The man who would be Spock
Lawrence Montaigne has been a part of many memorable projects, but considers himself ‘lucky’ to be remembered for ‘Star Trek’
Wed, Aug 8, 2012 (8:49 a.m.)
Photo: Bill Hughes
Lawrence Montaigne has a unique claim to fame: He was almost the next Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek. Montaigne, 81, has been a Las Vegas resident for the last 11 years, and has dabbled all over the entertainment industry in his varied life: dancing, stuntwork, screenwriting, teaching and, of course, acting. Now semi-retired, he has turned to writing, penning both an autobiography, A Vulcan Odyssey, and his most recent book, The Guardian List, which is available on Amazon Kindle. Here, Montaigne explains why he loves Star Trek conventions and shares perhaps the best Leonard Nimoy prank ever.
Is it true you were almost the new Mr. Spock?
Since we did that contract for me to replace [original Spock] Leonard Nimoy [if he left the show], 10 people have come out of the woodwork, swearing to God they were hired to do the same job. So I was a little, you know, miffed, because I thought I was the guy who was going to do it. But Robert Justman, he was the associate producer on the show, and he verified the fact that I was, indeed, hired to play the role and replace Nimoy. There was also a clause in my contract that said if Leonard decides to come back, Montaigne is out. So Nimoy went to do Mission: Impossible, and decided to come back. And I got a very short phone call saying, “We’re sorry.” And then a few weeks after, they called me to do [Vulcan character] Stonn (laughs). And you know damn well I wasn’t gonna do it. But my agent just ripped me a new butt: “You’re gonna do it!”
What was your reaction when you got that phone call?
My first reaction was to kill Leonard (laughs). And that was the nice part. Really, I was kind of wound up, thinking I was going to do it. And I don’t think I would have replaced Spock. I really think I would have been Stonn. And because of my Eastern European resemblance to Leonard Nimoy, because we both come from Polish/Russian/Hungarian backgrounds, I think I would have created my own persona.
You played both a Vulcan [Stonn in “Amok Time”] and Romulan [Decius in the “Balance of Terror” episode, the first Romulan ever in the series]. Which one did you prefer playing?
No doubt about it—the first Romulan. Give me the glory of the kill. You go to your grave with this on your tombstone. But I had nothing to do when I played the Vulcan, I just stood there, and I’m reacting to everything that’s going on. And here’s the funny part about the Romulan: I read for the part of the commander, and I didn’t get it. My agent said, “You know the part of Decius? It’s the bad guy who starts all the trouble. You got that part.” Then I said, “What do I do with it?” I had no idea. You couldn't use a crutch, because we had no idea what we were doing. What is a Romulan? But check this out: Mark Lenard and I had just finished shooting an episode in a series called Here Come the Brides. And we clicked. So when I showed up at the studio and saw Mark, we just clicked again. And you see it on the screen, because we have this interplay. And though it's not positive—it’s adversarial—it still worked. People still come to me and say, “I love the way you guys pulled that off.”
In calling your first book, the autobiography A Vulcan Odyssey, any desire to call it A Romulan Odyssey?
I thought it would be good to sell at conventions—A Vulcan Odyssey would really catch people’s eye. It did, but it didn’t do very well in the open marketplace, because people who are not Star Trek fans are not going to look at it. And it's got nothing really to do with Star Trek. It’s got to do with my life in Italy when I was a kid, and how I grew up before the war started, and got kicked out of Europe, how I went back to Europe, how I ended up in the Orient, how I was wounded in Israel ... it’s really the story of my life, and I've had a great life, I’ve had a ball.
Will you be involved in this year’s convention in Las Vegas?
Unless I get hit by a car, yes. I have a table, and I set up, and I put out my photographs and then just sit and wait. People come by and know me or don’t know me and we talk. And it’s gratifying.
Why do you think Star Trek continues to resonate so much with people? You know, you go see a film and you sit in the theater, and the actor is up there and you’re down here, and you say to yourself, “Damn, I’d like to meet that guy. I’d like to know him.” It stays in the back of your mind and you never get a chance. And here comes Star Trek with Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and these actors that have made an impact, and you go to a convention and you can walk up and say, “Hi, Bill, my name is … and I loved you in …” You get a chance to fulfill a desire, a dream, and the people you speak to are responsive. I have people e-mail me, call me, “I just wanted to tell you I got married,” or, “I’m having a baby.” ... Maybe I’m naive, but it charges my batteries.
Any good stories about your time on Star Trek?
Well, Gene [Roddenberry] and I were not very friendly. There were just certain things Gene wanted I didn’t want, like shaving my chest. I come in, and he says, “You gotta shave your chest.” I said, “No way in hell!” My agent comes out, everybody’s in conference. The result is, “Put a little frigging shirt on the son of a bitch and let’s go to work!” Gene got so pissed off at me, and he treated me like a pariah. I thought he was the biggest asshole policeman who ever walked the earth. There was no love lost between the two of us.
Do you feel that conflict affected future appearances on the show?
Yes, I sure do, yes.
Did you establish relationships with anyone in the cast?
I always got along with Bill Shatner, but I was not very close with Leonard Nimoy. Leonard’s wife, Sandy, and I were in the theater together. I knew her long before Leonard did. They got married and she had kids and Sandy and I remained friends. Her sister and I went together for a while. I think Leonard took umbrage with that.
I’ve got to tell you a story. I come on the set, and Leonard [Nimoy] is off by himself sitting in his chair with his name on the back, reading the script, non-communicative. I tried to be friendly: “Hi Leonard,” and I wanted to talk about Sandy, and that I knew his wife—nothing. Okay, we break for lunch. Picture this: I go to the commissary. I get there—and I’m playing Stonn—and there’s a bus filled with tourists, maybe 50. I go in, get my lunch, sit down, the doors open and here comes this mob straight for my table. “Mr. Nimoy, Mr. Nimoy, can we have your autograph?” So I’m sitting there, signing autographs “Leonard Nimoy.”
You really did that?
(Laughs) I go back to the set. Leonard’s sitting by himself. So I walk over and I said, “Leonard, I’ve got to tell you, the funniest thing happened at lunch today.” Well, he couldn’t have cared less. I said, “I’m sitting in the commissary and a busload of tourists come in and they all rushed over to my table and said, ‘Mr. Nimoy, Mr. Nimoy, can we have your autograph?’ And I told them all to go f*ck themselves.” His reaction was, “You die and go to hell!” That went around the set, everyone was doubled over. And I never straightened him out. I never told him the truth.
What led to you retiring from acting?
After Star Trek, I had a series at Fox for Irwin Allen. It was called City Beneath the Sea. It had a good cast and was solid—very in the future, [and my role was] very Leonard Nimoy-ish. The only difference was I played a fish, I had gills, and there was a beneath the sea that we all lived in, doing ecological work. It was a wild concept. For months we waited for word [that we would be picked up]. But it never happened. I was heartbroken. And it affected me in many ways, because in those days, if you had a series and it didn’t sell, the onus was on the actor. [Co-star] James Brolin had a previous series that was a success, so he went on to do a great number of things, but I had trouble getting a job.
So what then?
Fortunately, I had a friend from Europe by the name of Jerry Courtland, and he had moved up the ladder to be a producer at Walt Disney Studios. I had a story I wrote called The Million Dollar Dixie Deliverance and Disney bought it like that. It opened up a whole new thing for me. I’m glad, because I knew I’d reached a certain point in my life and had to make some decisions. The acting was beyond me. I had run the course. You’ve got to know when it’s time to move on.
Had you written a screenplay before?
Yes, but not for anything in this country. In Germany, yes. It was a vampire thing. And it was a piece of crap.
So why not pursue a career as a screenwriter? Sounds like you had great contacts.
I kept in touch with Steve McQueen, as well as Bud Eakins, who was his stunt double on The Great Escape. I’ve always been a big motorcycle fanatic, and Bud owned a motorcycle shop and a warehouse full of motorcycles. We were up in Carmel on night while doing Escape to Witch Mountain for Disney, and Bud and I went out and got a little tanked. He started telling me about all these motorcycles. I start thinking, “Cyclone motorcycle, 1925 … There’s a script here for Steve, I know it. So I went to the drawing board and started writing a script called Cyclone 25. Bud said, “Steve’s going to love this!” Steve read it and loved it, but he wanted the girl to be more prominent. So I went back to the drawing board, and while I was doing that, Steve went down to Mexico … and died.
So I put the script on the shelf. I recently showed it to a writer’s group, and they all said, “If you don’t make this into a book, we’re going to kick your ass! I’m very tempted to go back to it. But after Steve died, I was disheartened, and the timing was right [to get into teaching]. I got my masters in 1986 from North Texas State.
Are you teaching now?
No. I taught at UNLV up until a few years ago, then I was a substitute teacher in the school district. But you walk into a classroom of kids thinking, “What is this old fart doing in a classroom?” I taught some acting seminars up here in Anthem, I called them acting clinics. You’ve got to beat them off with a stick. I say, “What do you want to do with it?” But people come up after the class and say, “This was the greatest experience of my life. I feel so secure, to get up in front of people and do an acting role I’ve memorized and put all this work into.”
Will you continue teaching those classes?
I have some problems. My wife, Patricia, has just gone through having cancer. And I have neuropathy, a bad case, in my legs. I don’t want to do anything that would compromise my undertaking a project. I don’t know from one day to the next what I’m capable of doing.
I looked at your IMDB page, and you have had a very varied career. What’s been your most memorable project?
That [Star Trek] would be second. The first would be The Great Escape. The other day it was on television, and I show up at the gym at 5:30 in the morning, and the guys are saying, “Hey, I saw you on The Great Escape!” If it wasn’t for that movie, there would have been no Star Trek. You can imagine what it was like when my agent would pick up the phone and say, “I’ve got a client who was featured in The Great Escape.” It was like the Red Sea opening. I was hired for everything I touched. But for all the things I’m remembered for, I’m remembered for Star Trek. Even over and above The Great Escape. It comes on the tube once every six months, but Star Trek is there all the time.
How do you feel about being tied to Star Trek, despite everything else you’ve done?
I am the luckiest guy in the world. And I don’t forget it for a day. If I was a religious person, I would turn to some deity and thank it. I don’t have that. So I have to just say I’m lucky. I worked in the business for 40 great, interesting years. It’s called self-satisfaction, and that’s important to me.