Our sky is a little dimmer today with the loss of someone who expanded the meaning of stardom out beyond the final frontier. Leonard Nimoy, gone at 83, was an actor, director and photographer by vocation but at heart a storyteller and shaper of one of the most impactful fictional characters of our time, who helped remind millions of us feeling like aliens walking an often confusing planet that we were human after all. And more than that, in an entertainment landscape overrun by buffoons and simpletons elevated by ratings popularity to aspirational figure(air)heads, Nimoy made smart and logical the coolest thing you could hope to be. With his portrayal of Mr. Spock, Nimoy gave the pursuit and value of intellect a mysterious and, dare-one-say-it, sexy side. He gave hope to those of us more comfortable with a math book than a bench press. He showed that brain could be more magnetic than brawn.
When I first watched Star Trek at the age of 10 or so, Spock was the character I was most drawn to. Sure, Captain Kirk was the swashbuckling hero and Scotty had a cool accent, Dr. McCoy was full of Southern charm and Lieutenant Uhura was simply stunning to behold, but Mr. Spock was, if one will pardon the pun, fascinating. A teenage kid struggling with hormones and the associated emotional imbalance, particularly in the wake of the passing of his own father, will naturally find himself captivated by this unflappable figure who sets that troublesome turmoil aside and approaches each problem from the standpoint of clear and logical analysis – while never forgetting the all-important human equation, even if he hasn’t quite figured that out yet. I wanted to learn more about Vulcans and try to emulate their approach to life, even if I didn’t think I would ever become a scientist. More importantly I wanted to figure out if it was actually possible to neck-pinch someone into unconsciousness – would have helped with bullies back in the bad old days.
Our popular culture contains an infinite assortment of characters whose adventures and traits resonate within our collected consciousness long after they have exited the stage. With respect to his successor Zachary Quinto, few characters and performers are as inextricably fused as Nimoy and Spock. Surprisingly, or not, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s initial description of the USS Enterprise’s Vulcan science officer was the very definition of “broad strokes,” a sketch that could have applied to any generic alien from any cheesy science fiction program of the last century:
…Probably half-Martian, he has a slightly reddish complexion and semi-pointed ears…
As most fans know, NBC was so unimpressed with Spock as he appeared in Star Trek’s first pilot that dumping him was one of their conditions for agreeing to finance a second. Roddenberry refused, of course, and over the original run of 79 episodes, Nimoy took those pencil marks and began to infuse him with depth, gravitas, and even a dose of Jewish mysticism (the source of the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute), creating a lasting icon. As the Star Trek canon became ever more robust, Nimoy seemed to get its characters and the reason for its popularity more than the behind-the-camera talent did. Blossoming into a fine director, he took them helm and helped guide Star Trek on its cinematic journey, and those times where it stumbled were those in which his voice was left unwisely on the sidelines. It would seem strange to wish to try and do anything with Star Trek without the input of Mr. Spock, but so goes the human arrogance that Spock himself would rightfully disdain.
Like so many of his Trek co-stars, Nimoy the actor wrestled with the issue of typecasting. In the 1970’s, he suffered through a bout of fan misgivings after the publication of his autobiography I Am Not Spock, proof that even before social media the public was apt to overreact to things not worth getting upset about. Such was the loyalty to the character he had etched into so many millions of hearts. (Sure enough, when rumors began circulating during the pre-production of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that Spock was to die, a most illogical wave of threats began bombarding that movie’s producers.) When he wrote his sequel I Am Spock so many years later, Nimoy reconciled with his alter ego and with the fans who wanted to see him as nothing else, perhaps recognizing that if one is to be known for just one achievement in one’s lifetime, the definitive portrayal of a character who inspires millions of people is not such a bad legacy to leave.
In his twilight years, as he explored his passion for photography and made the occasional TV or film appearance, Nimoy seemed settled into the idea of himself as elder statesman and philosopher. A few days ago, after he was admitted to hospital, Nimoy’s Twitter account posted several moving messages about life and memory, perhaps from an accepting sense that the days were growing short. It was, in effect, communicating a final wish to the world that it live long and prosper, as he did. In the final scene of Star Trek II, the dying Spock’s thoughts and words are not for himself, but for his ship, his captain, and his friend. “Don’t grieve,” he says. “It is logical; the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
In the end, Leonard Nimoy is that rare man who can move on from this life with no task left undone and no ambition left to prove. It can truly be said of him that he left things better than he found them – we could wish no more for him, or ourselves. And perhaps as his captain might have put it, “of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”