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Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy passed away today.

Nimoy is an interesting figure. He is an actor and director with a long a prolific career, who seldom wanted for steady work. He did a lot of quality work in front of (and behind) the camera. Nimoy was a series regular on the sixties version of Mission: Impossible, taking over from Martin Landau. He played a major role in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland. He also directed both Three Men and a Baby. He worked quite regularly and quite frequently. His body stretches over half a century.

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However, all of this work (and it is great work) is inevitably overshadowed by a single role. To an entire generation of people – not just fans, not even just casual television viewers – Leonard Nimoy was Spock. With his pointed ears, memorable catchphrases and iconic Vulcan salute, Nimoy was enigmatic half-human half-Vulcan who served as the first officer of the USS Enterprise. His work spans the franchise, from the unbroadcast original pilot (The Cage) to the most recent JJ Abrams feature (Star Trek Into Darkness).

This was the conflict at the heart of Nimoy, the extremely professional performer who worked pretty consistently throughout his life and the one role that he turned into a screen icon across television and film. Nimoy was a complex character. He famously published an autobiography declaring I Am Not Spock, only to follow it up with I Am Spock. It is a credit to the actor’s complexity and nuance that both could seem to be true in the same instant.

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William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are the cornerstones of the Star Trek. It is telling that the franchise is rapidly approaching its fiftieth anniversary – after more than seven hundred episodes, twelve feature films, four spin-off television shows and a reboot – and it is still overshadowed by Shatner and Nimoy. The two performers helped to breath life into the world of Star Trek, to help viewers invest in the quirky and eccentric late-sixties science-fiction show. It goes without saying that the show would not have succeeded without both of them.

Shatner was a performer of the highest level – a veteran who still confounds and upsets expectations, inviting audiences to try to figure out how much of Shatner is real and how much is slyly realised self-awareness. In contrast, Nimoy was a veteran actor. He was teaching method acting when he was cast in the role of Spock. Nimoy earned three Emmy nominations, one for each season. While Shatner spent most the seventies trying to escape from the shadow of James Tiberius Kirk, Nimoy slipped quietly into a comfortable role on another major network series.

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However, to gloss over his work as Spock is to do a disservice to the performer. Leonard Nimoy built Spock from the ground up. Nimoy invented the iconic v-salute. When Mark Lenard was cast as Spock’s father, Nimoy offered him advice on how best to embody this fictional race. Even though Star Trek devoted little time to exploring Vulcan, Leonard Nimoy’s performance made it seem fully-formed. Nimoy’s definition of Vulcan culture remains so deeply embedded that even the last spin-off (Star Trek: Enterprise) found itself struggling under that weight.

More than that, Nimoy shaped Spock into an iconic piece of sixties pop culture. Playing a character so deeply repressed that he could not even tell his mother than he loved her, Nimoy managed to strike a chord with a generation who felt disconnected and alienated in a time of social and political turmoil. Despite his arch posture and military experience, Nimoy turned Spock into a counter-culture icon. Caught between two words and searching for his identity, Nimoy made Spock seem more real and more human than many other television characters. Then or since.

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There was a paradox at the heart of Nimoy, perhaps typified in his relationship with the Star Trek franchise. There is an irony in that dynamic – a sense of pushing and pulling, back and forth. Nimoy was the first member of the original Star Trek cast to “opt out.” Rather famously, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was written as Spock’s swan song, as Nimoy decided to bid fairwell to the rudder ears and the distinctive bowl-cut. However, Nimoy could not stay away; while working on the film, he had a change of heart. Spock still died; but it was made clear he would return.

Ironically, Leonard Nimoy would become the last man out of the franchise. He not only returned in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, he also directed the film. In doing so, he established a precedent for Star Trek actors to involve themselves behind the scenes. Nimoy also helmed Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a movie which can make a legitimate claim to being the best Star Trek movie ever produced. Nimoy made it look easy; William Shatner had considerably more difficulties making his own director effort on Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

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Once again, Star Trek was not Nimoy’s only concern. Nimoy brought his newfound skills to bear on projects outside of Star Trek. Perhaps the most obvious example in Three Men and a Baby, a comedy united Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson. While it might not be held in the same canon as the Star Trek franchise, the film is memorable and distinctive – it is a movie recognisable even to those who have never seen it, a quirky and affable comedy starring two veteran television performers and Steve Guttenberg.

Leonard Nimoy remained the franchise’s most valuable person. Although actors like DeForrest Kelley and James Doohan appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the show built a big two-parter around Leonard Nimoy’s appearance. He was a big deal. “Spock” is a word that carries a lot of pop culture cache, perhaps more than any other word associated with the franchise. While Nimoy might have harnessed “highly illogical” for a novelty hit, it demonstrates just how deeply engrained the character’s mannerisms were within popular consciousness.

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In the new millennium, when director JJ Abrams decided to reboot the Star Trek franchise, Spock and Nimoy became ambassadors. Spock was a comforting face who helped the classic Star Trek universe to transition from the old world into a new and younger continuity. Nimoy lended the movie his credibility, a sense of class and weight. Leonard Nimoy enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Abrams. He reprised the role in both Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.

As ever, Nimoy was not solely defined by the role of Spock. As much as his big-screen collaborations with JJ Abrams featured the actor reprising the role, Nimoy also made eleven appearances on JJ Abrams’ Fringe spanning four years. Nimoy earned a reputation for being professional and reliable. There are lots of anecdotes about his consideration and his decency, spanning his career. Perhaps the most endearing concerns the production of Star Trek: The Animated Series, where Nimoy leveraged his star power to keep the rest of the cast in work.

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Nimoy that rarest of beasts, a massively iconic and distinctive screen presence – one instantly recognisable around the world. However, he was also a grounded professional who never took his success for granted and who finally came to acknowledge his most distinctive and recognisable role, without being trapped in it. Leonard Nimoy was a professional.

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9 Responses

  1. I’m crying today; Leonard Nimoy had such a profound effect on me that it almost feels as if I’ve lost a parent.

    It’s impossible to measure the effect that Mr. Nimoy had on the world. How many of us were supported and comforted or inspired and moved by his portrayal of Spock … too many to count.

    I’ve also been impressed by the dignity and grace with which he handled Star Trek fans’ reactions to him; he was gracious and generous to so many people in so many ways.

    I’m so very saddened by his passing, and yet I also want to say that although we’ve lost a good and great man in losing Mr. Nimoy, SPOCK is ageless. On my DVD’s of the original series, he is forever a blue-shirted 35, and he will live in my mind and in my heart for as long as I do.

    My heart goes out to Mr. Nimoy’s family and friends, for great as our loss is, they’ve lost even more than we have.

    I will always love you, Mr. Nimoy, not just your most famous character, but you, yourself — the you revealed in your autobiographies, in your poetry, and yes, in Spock. We know that you are not he, but he would have been a lesser character in every way without your lively intelligence and warm heart.

  2. “I Am Not Spock” is widely misunderstood by those who haven’t read the book and know it only by its title. Far from repudiating Spock, Nimoy uses the book to meditate on identity, to try to convince himself that he has any worth apart from Spock. He states explicitly in the book that if he were somehow required to stop being Leonard Nimoy, then he’d choose to be Spock.

    But Mr. Nimoy was a director, poet, photographer, husband, father, and grandfather in addition to being Spock; great as Spock is, Mr. Nimoy was MORE than Spock … and that’s all the book wanted us to know.

  3. I was never a Star Trek fan and never will be. That said, Leonard Nemoy’s touch is everywhere in nerd culture. I recognize him from so much stuff it’s unbelievable. His death is tragedy that will befall all of us.

    • Yep. He was a pop culture giant. Even outside of Spock, I suspect that most viewers recognised him from something – Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Mission: Impossible, Fringe, In Search Of.

      • He narrated a documentary in Ray Harryhausen. Ray was the man I cried for upon his death.

  4. This was a very nice retrospective on Leonard Nimoy’s life and career. I posted a link to it on my own blog.

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