Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015) – Creating A Stoic Legend
One of the most endearing and popular fictional characters to capture the cultural imagination is Mr. Spock interpreted through the soul of actor Leonard Nimoy who died on February 27, 2015 at the age of 83 from end stage Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. His death is made all the more poignant as it occurs on the fiftieth anniversary of the first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, produced by Gene Roddenberry in 1965. It starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christoper Pike of the Starship Enterprise. Although the first pilot was rejected, the show was introduced to audiences a year later in 1966 with William Shatner as the captain; but its in the first pilot where Nimoy’s Spock began his journey to reconcile logic with his humanity.
Nimoy was born in Boston in 1931 to an Orthodox Jewish immigrant Russian family. He described in numerous interviews that he never quite fit in growing up in Boston as a child and adolescent. Perhaps this helped to inform his interpretation of Spock as the ultimate outsider considered a hybrid oddity – the product of a human mother and a Vulcan father who was never quite accepted by either culture.
Joining Starfleet was the logical solution just as Nimoy chose the life of uncertainty as an actor exploring his way through bit parts during the golden age of television appearing in Sea Hunt, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Combat, Bonanza, Wagon Train, The Man From UNCLE and many more, building his skill as an actor just as Spock advanced in Starfleet to become both science and first officer of the Enterprise. His breakthrough role came in the film Zombies Of The Stratosphere (1952) and he played one of the emotionless zombies trapped in a poor script. He was first noticed by Gene Roddenberry in an episode of The Lieutenant, a TV show he was producing and offered Nimoy the role of Mr. Spock in what would become the cultural phenomena known as Star Trek.
Nimoy understood the scope of what Roddenberry was trying to accomplish by using not only his stories, but those of some of the notable science fiction writers of their time to disguise many contemporary and controversial issues of the sixties such as sex, nuclear proliferation, war, over population and racism just to name a few using the medium as a format while staying under the radar of the “sensors.” The hallmark of the series was guest writers. This was the major difference between the original series and The Next Generation which had a regular writing staff producing scripts.
Although Nimoy initially portrayed Spock as stoic and emotionless, over the course of the characters arc from the series and the six films, two of which he directed, it was clear that Spock was not as dispassionate as he appeared, but rather aptly learned to suppress his human emotions even as Dr. McCoy played by Deforest Kelly saw it as his mission in life to get Spock to admit to having them. Many episodes of the series surrounded conditions that in fact exposed his emotional nature and it became the subject of humor at the end of the episode.
Nimoy also contributed memorable iconic lines and gestures to the show. Every culture, he realized, has ways of greeting each other such as a handshake or a bow. Vulcans, he reasoned in an interview use their hands as an expression of greeting and so in Amok Time, his favorite episode, he created the hand salute with parted fingers as a way Vulcans greet each other. Later came the lines, “Peace and long life,” and “Live long and prosper,” It was also Nimoy’s idea to create the nerve pinch which became a convenient way to render someone incapacitated, usually unconscious, without having to waste time fighting them. Finally, his ability to merge his mind with another living being, another use of his hands, gave birth to the frequent use of the mind meld, a technique which made it simpler to further the plot just as the transporter saved time traveling from one place to another in seconds.
After Star Trek was cancelled in its third season, Nimoy went on to star in Mission Impossible for two years, directed Three Men And A Baby (1987) and starred in the popular seventies remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. He also became a respected poet and photographer, breaking boundaries and exploring new ways to express his creativity. Then in 1978 Paramount decided to resurrect Star Trek as a response to Star Wars and in 1979 Star Trek -The Motion Picture premiered to mixed reviews followed up several years later with The Wrath Of Khan which was a huge success reprising Khan from Space Seed, one of the series episodes which starred Ricardo Montalban. Nimoy directed the next two films, The Search For Spock, and the Voyage Home. The final appearance of all of the original crew appeared for the last time in Star Trek 6 – The Undiscovered Country in 1991.
Prior to the release of their last film together, Nimoy made a guest appearance on The Next Generation’s fifth season two part episode, Unification I and ll. It was aired just after the death of Gene Roddenberry and became one of the most popular episode of the Next Generation’s seven year run. It took place eighty years in the future as Captain Picard is sent to Romulus to investigate Spock’s disappearance and discover whether this was a defection of Starfleet’s most venerable Ambassador.
In retrospect, the episode became a character study of Spock’s struggle between his choice to live a Vulcan way of life and reconcile it with his humanity so eloquently expressed when he was confronted repeatedly by Captain Picard who said of his logic, “If I didn’t know better, I would say your judgement is influenced by your emotions.” When Data asks him if he has missed his humanity, Spock responds “I have no regrets.” Data replies, “That is a human expression,” “Fascinating,” says Spock.
The final epilogue of Spock’s character picks up on Romulus where Picard left him eighteen years earlier after a mind meld. The planet is threatened by a supernova in J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot. Spock is drawn into a dark hole and returns to the past, creating an alternate time line. By now he is quite old and seems to have balanced his logic with his emotions and surrendered the need to hide them. His advice to his younger self played by Zachary Quinto reveals that the elder Spock finally has learned the value of his emotions as a source of strength rather than weakness. A small cameo appearance in Star Trek Into Darkness was the last time he appeared as Spock on film.
Nimoy said in several reflective interviews that he finally found peace with the iconic character he created and acknowledged that as he grew older he noticed that some of his own personal traits such as patience and balance were influenced by Spock, and “If there were any fictional character I could have been, It would have been Spock.”
Although William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were concerned about being typecast, Patrick Stewart felt the opposite asserting his appreciation for what being part of the Star Trek experience has done for his career and life. So its fitting to reflect not only on Spock’s impact on Nimoy, but that Spock has become part of the cultural mythology that will live on for generations, and Leonard Nimoy, regardless of his other impressive accomplishments, will always be passionately linked to the character he created. By the end of his life, Nimoy, the actor, finally embraced Spock as a worthy legacy.
Nimoy leaves his wife, two children, seven grandchildren, a great-grandchild and millions of devoted fans who will forever see an image of his hand, palm facing outward as his fingers express the Vulcan greeting, “Live Long And Prosper.” Although Nimoy’s existence will be missed, his presence and influence will continue to be felt.