Leonard Nimoy, the man who created the enduring character of Mr Spock, has finally been beamed up for a final trip. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes an affectionate look back at the versatile actor and his amazing influence on contemporary culture.
In the end, when Leonard Nimoy passed away at the age of 83 on Friday, 27 February 2015 from a pulmonary disease, he had fully embraced his Vulcan side. He his final tweet to friends and followers read, “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.” LLAP means, of course, “Live Long and Prosper”, the Vulcan farewell salute. During his durable television and film career, Nimoy had created one of the most enduring characters in popular culture, the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer on the starship USS Enterprise, boldly going where no man has gone before – for decades, together with all the other familiar members of that ship’s crew.
The child of Jewish immigrants to the US (from what is now Ukraine) who settled in Boston, Nimoy began his acting in local theatre productions when he was just eight years old as part of a performance of Hansel and Gretel. He eventually entered Boston College, but left before graduating and headed west to Hollywood after military service where he studied at the Pasadena Playhouse. Eventually he began winning bit parts in movies and on episodes of various television series such as Rawhide and The Twilight Zone.
Then lightning struck. TV Producer Gene Roddenberry saw him in an episode of the series The Lieutenant, and he was intrigued enough with Nimoy’s presence to cast him in the pilot of a new sci-fi series he was creating – what became Star Trek. Roddenberry’s initial inclination was to give the Spock character a bright, lipstick red skin colour, until Nimoy insisted on gaining those distinctive ears but discarding the tomato-coloured skin tone, effectively arguing the character’s attributes should be the key, not some terminally sunburnt skin.
As the only actor from two pilot episodes who was eventually carried over into the actual series, Nimoy’s character, Spock, featured in all of the show’s seventy-nine episodes and quickly became a fan favourite. He demonstrated a kind of emotionlessness – the key feature of Vulcan psychology – that nevertheless sometimes was barely contained within an ironic, wry retort, “That is not logical, Captain”. Spock’s relentless quest for the scientific basis for the behaviour of humans and aliens alike made him the perfect foil for both Captain Kirk and Dr McCoy – and vice versa.
Watch: Best of Spock (literally)
When the series finally came to an end due to declining ratings, Nimoy ended up in various other television projects such as two years on the hit series, Mission Impossible. But the Star Trek franchise proved impossible to resist. Eventually, fan pressure and Roddenberry’s instincts led to a whole string of films, of which Nimoy directed several, in addition to his reprised role as Mr Spock. Nimoy ultimately appeared in various ways in all of the spinoffs from the original franchise, and then even in cameo appearances in the two newest Star Trek films, featuring an entirely new cast in the characters first created for television all those years earlier, now directed by JJ Abrams.
For years, Nimoy seemed to wrestle with how to come to terms with his enduring fictional television/cinema alter ego that seemed to dog him wherever he went and whatever he did. Some years after the initial television series ended, Nimoy authored a memoir/auto-biography he titled, I Am Not Spock, thereby expressing his discomfort with being conflated with his pointy-eared, Vulcan/human character. Moreover, he admitted he had also had a period of alcohol dependence and then treatment to come back from this; a problem that apparently came about at least partly in response to that unresolved tension in his personal and professional life focusing on Spock.
Along the way, however, Nimoy gave life to other artistic interests. There were various new television projects such as the husband of Golda Meir in a made for TV biopic, film directing (including the hit, Three Men and a Baby), and various book projects. In addition, Nimoy lent his resonant voice to voice a variety of films and documentaries, including the A&E docu-series, Ancient Mysteries. He also focused on his photography as well as recordings. Some of these, such as his recordings of popular music, have achieved a kind of cult status, despite their somewhat questionable aesthetic texture as high art.
Perhaps Nimoy’s most controversial project was a book of his own photographs, Shekhinah, devoted to depicting the feminine aspect of the deity as described in Kabbalistic lore. (The Kabbalah is a collection of traditional Jewish mysticism and debate over religious topics that is many hundreds of years old.) Orthodox Jews criticised Nimoy’s book for its apparent transgressions of religious sensitivities because the images were of nude or partially nude figures – even as Nimoy defended his volume as a respectful tribute to religious attitudes and traditions – as well as to the female form.
In his portrayal of Spock, the actor had spontaneously come up with Spock’s enduring catch phrase, “live long and prosper”, and that famous v-fingered greeting for the episode where Spock returned to the home world of his Vulcan father. Explaining the origins of this gesture and phrase, Nimoy noted the phrase was a translation of a moment of prayer by Orthodox Jews towards the end of Saturday services when Kohanim (the priestly caste descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron) recite a prayer as they cover their heads with a tallit, a ritual prayer shawl, and then stretch out their hands towards the congregation. Nimoy said his memory of this moment of prayer, recollected from his childhood, just came to mind at the moment of the recording of that episode – and that it seemed to fit perfectly with the emotion of the moment. Those separated fingers recalled the Hebrew letter – read as “shin” ( ) and sometimes used to refer symbolically to the supreme deity. He drew on it for that now-universally recognized gesture between Vulcans – and between Vulcans and other races.
Along the way, as Nimoy’s fame and influence grew, he also dedicated his time – and considerable funds – to science education efforts. He recorded narratives and introductions for museum exhibits and planetariums around the country and donated $1 million of his own money towards a renovation and modernisation of the famous Griffith Observatory Planetarium in Los Angeles, where the Event Horizon Theater now bears his name.
Over the years, Nimoy slowly came to terms with his most famous and enduring character, Spock, and eventually he published a second memoir/autobiographical volume entitled, I Am Spock. In this he was acknowledged he had come to recognise the growing integration of some elements of the fictional character into his own very real personality. As Nimoy explained it, his own psyche had come to be more centred, less emotional, and more logical as an impact of his fictional alias. “To this day, I sense Vulcan speech patterns, Vulcan social attitudes and even Vulcan patterns of logic and emotional suppression in my behaviour. Given the choice, if I had to be someone else, I would be Spock.”
For many, perhaps most especially scientists, Nimoy’s Spock became an inspiration to them to take their science studies seriously and then to pursue professional scientific careers. As if to give an illustration of that point, the day after his passing, American astronaut Terry Virts tweeted a photo of his own hand in that famous Vulcan salute, silhouetted against the Earth, as seen through a window on the International Space Station.
The Washington Post noted of this moment, “The simple Vulcan salute, flashed back at earth from so many miles away, speaks to the impact that Nimoy and Star Trek had on American space exploration. ‘Leonard Nimoy was an inspiration to multiple generations of engineers, scientists, astronauts, and other space explorers,’ NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. ‘As Mr. Spock, he made science and technology important to the story, while never failing to show, by example, that it is the people around us who matter most. NASA was fortunate to have him as a friend and a colleague.’ ”
And Seth Shostak, a scientist engaged in researching the possibility of real extra-terrestrial life as the senior astronomer at SETI Research, recalled that when Nimoy was asked to narrate a planetarium introduction or appear as a guest at an event, he always did so graciously and never charged fees for his efforts. Shostak said, “That struck me then, and it strikes me now. If you play a famous alien, you might have little interest in how science is searching for real aliens, but Nimoy was actually interested in the science — and he was always willing to help us out.”
And about those Vulcan ears? The first ones were made of foam rubber and took hours to glue carefully onto the actor’s actual ears so that they wouldn’t come apart or separate from the real actor while the cameras were running. Eventually more durable latex ears were constructed, and those were also less onerous to graft onto Nimoy’s real ears for the show – and they stayed in place with much less difficulty. In succeeding years, those ear lobes and the moulds used to make them have been hits at celebrity auctions and a set of them is now even on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
Nimoy’s character of Mr Spock seems to have entered the realm of becoming – as James George Frasier, the famous student of mythology and author of The Golden Bough or mythologist-anthropologist Joseph Campbell might have described it – an archetype of myth and legend, transcending its origins in a television show recorded on a cut-rate set and cancelled after just three years on air. In almost every television or movie characterisation of space aliens before Spock, aliens were astonishingly superior, vicious, slimy and repulsive, or figures of mockery and fun. Spock offered a very different way to think about alternative life forms -and even interstellar communication (not least by virtue of his mixed planetary heritage).
It was Roddenberry’s genius that created that multi-racial, multi-creature space ship crew that opened up possibilities for talking about race, peace and war, and logical thinking over emotion on Earth. More than anybody else, Nimoy’s Spock became the primary vessel for conveying such thinking, as Nimoy gave his alter-ego such gravitas that one inevitably hoped rationality would win out over slam-bang emotion. Spock offered a way to think about inter-species communication too.
There was, for example, that wonderful moment in the film Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home, when Spock and his crewmates have been flung back in 20th century Earth and find they must now transport whales back to the future in order to save the planet from destruction by an indescribably powerful alien entity that is looking for a whale or two to speak with. At a hinge moment in the story, Spock dives into an aquarium tank housing two whales and then he comes out, dripping wet, after communing with the whales. As Captain Kirk asks Spock what in the world he had been doing in pulling off such a stunt as his behaviour would surely blow their collective cover, Spock tells his captain the whales have told him they would be happy to go with the travellers, and that, oh, by the way, one of them has told Spock she is – pregnant, all to Kirk’s incredulous double-take. (That sequence is this writer’s favourite moment in the entire Spock narrative.)
Given Leonard Nimoy’s influence, and the impact of his primary character on culture and even science here on Earth, wouldn’t it be exquisitely fitting if astronomers decide to name one of those very real Earth-like, exo-planets beyond our Solar System they have been discovering recently in honour of Mr Spock’s imagined home world of Vulcan? Let the campaign begin here. DM
Photo: A file picture dated 30 April 2009 shows US actor Leonard Nimoy arriving at the premiere of ‘Star Trek’ in Hollywood, California, USA. EPA/NINA PROMMER.
- Leonard Nimoy leaves legacy beyond science fiction at the AP;
- Spock’s ears: A pointy trademark for Leonard Nimoy at the AP;
- Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek’s Mr Spock, dies at 83 at the BBC;
- Leonard Nimoy, actor who played Mr Spock on Star Trek, dies aged 83 at the Guardian;
- The Jewish roots of Leonard Nimoy and ‘live long and prosper’ at the Washington Post;
- Leonard Nimoy, ‘Star Trek’s’ Spock, Dies at 83 at Variety;
- The touching tribute to Leonard Nimoy from space at the Washington Post.