In the TNT movie "Never Forget," premiering Monday night, Leonard Nimoy plays Mel Mermelstein, a modest, middle-class family man who maintains a homemade Holocaust exhibit, stocked with chilling photos and death-camp artifacts, on the edge of his lumberyard in Huntington Beach.
Mermelstein, now 64, lost his family in the European genocide when he was just a boy. For more than two decades he has shared his experiences through a traveling roadshow, handing down painful stories like dark folk tales to local schools and community groups, fulfilling a personal vow to never let people forget about the horrors of Auschwitz.
"The movie is very different," Nimoy said. "It's not about Holocaust footage. It's not about bodies. It's not gas chambers. It's a story that takes place in sunny Southern California. There are tentacles of history reaching into our society."
Nimoy, 59, remembers the Holocaust. While Mermelstein was interned in a work camp, Nimoy was reading the headlines of newspapers he sold on the streets of Boston. Nimoy's parents, both Jewish, were Russian immigrants.
"My parents were involved in gathering up people who came from Europe and getting them together regularly to put together care packages of food and clothing to send to Europe," said Nimoy, who produced "Never Forget" with his partner, Robert Radnitz. "I saw that activity. I was surrounded by it."
The fact-based film, co-starring Dabney Coleman and Blythe Danner, tells the story of how Mermelstein was challenged by "revisionist" historians who denied the historical validity of the Holocaust. They defied Mermelstein to prove in court that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz.
As Mermelstein put it: "They thought the Jew would cave in."
"This is the kind of show business that I thought I was going into when I first started out as a teen-ager," Nimoy said. "Projects about contemporary issues and people trying to find their way in the world. This is what I cut my teeth on in the theater. So I feel, in that sense, like I'm very much at home on this project. I have been popular, even famous, in another world. In another kind of world entirely. But this is a homecoming for me."
That other world, of course, belongs to the 23rd Century. To most people, Nimoy is known best as that logical but lovable Vulcan, Spock, who has lived long and prospered for 25 years as first officer of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise in the thriving "Star Trek" franchise.
Nimoy was seated behind a big wooden desk on the Paramount Studios lot, where he is producing the sixth "Star Trek" feature film. As his angular features and high-arched brow soften comfortably with age, Nimoy looks these days more like a producer than an alien.
"This will be the last 'Star Trek' movie with this (original) crew," Nimoy said. "Everybody has agreed. We're not playing any games. This is the final (he waved his hand so long) with this crew. This is goodby."
When asked if he would miss Spock, Nimoy laughed. "Oh, no, no, no. That's press drama. Let's find some trouble. That's Enquirer stuff. That's what it is. Actor swallowed by character he created."
Because of his voyages as Spock, some people haven't noticed Nimoy's wider artistic endeavors--writing three volumes of poetry, acting in the acclaimed one-man stage play "Vincent: The Story of a Hero" about Vincent Van Gogh, and directing such films as "Three Men and a Baby," "The Good Mother" and "Star Trek" III and IV.
Even though he wrote an autobiography in 1975 entitled "I Am Not Spock," Nimoy holds no ill will toward the green-blooded, half-breed for which he's still known best.
"Look, I'm a very grateful guy," Nimoy said. "If it were not for 'Star Trek,' I couldn't get to do 'Never Forget.' It's just as simple as that."
In fact, "Never Forget" director Joseph Sargent directed the first regular episode of the "Star Trek" TV series in 1966. And Nimoy first met his partner Radnitz on the Paramount lot while working on "Star Trek."
"This is a good project for Leonard," said Radnitz, who produced the films "Sounder" and "Cross Creek." "It's a side of him a lot of people haven't seen. I was overwhelmed with the dedication he had to this project."
In developing "Never Forget," Nimoy and Radnitz accepted the baton from Mermelstein to keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive. "The biggest danger is that we forget about history and have to relive it," Nimoy said.
"It's hard for me to grasp the idea, and I have to grasp the idea, that history changes as you get further and further away from it . . . . "Revisionists know this. And if it's their goal to clean up the image of Hitler and the Third Reich, they go about quietly printing various kinds of hate literature. Some of it is in the form of good-looking text books that make it into libraries.
"And as a history student you go to the library to do some research on WWII, and here's all these voices that tell very compelling stories about the Holocaust that never happened. That 600 Jews rather than six million died. Or that they died because of malnutrition, or Allied bombing, or typhus. And there are new people, young people, who don't know what happened, so they listen to the voices."
"Never Forget" premieres Monday at 5, 7, 9 and 11 p.m. on TNT.