Leonard Nimoy sued Paramount — and won

Henry Fonda and Leonard Nimoy met in 1972 on the set of The Alpha Caper. Three years later, Nimoy and his wife Sandra Zober joined Fonda and his wife Shirlee Mae Adams for dinner in London after seeing Fonda perform in the play Darrow.

Fonda asked Nimoy what he thought of the Spock billboards all over the city. “What billboards, Henry?” Nimoy asked. Fonda replied, “Do you mean to tell me you don’t know about all those Heineken billboards?” Nimoy did not, but he now understood why a bartender had earlier suggested Nimoy might like to order a Heineken.

Poster showing three illustrations of Star Trek's Mr. Spock. In the left image his ears droop, in the middle his ears are partially standing and he is about to drink from a Heineken mug, and on the right his ears are standing straight and a thought balloon reads "Illogical." It is signed by Leonard Nimoy.

Nimoy often saw Spock’s face on cereal cartons and posters and lunch boxes, and he never gave it much thought, but he found the Heineken poster’s sexual innuendo to be in bad taste. Once back home, he discovered the beer company had not been granted permission for the billboard campaign. Worse, he also found out Paramount had stopped paying him years earlier for the licencing of his image. So he sued Paramount for recompense. The lawsuit ended only because Nimoy refused to even read the script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture until the studio settled.

A payment arrived and Nimoy signed on to play Spock.

In 2009, Nimoy was set to appear at Fan Expo in Toronto, and I needed something interesting for him to sign. I remembered the Heineken story, which Nimoy told in his 1995 book I Am Spock, and found high-quality reprints of the billboard on eBay. All set.

But would Nimoy sign the poster? After all, it had prompted a lawsuit. So I also brought the LP Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space to the convention as a backup.

When I got near the front of the autograph line, I unrolled the poster and showed it to his assistant, who smiled and said “Oh, I think Leonard will be fine with this.” There were not many people in line and, when he finished chatting with the person ahead of me, Nimoy turned to me, looked at the poster for a few seconds, and then looked back up at me.

“I’m not sure if you want to sign this,” I said.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Well, because of what you had to go through because of it.”

“Do you know the story?”

I nodded, and Leonard Nimoy nodded back and made a “go ahead” gesture with his hand, so I told him the story as he wrote it in I Am Spock. “That’s right,” he said. “You do know the story. That was a bad time, but I had to do it.”

The cover of the LP record Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space, showing Spock holding the three-foot model of the Enterprise. It is signed by Leonard Nimoy.

We talked a little about Toronto and I thanked him for coming to the city, and of course I also got him to sign Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space. It was great to spend even a few minutes with him; often the big lines at conventions mean you don’t get even a hello.

The story behind the poster makes it one of my favourite items, and my concern that he might refuse to sign it was justified. Years later I spoke with a collector who had the same idea, and lined up at a convention also in 2009, only to have Nimoy politely refuse to sign the Heineken poster. I don’t know why he signed mine. Perhaps because I knew the story.


PS: Many Web sites state the Heineken story appears in the earlier book I Am Not Spock, and that Nimoy sued Heineken. Both of these are incorrect.

An advertising guy named Mike Everett claims Heineken tried to get in touch with Nimoy to arrange a photo shoot for the ad and, when that proved difficult, just went with an illustration. The ad won the D&AD Silver award for the best poster of 1975, so it seems this whole thing didn’t really hurt Heineken.

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