Leonard Nimoy: Actor and director whose career was dominated by his role as the Vulcan science officer Spock in Star Trek

He played the iconic character in a Star Trek career that spanned 47 years

“Some day,” Gene Roddenberry said decades ago, “I’m going to make a science-fiction series and put pointed ears on that guy.”

The series was Star Trek, and the guy was Leonard Nimoy. He had been labouring in obscurity for 15 years before Roddenberry hired him in 1966 to play the half-human, half-alien space explorer, Spock. The ears, along with the upswept eyebrows and bob, brought him enduring fame in an entertainment and merchandising empire equalled perhaps only by James Bond, Star Wars Harry Potter franchises.

Star Trek, a drama about the adventures of the Starship Enterprise as it explored “the final frontier” of space, was not a hit during its initial run on NBC from 1966-69. In syndication, however, it took off. Communities of fans – “Trekkies” – burst forth in the 1970s, creating richly imagined fantasy worlds based on the show and played out at large-scale conventions. George Lucas said Star Trek helped pave the way for his Star Wars films, which in turn helped spur the Star Trek film series.

As a TV programme, Star Trek proved groundbreaking. It served up allegorical tales about violence, greed, jealousy, prejudice, peace and love – the social issues of the 1960s – in the guise of intergalactic adventure. It did so, said television scholar Robert Thompson, “at a time when American television completely shied away from any kind of relevance or social controversy, except in the news.” Its 23rd-century crew was a utopian federation of men and women, blacks and whites, Americans, Russians and Asians – and Spock, who was born on the planet Vulcan in a civilisation that has mastered control of its feelings. He was science officer and first mate.

 

Spock was the ultimate outsider, a trait Nimoy said he understood. Jewish, he grew up in an Irish section of Boston. Seeing films as a child during the Depression, he was drawn to actors who brought pathos to the grotesque – Boris Karloff in Frankenstein and Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

By most accounts, Nimoy portrayed the most popular character of the Star Trek cast. While some critics thought that his acting dour or wooden, fans might have argued that these were precisely the characteristics of the emotion-suppressing, logic-obsessed Spock.

In one episode, “The Naked Time”, a virus infects the spaceship and causes the crew’s “hidden selves” to emerge, revealing previously unknown dimensions of Spock’s nature. At one point, the chaos overtakes him, and he breaks down and cries. “It solidified everything,” Nimoy said in 1968. “I knew that we were not playing a man with no emotions, but a man who had great pride, who had learned to control his emotions and who would deny that he knew what emotions were. In a way, he was more human than anyone else on the ship.”

He added: “In spite of being an outcast, being mixed up, looking different, he maintains his point of view. He can’t be bullied or put on. He’s freaky with dignity. There are very few characters who have that kind of pride, cool and ability to lay it out and walk away. Humphrey Bogart played most of them.”

He was born in 1931 to parents who had been peasants in what is now Ukraine. His father became a barber and urged his sons – Leonard and an older brother, Melvin – towards stable careers. The boys grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household and attended Orthodox Jewish services, which became an unexpected influence on Nimoy’s Spock. His “Vulcan salute” – made by parting the middle and ring fingers of each hand – was based on a hand gesture he noticed attending a synagogue as an eight-year-old. “I didn’t know what it meant,” he once said, “but I knew it looked like something magical.”

Nimoy developed an early interest in acting, and he recalled that his parents were “grief-stricken” when he abandoned a scholarship at Boston College. In 1952 he won the title role, a boxer with a disfigured face, in the low-budget film Kid Monk Baroni, mistakenly thinking it would launch his career. “It played about three days as a second bill somewhere in Hollywood and then died,” he said. “Nothing happened and, in 1953, I went into the Army.” After his discharge he mostly played heavies on TV shows such as Dragnet, Sea Hunt and Wagon Train before his breakthrough in 1964 while in the series The Lieutenant. Roddenberry was a producer and soon hired him for Star Trek.

Nimoy struggled with his Star Trek legacy. His first memoir (1975), was called I Am Not Spock. Twenty years came I Am Spock, in which he said he had come to peace with the show that defined him in the public imagination.

He spoke about problems that developed during the show. He became a heavy drinker, he said, to escape the pressures of sudden fame, and described an intense “sibling rivalry” with William Shatner, who starred as Capt James T Kirk. Nimoy was Emmy-nominated three times for best supporting actor but felt he deserved recognition for what was essentially a leading role. Shatner received no nominations.

Nimoy, who took an earnest approach to his art, was often the butt of Shatner’s pranks. On one occasion, he recalled, Shatner asked him to repeatedly retake a scene in which the Vulcan cries out, “Pain! Pain!” As Nimoy increased his volume and intensity, Shatner finally quipped to the crew, “Can someone get this guy an aspirin?” Nimoy didn’t talk to him for weeks.

They later became closer: Nimoy said he stopped drinking in the late 1980s and that he helped Shatner through his marriage to an alcoholic and comforted him after the woman drowned in a swimming pool.

The original run of Star Trek was cancelled because of dwindling ratings, and Nimoy’s strong identity as Spock made it hard for him to transcend the role. In Mission: Impossible (1969-71) he played a master of disguise named Paris. From 1976-82 he hosted a syndicated documentary series In Search Of..., which explored phenomena such as the Loch Ness monster and the Bermuda Triangle.

He wrote and performed a one-man stage show about Vincent and Theo van Gogh. He had supporting roles onscreen, but was reluctant to reprise Spock for the first Star Trek film in 1979. A sticking point was royalties he felt he was owed over merchandise. He made the film after settling a lawsuit with the studio.

To persuade Nimoy to appear in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Paramount offered him a plum role in its TV film A Woman Called Golda about the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. He played Morris Meyerson, Meir’s husband, opposite Ingrid Bergman, and earned an Emmy nomination. The only consolation in losing, he said, was that it was to Laurence Olivier for Brideshead Revisited.

Spock had been killed saving the Enterprise crew in the second film, but was revived in future instalments that Nimoy also directed, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). He later directed the hit comedy 3 Men and a Baby (1987), starring Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg as bachelors who care for an infant left on their doorstep. To less enthusiastic reviews, he directed Diane Keaton in The Good Mother (1988), about a divorced mother whose newfound sexual passions threaten to consume her life.

Nimoy parlayed his  fame into a singing career in the late 1960s and ’70s, cutting albums such as Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr Spock’s Music From Outer Space. He published books of poetry and photography and championed causes, including civil rights and Cesar Chavez’s efforts on behalf of immigrant farm workers. He was the voice of Sentinel Prime in the 2011 film Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and he participated in nearly all Star Trek film and TV incarnations. He spoke to the writer Digby Diehl in 1968 about the strange effect Spock and his rubber ears had on women. “I’ve never had more female attention on a set before,” he said. “And get this: they all wanted to touch the ears.”

Leonard Simon Nimoy, actor: born Boston 26 March 1931; married firstly Sandra Zober (marriage dissolved; two children), 1989 Susan Bay; died 27 February 2015.

© The Washington Post

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