Even the biggest Star Trek fans may not know Joseph Sargent by name. The four-time Emmy-winning director only worked on one episode of the original series, "The Corbomite Maneuver." The episode comes in the first season, just after "Dagger of the Mind," an episode where Spock must use the Vulcan mind-meld to save Kirk, and just before the two-part episode "The Menagerie," where Spock suddenly finds himself court-martialed after hijacking the Enterprise. But in the grand scheme of Star Trek history, Sargent played a much bigger role than helping Kirk bluff his way through one of Trek's earliest high-stakes poker games.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Sargent said that while he was on set, Gene Roddenberry gave him a very special mission. It seems that Leonard Nimoy in the first season of Star Trek was not entirely sold on his stone-faced character. According to Sargent, "The one outstanding other contribution I made to the show was that Leonard Nimoy wanted to quit. ... So it was Gene, [he] assigned me the task of convincing Leonard to do the role. Because he couldn’t imagine as an actor how he was going to sustain playing someone without emotion."
So while Sargent plotted his course to direct "The Corbomite Maneuver," he was also making moves behind the scenes to keep one of the series' leads firmly planted in what would become an iconic role. Sargent said he approached Nimoy at that time, and Nimoy expressed his concerns: "I’m an actor. I’m used to tapping my emotional instrument. What am I gonna do with this role?" Ultimately, Nimoy shared his conviction to quit with Sargent, saying of his ability to carry such an emotionally starved character, "I don't think so."
Luckily, Sargent did think so, or at least he wanted to follow through on his promise to Roddenberry. He said, "You know, I just used whatever simple logic I could come up with." His persuasive maneuvering worked. This is the "simple logic" as Sargent described it:
"The uniqueness of this superior human being, being able to withstand all of the pressures and all of the stress ... [of] the rest of the crew ... he makes a contribution because of that that is far and above.
Sargent delivered his insights into the part to help the actor he was filming, and according to him, "it worked! Leonard eventually stayed and the rest is history.” Nimoy actually recalled working with Sargent on this episode, too, clarifying that it was filmed earlier on in the series development than it aired, which is why the character was still so new to the actor. In the interview, he did not discuss wanting to quit the show, but he does credit Sargent with giving him this character-defining note:
“I remember … there was a scene in which the ship was being threatened by some outside problem, some dangerous force," Nimoy said. "And there was a lot of activity on the ship. … Other people are reacting and scurrying around, and I think I’m remembering correctly, that Spock had one word to say, and that word was ‘Fascinating.’ And we’re looking at this thing on the screen and everybody else is reacting … and I got caught up in that energy, and I said, ‘Fascinating.’ And the director [Joseph Sargent], he gave me a brilliant note … ‘Be different. Be the scientist. Be detached. See it as something that’s a curiosity, rather than a threat.’ …. A big chunk of the character was born right there.”
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