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Nimoy Makes Logical Return to L.A. Stage to Direct 'Apple'

Theater: The actor best-known as Mr. Spock gets back to his roots with tonight's premiere of Trish Vradenburg's play about Alzheimer's disease.

February 22, 1996|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He may forever be the pointy-eared Mr. Spock to millions of TV and movie fans, or the man who directed two highly successful "Star Trek" films, but 40 years ago, Leonard Nimoy was an L.A. theater person.

"I have such a connection, a sense of reconnection with the L.A. theater scene," says the 64-year-old actor who's put on his director's hat for tonight's premiere of Trish Vradenburg's "The Apple Doesn't Fall . . . " at the Tiffany Theatre. "When I first came here, I found very little [stage work]; wherever I found it, I worked. The greatest joy was occasionally working in TV by day, then running off to do a show at night."

Yet aside from a brief stint a few years ago in "Love Letters" with his wife, Susan Bay, at the Canon Theatre, Nimoy has been largely absent from local theater since the 1950s. Nevertheless, when former acting student/producer Chase Mishkin came to Nimoy with Vradenburg's script, he needed no convincing.

"I think it's going to command a lot of respect," Nimoy says of the show, which in an unusual booking arrangement will move directly from its six-week L.A. run to an open-ended run at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre in April. (Casting was even done out of New York to ensure the long-term availability of the seven-member cast.)

Vradenburg's story of a daughter confronting her mother's degenerative Alzheimer's disease "is bright and contemporary, touching and moving--and very funny," Nimoy says firmly. "Whenever I bring up the Alzheimer's issue, I'm amazed at how many people are dealing with it. And the play deals with it in a human way, which is still very funny." Although the subject matter is not something he's experienced in his own family, he notes, "I'm being educated first through the play, and also through Trish's very strong association with the Los Angeles Alzheimer's Assn. So I think it's in good taste--no, I know it's in good taste."

First-time playwright Vradenburg is writing from her own experiences with her mother, who died in New Jersey 3 1/2 years ago.

"A lot of this is real," says Vradenburg, whose brother is writer Michael Lerner. "I was absolutely nuts about my mother. And this is about their relationship, coming to terms with it. But it's not a 'Leave It to Beaver' story. It starts with the mother falling off a little bit: The father is not there for her, and the daughter is in the middle of [writing for] a perfect sitcom." Vradenburg (whose own TV credits include "Designing Women," "Kate and Allie" and "Family Ties") couldn't be happier with Nimoy, who she believes brings "real empathy and amazing comedic instincts. I was not a Trekkie . . . but he could do stand-up. He's so funny."

Born in Boston, Nimoy (who has two grown children and five grandchildren from his first marriage, and a 14-year-old stepson from his current marriage) started acting at age 8 in a 375-seat neighborhood theater, the Peabody Playhouse. "I stepped out playing Hansel in 'Hansel and Gretel,' " he recalls fondly. Moving to California in 1949, he enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse's acting academy, but split for Hollywood six months later, co-founding the acting company Orchard Gables Repertory, and appearing onstage in "Dr. Faustus," "The Three Musketeers" and "Deathwatch." In the '50s came a stint in the Army; while stationed in Atlanta, he made his directorial debut in "Ten Little Indians."

Back again in Los Angeles, his theater work included directing "Skylark" at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and "Camino Real" at Company of Angels, where he was a founding member. In 1966 came "Star Trek," and though he's parlayed that fame into a film directing career ("Star Trek III: The Search for Spock," "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," "Three Men and a Baby" and "The Good Mother," among his credits), he's also continued to seek out stage work, including Broadway runs in "Equus" and "Full Circle" and a 35-city tour of his Vincent Van Gogh show, "Vincent," which he also produced and directed. In TV movies, he's appeared in "A Woman Called Golda" opposite Ingrid Bergman and in the Holocaust-denial drama "Never Forget," which he also co-produced.

In spite of those successes, Nimoy--who's currently serving as executive producer on the TV series "Deadly Games"--knows that his three decades as the erudite Vulcan will probably always define him professionally. Twenty-one years ago, the actor-director published his memoirs, somewhat defiantly titled "I Am Not Spock." It wasn't until recently that Nimoy softened that public stance--and came to grips with his famous alter ego--releasing his 1995 follow-up book "I Am Spock."

"I'm sure in film and TV, there may have been some doors not open to me," he says without rancor. "As an actor, you have a body of work [most] people are unaware of--and one identifiable character. You live with that; it's part of the game. And Spock has been a great door-opener for me: It's always meant lots of opportunities and lots of work."

* "The Apple Doesn't Fall . . . ," Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Opens Thursday, playing Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Closes March 24. $27. (310) 289-2999.

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