The actor Leonard Nimoy died today, aged 83. He was best known for playing the scientist Mr Spock from the fictional planet Vulcan on the television series Star Trek from 1966 to 1970.
Star Trek, which debuted in 1966, was different from all television science fiction which went before. It was not only broadcast in vivid ‘Living Colour on NBC’, it employed the brightest writers from science fiction’s New Age. It broke new ground with ethnic and gender diversity. The series also brought in serious actors like the the intense Brandoesque Shakespearean William Shatner and television veteran Leonard Nimoy.
Nimoy created the character of the Vulcan scientist Spock. Mr Spock was a new kind of alien for television audiences: an internally conflicted, sympathetic alien. At first much was made of his Satanic appearance and greenish complexion, but his signature trait was that he was half human.
The tension between Spock’s passionate humanity and his Vulcan emotional repression made every episode of Trek’s first two seasons (bar a few turkeys) into thoughtful, restrained displays of Nimoy’s acting. The contrast with William Shatner’s heroic scenery-chewing made them a special pair, and an entire genre of fan fiction grew up around the idea of a sexual relationship between them.
Nimoy’s role, initially intended to be secondary, grew to match the character which Nimoy created with first series writers including Samuel Peeples, Shimon Wincelberg, John D F Black, Dorothy Fontana, Theodore Sturgeon; and the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry. When Roddenberry tried to squeeze a few bucks out of Nimoy’s contract or nickel-and-dime him for office supplies, the actor only had to suggest taking his talents and Mr Spock elsewhere. Roddenberry folded.
Nimoy as Spock was expert at showing emotions roiling just below the surface. Nimoy’s great success as Spock was apparent when his character was called on to display emotion. The viewer seeing the stone face crack into a grin felt embarrassed, as though watching some obscene spectacle.
The conflicted Spock became Nimoy’s enemy. For almost two decades, before and after his first memoir I Am Not Spock (1975), Nimoy struggled to continue his career independent of the Spock character. He wasn’t unemployed after Trek — he was under contract with Paramount Television for two more years — but he never again had the opportunity to create and sustain a television character of such prominence and depth.
Nimoy served out his contract with Paramount, as a regular on Mission: Impossible. He toured summer stock and dinner theatre. He played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Fagin in Oliver!, King Arthur in Camelot and the fake Nazi Goldman in The Man in the Glass Booth. He played Morris Meyerson opposite Ingrid Bergman’s Golda Meir in A Woman Called Golda (1982).
Star Trek and Mission: Impossible used to shoot on adjoining sets in the Desilu Studios lot. Herb Solow, Star Trek’s first production executive, and associate producer Bob Justman told a story about Steven Hill, who played the first leader of the Impossible Missions Force. Hill was saying Kaddish, and he had recruited six Jews from the cast of Mission Impossible for a minyan. He needed Star Trek’s Solow, Justman, Bill Shatner, and Leonard Nimoy to make ten.
This wasn’t Jewish television, though. Star Trek had its share of Jewish writers and actors, but it was Jewish only insofar as it was American. Nimoy’s conflicted cross-cultural Spock was quintessentially Jewish but also quintessentially American.
Leonard Nimoy made his peace with Spock, returning to play the Vulcan on television and in the Star Trek films. He published a second memoir, I Am Spock (1995) with a tongue-in-cheek foreword by Spock. In this memoir he was frank about how difficult an actor he had been for the show’s producers, and about his personality clashes with William Shatner. He attributed the show’s troubled third season to the departure of Gene Roddenberry as producer and his replacement with Fred Freiberger.
Nimoy credited two factors for Star Trek’s revival in the 1980s: George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and fandom. Science fiction fans had been coming together with writers at conventions for decades before Star Trek. A combination of Roddenberry’s relentless marketing and the mass-market appeal of television enabled superfans like Bjo and John Trimble to organise and interact with television production as fans never had before.
This interaction between producers and consumers of popular culture made his Jewishness important to young Jewish Americans in the 1970s and 1980s. Torn between mass American culture and traditional Jewish culture, Spock’s internal conflict resonated. Nimoy did not advertise his Jewishness, but by comparison to other actors in Hollywood he concealed it less.
Paramount’s Star Trek films gave Nimoy his debut as a film director. After directing some television he was hired to direct Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, then another Trek picture, the comedy Three Men and a Baby, drama The Good Mother and three more films.
In his last years his Twitter feed often included the hashtag #LLAP for ‘Live Long and Prosper’, the Vulcan greeting from Star Trek. The benediction, from an episode written by Theodore Sturgeon, was seldom used in the original series. In later years, however, coupled with the hand position from the traditional Priestly Blessing, in the ‘Vulcan Salute’ it became both Spock’s and Nimoy’s signature.
A far better way to recall Nimoy was a line of his own. When, on a visit to a university, a student asked, ‘Are you aware that you are the source of erotic dream material for thousands and thousands of ladies around the world?’
Nimoy raised his water glass and responded with aplomb: ‘May all your dreams come true.’