Leonard Nimoy, 1931–2015CBS
During his 83-year visit to this planet, Leonard Nimoy wrote two autobiographies: 1975’s I Am Not Spock and 1995’s I Am Spock. The titles suggest a thesis and its antithesis — a youngish man’s arrogance and, decades later, an older man’s contented resignation. But the truth is more complicated. Because the very first thing Nimoy does in I Am Not Spock is cross-examine that title.
“I am not Spock,” he writes. But then, in the next sentence: “Then why does my head turn in response to a stranger on the street who calls out that name? Why do I feel a twinge when someone says, ‘What happened to your ears?’
“I am not Spock. Then why do I feel a wonderful warmth when I hear or read a compliment aimed at the Vulcan? Spock For President reads the bumper sticker on the car in front of me. I’m filled with pride and I smile.
“I’m not Spock. But if I’m not, who is? And if I’m not Spock, then who am I?”
This is not the griping of an actor chafing in his pigeonhole. It’s not the same thing as Nimoy’s longtime costar and occasional rival William Shatner going on Saturday Night Live and jokingly/not-jokingly/cathartically shouting “Get a life!” at a room full of actors playing Trekkies. Nimoy, who died on Friday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, seemed to understand that it wasn’t that simple. He lived with the knowledge that Spock was bigger than him, would always be bigger than him, and that when excited people called to him on the street they were really calling out to someone else — lived, in other words, with the knowledge that he’d been the focus of more love than anyone could ever deserve. We should all be so unfortunate.
Nimoy was a first-generation American, raised by Ukrainian Jewish immigrants Max and Dora Nimoy. He was a barber’s son and a leather-cutter’s grandson. He grew up Jewish and bookish in Boston’s predominantly Catholic West End and took beatings accordingly. “We lived in view of a very large Catholic church — still standing — which, after Sunday school, was a dangerous place for Jews to be around because young Italian kids and Irish kids came out having just been told that we had killed their Christ,” he told author Abigail Pogrebin in 2005. He was acquainted from an early age with the phrase “Jew bastard.”
He was 8 when he first stepped onto a stage, 17 when he knew he’d found his life’s work there — when he became, as he put it once, “inflamed with the idea of becoming an actor.” He played the son in a production of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! at the Elizabeth Peabody Playhouse on Charles Street. “This was my first time doing an adult play,” he said years later. “All the stuff I had done previously was children’s theater. I got very, very turned on to the idea of doing this kind of work for the rest of my life.”
He spent some time at Boston College, cut out to Hollywood, and took acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse until his money ran out. He made his first film appearance in 1951’s Queen for a Day and played his first lead in the 1952 melodrama Kid Monk Baroni, as a hoodlum who turns pugilist after a kindly local padre catches him and his gang stealing wood from old tenement buildings. He looks eerily like a young Adam Driver in this movie; his voice and presence are already striking, although the film has been forgotten for good reason. At one point, one of Monk’s fellow hoodlums threatens him with a fist; Nimoy replies, “Anytime you want to use it, my office is in the gutter.” It’s that kind of movie. That same year, he did sci-fi for the first time, playing an alien invader in a 12-part Republic Pictures serial.
“I was very important in it, and I thought it would rocket me to stardom,” he’d say years later. “It was called Zombies of the Stratosphere. And I was one. One of four that came from Mars. We stole a pickup truck and a revolver, and we were going to take over Earth.”
A day would come when Nimoy would effectively do just that, but it took a while. He served in the Army from 1953 to 1955; he was master sergeant of a unit that included Frank Gehry. After that he returned to acting, picking up bit parts where he could, mostly heavies — those “second or third man through the door” kind of parts, in his words — because that was what Hollywood had to offer actors with large ethnic noses and Lincolnesque cheekbones and odd sonorous voices back then. He was in Vic Morrow’s film of Jean Genet’s play Deathwatch and a production of Genet’s The Balcony starring Peter Falk, but he was also in 1958’s The Brain Eaters, playing a possessed scientist, billed in the credits as “Leonard Nemoy.”
He filled vending machines. Ushered at movie theaters. Delivered newspapers. Sold vacuum cleaners. Drove a cab. Somehow supported two children. In a 1967 TV Radio Mirror profile, under the misleading headline “Success Has Turned My Marriage Upside Down” (spoiler alert: in a good way!), he said it was his first wife, Sandi, who kept him from walking away.
“I’d get angry at Sandi,” he’s quoted as saying, “for insisting that I be an actor, about her insisting that I stick it out. I would get angry and say to her at least once a week, ‘Why don’t you let me quit?’ You see, she was being my conscience. And I give her tremendous credit for that — because I really wanted to quit. It was just so damned painful.” Sometimes, to push through moments of desperation, he would recite William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus,” often shouting the final lines — “I AM THE MASTER OF MY FATE/I AM THE CAPTAIN OF MY SOUL” — with tears streaming down his face.
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images
His early television work during this period included two Dragnets, eight Sea Hunts, four Wagon Trains, a Bonanza, two M Squads, four Gunsmokes, a Rawhide, a Perry Mason, two Combat!s, a supporting role in a great Dean Stockwell–toplined Twilight Zone episode (“A Quality of Mercy,” which drew on Rod Serling’s own traumatic experiences in the Pacific theater during World War II, and later inspired the first segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie), and a guest-star turn as a flamboyant actor on The Lieutenant, an NBC drama about the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton.
The Lieutenant was the first television show created by Gene Roddenberry, a former Air Force pilot who’d started writing freelance TV scripts between shifts as an LAPD officer. Toward the end, he was an in-house speechwriter to L.A. police chief William Parker III, whose coldly cerebral manner is said to have inspired the character Roddenberry would soon hire Nimoy to play. Nimoy shot his first screen test in Spock ears on the I Love Lucy set; he speaks the first line of dialogue (“Check the circuit!”) in the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” which was completed in early 1965 and rejected by NBC that February.
The show was retooled and recast; Nimoy was one of the few actors who appeared in both versions.1 In the second Star Trek pilot, the starship Enterprise had a new captain, James T. Kirk, written as a swaggering Horatio Hornblower type and played with soon-to-be-legendary vigor by William Shatner. The show premiered in 1966. Nimoy was 35.
In the beginning, the rest of the Enterprise’s bridge crew were effectively Kirk’s backup band. But it was Spock who developed the fastest. Eventually he’d grow a backstory: On his father’s side, Spock was a Vulcan, descended from a race of beings who prized logic above all else and kept their emotions in check through rigorous mental conditioning, and this made him too uptight to use contractions. But his mother was human, which heightened the tension between Spock’s rational and emotional sides. In the fourth episode of the first season of Star Trek, “The Naked Time,” the crew is exposed to an alien virus that robs them of their self-control, and many important things happen. Barrett’s Nurse Chapel confesses to Spock that she’s attracted to him, and infects Spock with the virus. Spock and Kirk then share a few intense moments — “When I feel friendship for you,” Spock tells Kirk, “I am ashamed” — whose homoerotic content would help inspire an entire genre of fan fiction. And finally Spock breaks down weeping, feeling all the feels. Years before Alan Alda and Phil Donahue became icons of sensitivity, Nimoy’s Spock was dramatizing man’s struggle to obey social codes that demanded repression. It’s a powerful moment, even when set to the music of Three Dog Night.
By Season 2, Nimoy — or Nimoy and Spock — was getting 10,000 letters per week. Something about his emotional reserve suggested, to a certain type of fan, a deep yet nonthreatening passion, which made him a perfect teen idol — the sci-fi author Isaac Asimov famously called the character “a security blanket with sexual overtones.” Being Spock became not unlike being a Beatle. A woman from Texas stole her mother’s car and drove all the way to Hollywood just to see him, financing her journey by writing bad check after bad check. In 1967, during a personal appearance at a park in Medford, Oregon, a mob of autograph-seeking admirers rushed the stage Nimoy was standing on; it collapsed, and the cops had to pull him from the scrum. At another personal appearance, an out-of-control crowd forced him to flee to the roof, and the local fire department had to send a hook-and-ladder truck to rescue him.
Nimoy’s emergence as the hero of Star Trek didn’t sit well with Shatner. They bickered backstage. In one oft-reported anecdote, Shatner confronts Roddenberry and asks him, in front of Nimoy, who the star of Star Trek is. In another, Nimoy invites a Life magazine reporter to watch him have his ears applied, and an enraged Shatner — who doesn’t want Life to see a hairstylist gluing his rug on — throws the reporter out of the makeup trailer. Shatner also felt that the show’s writers were offering up too many problems that only Spock could solve, and compensated by stealing Nimoy’s lines whenever possible. Things got so bad that Roddenberry wrote to Asimov for advice. Asimov suggested giving the “versatile and talented” Shatner story lines that required wearing disguises or unusual costumes — done and done.
“I was supposed to be the star, but Leonard was getting more attention than I was,” Shatner admitted in his 2008 autobiography Up Till Now. “It bothered me.”
Everyone wanted a piece of Spock. Dot Records approached Desilu Studios and suggested releasing a tie-in album. A Desilu executive circulated a thumbs-up memo that read in part: “I think we should push any record company that wants to do an outer space or Vulcan or any other single record or album, be it straight dramatic music, weird music, Nichelle Nichols singing, Bill Shatner doing bird calls or even the sound of Gene Roddenberry polishing a semi-precious stone on his grinder.”
Nimoy stepped up. Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space, released in June ’67, is effectively the sound of Gene Roddenberry polishing his semi-precious stones; Nimoy narrates over instrumentals in character as Spock, and there’s a go-go version of Alexander Courage’s Trek theme. Nimoy would release four more albums before 1970, pulling back the curtain of Spock a little more each time, as if testing the public’s appetite for post-Spock Nimoy. Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy — he’s on the cover, with and without the ears — features the nerd classic “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” and “Once I Smiled,” in which Spock falls in love; The Way I Feel is a passable pop-standards album (with a few originals composed by Nimoy, whose body of work also included seven books of poetry). The Touch of Leonard Nimoy would pass for an early Scott Walker album in a room full of drunks; his 1970 farewell to music, The New World of Leonard Nimoy, is supposedly the real stinker of the catalogue, featuring four cuts that turned up years later on Rhino’s epochal ill-advised-celebrity-warbling compilation series Golden Throats, although I play his Lee Hazlewoodesque rendition of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” around my house every Christmas.
Shatner made records of his own, none of them any less silly. Their subsequent embrace by the irony-industrial complex parallels Shatner’s own journey from self-serious TV thespian to straight-camp paragon to knowingly self-parodic human meme; he’d even made records after Star Trek, applying his signature pause-heavy delivery to Pulp covers and new songs by Nick Hornby and Ben Folds, throwing himself on the joke of SHATNER! as if it were a grenade.
Nimoy found other ways to deal with the long shadow of Star Trek. First he drank, a habit he’d picked up during Star Trek and pursued to a dangerous degree after the show was canceled in June 1969. “On weekends I would tell myself I’ll have a beer at ten o’clock,” he’d admit years later. “By two o’clock I was drinking hard liquor and by five o’clock I’d passed out.” He got sober in the late ’80s, after marrying his second wife, the actress Susan Bay. Years later, after he and Shatner had patched up their relationship and become goofball buddies on the convention circuit, he’d try to help Shatner’s troubled third wife, Nerine Kidd, by bringing her to AA meetings with him; in 1999, she drowned in a pool at the Shatner home in Studio City while intoxicated.
Post-Trek, he considered touring the country with a stage production of A Thousand Clowns, but wound up back on TV instead, stepping in when Mission: Impossible needed a replacement for Martin Landau. He played the scheming, bearded Lord Achmet in a miniseries about the life of Marco Polo; he narrated the weekly mysteries-of-the-unknown docuseries In Search Of…; he helped introduce the world to a futuristic technology called the LaserDisc. He’s great as the shrink in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake.
And sooner or later there was more Star Trek to do. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Spock mind-melds with a giant space intelligence and trips out 2001-style; in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he dies after heroically subjecting himself to megadoses of radiation while repairing the Enterprise’s reactor core. I’ll always remember this moment the way I experienced it first, as an unsuspecting 9-year-old reader who’d somehow avoided this particular spoiler before picking up Vonda McIntyre’s Wrath of Khan novelization:
“Spock….” Jim said softly.
“The ship…?” His face was horribly burned, and the pain in his voice made Jim want to scream with grief…
His long fingers clenched into seared claws; the agony of the assault of radiation overcame him. He fell.
“Spock!” Jim cried. He pounded the glass with his fists. “Oh, God, no…!”
I’ve never forgotten that passage. I found it by Googling “His face was horribly burned.” Spock would be back, of course — reborn through the terraforming magic of the Genesis planet in Star Trek III, which Nimoy also directed. The original lineup couldn’t function without him. Roddenberry’s Star Trek was a humanist fantasy rooted in the notion that we’d one day transcend money and nationalism and export our best selves to the stars — that we’d one day be a race of beings who had come in peace. Roddenberry sold that idea by putting both an African American woman and a Russian on the bridge of the Enterprise, but in some ways Spock was the purest embodiment of all that was pie-eyed and hopeful about Star Trek’s vision of the future — an immigrant who is exposed to our culture and reflects back only the best of us, developing a capacity for love and humor and friendship. “Of all the souls I’ve encountered in my travels,” Kirk says at Spock’s funeral, welling up manfully, “his was the most [quavering pause] human.”
Nimoy didn’t get along with Rick Berman, who took over the Star Trek franchise after Roddenberry’s death. He played Spock in 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and a two-part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that same year, and wouldn’t return to the character until J.J. Abrams & Co. wrote an aged Spock into the 2009 reboot Star Trek. In the meantime he played himself on Futurama and The Simpsons and narrated documentaries about Ray Harryhausen and the Titanic and the Hasidim. It’s unclear how important any of this was to him, or whether his career as a movie director — he made another Star Trek, 1986’s The Voyage Home; the $168 million hit Three Men and a Baby; the courtroom melodrama The Good Mother (with Diane Keaton and a pre-Schindler’s Liam Neeson, made per Roger Ebert “with the best of intentions and the worst of screenplays”); and then trailed off in the mid-’90s — meant that much more to him than, say, taking fine-art photographs of voluptuous burlesque performers.
Meanwhile, Spock enjoyed a vast and varied pop-cultural afterlife that didn’t really require Nimoy’s participation, living on as a sample and a fashion icon and, by the mid-Obama era, the silliest meme in American political life. (Associated Press, December 1, 2009: “Is Obama Too Much Like Mr. Spock?” The Atlantic, June 8, 2010: “President Obama Is Not Spock.”) Nimoy himself was able to dip back into the role when he felt like it — voicing a talking Spock action figure in a Big Bang Theory dream sequence or bridging the generations in Abrams’s reboot by sharing the screen with his successor, Zachary Quinto. He lived long and prospered within fame’s constrictions, setting himself apart from the character that made him iconic while respecting the audience that saw no difference between them. A man famous for playing a hero with a divided soul found peace by embracing and accepting duality. Fascinating.