Dammit, Jim, Leonard Nimoy is dead. We should have been ready for this. His end, at the age of 83, after a pronounced battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and years of inside Hollywood talk of declining health, was inevitable. It hurts like hell all the same. If only there was a Genesis planet to which he could be sent, a reboot film that could revive him in an alternate timeline. But he lives forever in the art he created, and this is a good thing, for in his enduring masterpiece as well as his life, we see values that our storytellers should never forget, that should inspire all of us always: Rigorous and disciplined intelligence, genuine emotion devoid of sentimentality, an openness to fascinating possibilities, the determination to live out the best in ourselves and to live gracefully with the worst.
Before Spock defined him and the sci-fi genre swallowed him whole, Leonard Nimoy was a journeyman character actor on television, capable of playing any kind of role in any genre of story, from Westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke to spy-fi like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart!. Star Trek—Gene Roddenberry’s progressive, optimistic vision of the future, a stunning phaser shot aimed at the 1960s’ zeitgeist—gave him his first steady job, made him famous, transformed his life, and trapped him with a kind of success that limits an artist as much as it enriches. But the character he created was a beautiful piece of work that transcended genre and medium, that deserves to endure.
Half-Vulcan, half-human, Spock was alien, but in an aren’t-we-all-aliens-in-a-way kind of way. He was the science officer aboard the Enterprise, the voice of pitiless reason in Captain Kirk’s ear, and yet he was more than just a paragon of Enlightenment. The more the character gelled and settled, the more we got to know him, the more we came to understand that he possessed the full gamut of possibility, and he sought—fought—to reconcile the seemingly disparate parts of his identity—intellectual, emotional, spiritual, cultural, social—into a dynamic, integrated whole. He had his flaws. Pretentious. Proud. Wary of the very feelings he privately cherished. Workaholic. But what I loved about him was the commitment to mature and enhance all of his diverse parts, to become more of himself. He was not a portrait of assimilation or conformity; he was all about nurturing and cultivating the best possible Spock, for his sake and for the benefit of his community.
I dote on the internal life of Spock—which was so very important to Nimoy—because it speaks to the brilliance of Nimoy’s performance that we could see and feel it at all. The iconic visage could have been a straightjacket for an actor, so severe and austere, like a living totem pole. Ramrod straight posture, long, drawn face, angled eyebrows like the antenna on a Martian, the sharply shorn bowl cut, those pointed ears, that measured, deadpan voice. What was amazing was how Nimoy could work this constricting guise to create an array of emotional effects with the slightest fluctuation in his face, with a precise, quick movement. It was an imaginatively minimal performance that proceeded from a place of great self-awareness, of knowing exactly what to do and not to do, of how much to give to camera. It was Nimoy who created the Vulcan hand salute, as a way to emphasize and celebrate Spock’s cultural identity. I loved that such a thing was important to Nimoy—and that he drew from his Jewish heritage to create it. William Shatner may have best expressed Trek’s enterprising, cowboy spirit of adventure, but it was Nimoy who best expressed its soul, and arguably everything about the Trek worth carrying forward. It was Nimoy who directed the warmest, funniest, most humane, most spiritual, most Earth-centric of the original crew Trek movies—Star Trek III: The Search For Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. For Nimoy, and for his Spock, the journey of boldly exploring final frontiers and undiscovered countries was both a journey outward and inward.
Nimoy was more than Spock and did more during his career than just play Spock. After Star Trek (The Original Series) ended its three-year run in 1969, Nimoy starred in Mission: Impossible for two seasons, playing a magician turned spy. He directed a handful of films, the best and most successful of which was the comedy Three Men And A Baby. Yet Spock followed him, clung to him, sometimes frustrated him. He suffered from “identity crisis” (his words), and like a difficult but ultimately successful marriage, it took years to learn how to live with his most significant Other with peace and grace. The titles of his two memoirs tell the tale: I Am Not Spock (1975), published four years before reviving the character in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and I Am Spock (1995), by which time he had made six Trek films and appeared as Spock in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In fact, Nimoy’s most memorable screen roles outside of Spock traded off of Spock, or promoted the themes contained within Spock or suggested by him. He was the host of In Search Of…, a syndicated docu-series explored all things exotic, alien, strange, and mysterious about the planet Earth, wallowing in the weird and scary yet explained and tamed with science and reason. Sometimes. (It says something of Nimoy’s wide-ranging interests and how he saw himself that the one episode on In Search of… that he wrote focused on the tortured inner life of Vincent Van Gogh.)
His late acting work found him playing morally ambiguous, often villainous parts that expressed ideas of dehumanization in an increasingly mechanistic, tech-dependent culture. He voiced the robot-gone-bad Sentinel Prime heavy in Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. In Fringe, Nimoy played Dr. William Bell, a brilliant scientist who recklessly chased innovation for the sake of prolonging his life or escaping our fallen planet, not saving it. In 1995, he appeared in an episode of The Outer Limits, playing a robot-making inventor, that ended with narration that sums up so much of what Nimoy represented on screen: “Empathy, sacrifice, love. These qualities are not confined to walls of flesh and blood but are found within the deepest, best parts of man’s soul… no matter where that soul resides.”
I interviewed Leonard Nimoy a few times in my career, but met him only once. It was at Comic-Con in 2007, after a panel presentation in Hall H for the Star Trek relaunch directed by J.J. Abrams. The event was memorable for producing a passing-of-the-torch moment between Nimoy and Zachary Quinto, who has since played Spock (and played him very well) in two Trek flicks. It was great marketing theater, but it meant something more personal for Nimoy, as I discovered when I interviewed him, Quinto, and Abrams following the panel. He couldn’t have been more pleased that an actor of Quinto’s caliber was taking on the role. “J.J. sent me some footage of Zach,” said Nimoy.” I looked at him… and said, ‘He looks exactly right.” What’s more, he has an interior life, which is vital to the character. With all of those elements in place, I’m very comfortable with this new Star Trek.”
At the same time, Nimoy was still coming to terms with the idea of giving up the role, of not being Spock anymore. “Strange,” he said. He tried to find more words, and it was clear to all of us that he was wrestling with his emotions. “It is strange… but very comforting. I feel the character is being put in very, very good hands.”
Nimoy’s wife, Susan, stood to the side, watching through teary eyes, a hand to her mouth hiding a delighted smile. When the interview was over, she quickly walked to him and hugged him tight. He accepted the affection like he needed it. Today, we join in that hug, and celebrate the story that Nimoy gave to us over 50 years of artful, difficult, ultimately graceful struggle with a masterpiece of a character that he made, that he suffered, that he loved, that will live long and prosper for years to come. Goodbye, Leonard Nimoy. And thank you.