Television

Leonard Nimoy Has Beamed up to Cosmic Places Unknown

As with any beloved performer, there was more to Leonard Nimoy than a pair of pointy ears and a catchphrase. Much, much more.

Leonard Nimoy is gone. Spock has finally left this planet and beamed up to cosmic places unknown. He wasn't the first of the original Star Trek cast to leave us. DeForest Kelly earned that sad distinction back in 1999. Then everyone's favorite fake Scotsman, James Doohan, followed suit in 2005. So we've been prepared for another intergalactic parting, especially when you consider the rest of the cast -- William Shatner (age 83), George Takei (77), Nichelle Nichols (82), and Walter Koenig (78) -- are all in the twilight of their years.

But for some reason, losing Spock is different for Star Trek fans. His death is not so much an end of an era than the end of a specific idea. When Gene Roddenberry decided to bring serious science fiction to TV sets in a 1966 awash in contentious culture wars, the strange being with the pointy ears became an unusual voice of reason. Applying logic over emotion, the Vulcan voiced a generation's dissatisfaction with the superstitions of the past while looking forward to the progress to be made in the presence.

Spock was the counterculture. Spock, was special. He was the outsider telling the Establishment what was right. And rational.

Indeed, the one magic element that still remains in the original Star Trek, one that has frequently gotten lost over the various spin-offs and cinematic adaptations, was the promise of a brighter future sans skepticism. No longer would we battle among ourselves on a planet starved of resources and rife with political and philosophical unrest. Instead, we would show a united front, cemented in science, taking on the unexpected but still slightly familiar turmoil that comes with space exploration and the discovery of new species beyond our own. While the show was still meant as entertainment, another "E" word -- education, or perhaps better still, erudition -- was a subtextual close second.

And now the architect of that thinking, the half-human hybrid who fought friendship as strongly as he embraced those who he indeed cared about, is gone, the one thing Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy declared he didn't have, a heart, finally failing him. Nimoy was an avid smoker for nearly 30 years, and said vice caused the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that would eventual kill him. Yet even in passing, the actor turned icon left us with words that showcased the reason why so many remain devoted. "A life is like a garden," he said in his final tweet, "Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP"

It's that last acronym, for "Live Long and Prosper", that's perhaps most important. For the character of Spock, the science officer on the Starship Enterprise and trusted right hand 'humanoid' to Captain James T. Kirk, that 'right hand' phrase had a double meaning. True, it was a mere greeting/salutation, but for the Jewish born Nimoy, the accompanying hand gesture held the most important resonance. Representing the Hebrew letter "shin", the actor told the Washington Post that he remembered the sign from a special prayer session when he was a child, but never anticipated that his decision to include it as part of Spock's heritage would strike such a "magical chord".

Nimoy was born to immigrant parents on 26 March 1931 in Boston. His mother was a homemaker. His father was a barber. Yiddish was a second language for the family, and regularly used to communicate with grandparents and other relatives. While he showed great acting skills at an early age, young Leonard's parents wanted him to pursue a "stable" career (his Dad even suggested he take up the accordion, since he could "always" make a living with said instrument). By his teens, he was already a featured player in amateur productions.

By his 20s, he was part of the Hollywood B-picture parade, earning minor roles in such memorable films as Them! (about giant ants) and The Brain Eaters. In fact, prior to Star Trek, Nimoy was the consummate "working" actor. He took any role, making sure to earn enough to take care of himself and his family while doing his best to bring distinction to the part.

By the time Star Trek came along, Nimoy was an established name. In fact, he had to choose between a role on the sci-fi series and a part in the soap opera Peyton Place. With friend William Shatner already in the Captain's chair (the two had worked together previously on an episode of the spy "spoof" The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), he agreed to take on the role of Spock.

There were issues from the beginning. The network didn't like the ears. Nimoy wanted Spock to be a "serious" character, not an alien "throwaway" for the kiddies. Shatner's notorious prima donna ego caused further friction, and by the time the show was cancelled the first time, Nimoy was ready to jump ship.

But as with all cults, the congregation needs a shaman, and for some reason, Nimoy was it. While he always feared he'd be typecast, something even more troubling happened. He became typed. He wasn't just the guy who played Spock, he was Spock. When Star Trek was revived to continue its still short initial run, Nimoy feared further damage to his career.

By the time of his first autobiography in 1975, he was trying to make the distinct between himself and the character he played as clear as possible. Sadly, fans misread the title, I Am Not Spock, and wrongly assumed Nimoy was turning his back on the popular extraterrestrial.

Once the network pulled the plug, Nimoy and company were free to pursue their personal and professional goals. He played the role of Paris in seasons four and five of the popular Mission: Impossible, did memorable guest shots on Columbo and Night Gallery, and even made a couple of nominal films.

No one thought Star Trek would be revived, even after NBC brought it back, sort of, for two seasons of animated adventures. It's worth noting that the company behind the series, Filmation, didn't bring back the entire cast initially. They left out Chekov (Koenig), Ohura (Nichols) and Sulu (Takei). Nimoy balked, claiming he would not do the show unless the latter two were included to show the diversity of the 23rd Century. Spock won.

So did the stage. Nimoy spent a great deal of time treading the boards between bouts of playing Spock. He would appear in Vincent, Oliver!, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Fiddler on the Roof, and Equus and seemed happy to be back exploring more than mere outer space. He took that concept further, hosting the investigative program In Search of....

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the '80s: syndication. Syndication and Star Wars. When Fox debuted its soon to be mythic George Lucas space opera, few thought it would be a hit. Once it dominated the cinematic landscape, everyone was looking for their own Luke, Leai, and Han. Paramount, owning the rights to the Star Trek catalog, decided a feature film was in order. As rumors flew and the complex casting negotiations began, Nimoy showed nominal interest.

Of course, we all know the rest of the story. He starred in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Spock then "died" at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In order to lure him back for further installments, Nimoy was given the opportunity to direct Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. When he proved profitable, he made Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. That lead to another sideline: director for hire.

During breaks from the Star Trek schedule, Nimoy made Three Men and a Baby, The Good Mother, and Funny About Love. He also pursued his passion for photography (including artistic nudes of full-sized women), writing, and music. In fact, one of his most infamous claims to fame is his unusual version of the Hobbit themed folk song "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins".

As with most myths, Leonard Nimoy did not come fully formed. Over time, he cultivated his own folklore, embracing and criticizing the role that brought him fame, finding both solace in such separation and anxiety over only being remembered for that role, that character. Similarly, he struggled with personal demons, many driven by alcohol.

By the time we as a culture turned from bullying nerds to embracing them, Nimoy was becoming another entity all together. He was sanity in an insane world, reason where knee-jerk reactions abounded. The less it seemed we associated him solely with Spock, the more the Vulcan's perspective became necessary in a pre/post millennial world. When it came time to reboot the Star Trek franchise four decades later, J.J. Abrams knew of only one "previous" cast member who needed to take part.

That's because Spock spoke to the best within ourselves. He spoke to our inner intelligence and outer empathy. He was radical and revisionist in a time when our nation needed it and, as the decades passed, his otherworldly viewpoint became a goal for great thinkers.

If the goal of Star Trek was always to show the best of mankind, Spock was the extraterrestrial who held all the cards. He was the guide, the mentor, the maverick. And now, he's gone, if only temporarily. The pain from his loss will linger, but the best part about Nimoy is that he chose to express his talents in a timeless manner.

While he will now rest, all we can hope for is to follow Spock's main salutation. Indeed, the best we all can do in his honor is live long and prosper. Leonard Nimoy certainly did.

Splash image: Press photo of Leonard Nimoy (photographer unknown)

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