s very well trained. When I began working, I was not as well trained as he. I had a lot to learn. He comes into the work already very well schooled and very well trained and ready to do the work. I had to learn as I worked. That’s not the best way to go, but obviously, building up experience was helpful, but it would have been helpful to me if somebody had said, “Leonard, get back to school and stop worrying about finding a job. Go to school and study and take more classes.” Eventually, I did. It worked out okay, but Zachary is in a different position than I was. He’s finished with his schooling. He’s a schooled and trained actor. He’s ready to do wonderful work, which I think he will.

What excited you the most about how William Bell had developed over the season?

Well, there’s always been the questions of what are his intentions. The writers have done a very good job of keeping the answer to that rather obscure. I’ve tried to make him disarming. I’ve tried to play him ambiguously so that, although he keeps saying, “Trust me,” you’re still not quite sure if you should. Even in last night’s episode, he’s saying to Olivia, “I know that you have reason not to trust me, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to.”

I think we’ll find out whether or not he’s telling her the truth in next week’s episode. We’ll find out whether or not it was corrected …. It’s going to be a very exciting episode. It’s extremely well-produced. The performances by all of the actors that I got to work with were wonderful. I had a great time doing it. I’m looking forward to seeing it on the air next Thursday.