Obituary: Leonard Nimoy

“Live Long and Prosper”

Which he did. Leonard Nimoy, who has died at the old age of four score years and three, led a busy life as the actor who portrayed one of the most iconic characters of 20th century screen and the director who oversaw the presentation of this character in two major motion pictures. It was interspersed with relative bit parts in The Man From UNCLE and Mission Impossible – for which the British 1980s satirical TV show Spitting Image produced a send-up describing him as “not Spock at all – oh no! – someone completely different”.

Leonard Simon Nimoy was born in 1931 in Boston, Massachusetts (not Lincolnshire), in the United States of America to Orthodox Jewish parents. He later attributed an understanding of what it meant to be different to the area being predominantly Catholic. He was a child infused with sufficient curiosity to peer out during the sections of the synagogue service that the worshippers were supposed to close their eyes for and see the rabbi showing a strange hand gesture involving holding up an open palm with the fingers held in a V shape, two on each arm. He trained his hand to use it. It made an interesting symbol for his television character.

His film career began while he was still in the Marine Corps of the United States Army and appeared in an instructional video. It was followed by a long line of obscure parts in films that were either B movies or have sunk with sufficient lack of trace that they might as well have been. Then in 1964 he appeared opposite William Shatner in the television series The Man from Uncle – Shatner was the man and Nimoy the villain from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

His tall, solid features with a face readily shaped into a permanent frown made him excellent for portraying alien or semi-alien figures and he was accordingly cast in Gene Roddenberry’s new pilot for television network NBC – a 50-minute episode called The Cage which Roddenberry intended to launch a series called Star Trek. Nimoy’s alien was a character called Spock, who had pointy ears, upwards-pointing eyebrows, a severe haircut and an interest in science. The pilot was written off as “too slow” with NBC also taking exception to the presence of an alien – particularly an alien with devilish pointy ears – and a woman. Roddenberry was allowed to substitute a faster pilot which ended with a violent fight in which the Captain’s top was torn and in which the woman played a reduced role – a quid pro quo for the retention of the alien, complete with pointy ears. The Captain – James T. Kirk – was played by William Shatner. The alien’s emotional tendencies were played down. Star Trek – and Nimoy’s career as a major actor – was born.

Having produced this second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, which broadly established various Star Trek themes, NBC thoughtfully replaced it in the running order with episode 6 (which Nimoy thought little of) and moved it back to third for broadcast. The Cage was sliced and diced into the double-part 16th story, providing a sort of backstory for Spock and dealing with the problem of expensive footage that NBC had no wish to broadcast by the simple expedient of broadcasting most of it. It eventually appeared as a full episode in 1989.

Aside from the occasionally-smiling portrayal in The Cage Spock was not a character that offered great emotional range by and large, but there were odd occasions when the character was allowed to break out from raising a pre-raised eyebrow and variously remarking “Interesting” or “This is illogical, Captain”. Towards the end of the first season the spaceship USS Enterprise went into orbit around a planet where the flowers caused people to lose their inhibitions. It particularly affects Spock, who spends one scene hanging from the branch of a tree with a massive grin on his face while his captain shouts at him. Nimoy enjoyed such episodes, which apart from anything else alleviated the massive emotional strain of getting into character as a man who had no emotions. He was still something of a hit with a lot of fans, many of whom regarded him as the actual star of the show. And the series was heavily reliant on its fans, who read up with care on where NBC planned to hide it in their schedules each week as part of an effort to stop people watching it.

With the success of Star Trek giving them due prominence, Shatner and Nimoy both tried their hand at singing. Shatner’s effort at the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds has what can only really be described as a certain notoriety. Nimoy, by contrast and while still equipped with Spock hairstyle, provided a lively answer to the pub quiz question as to “What links Bilbo Baggins and First Officer Spock?”

After three seasons of about 25 episodes each, NBC cancelled Star Trek and the cast went on to other things. The show went into syndication, which essentially meant that rather than being stuck on NBC once on a week it could be seen on any network in the world that fancied paying the syndication fees at whatever time said network wished to broadcast it. In 1987 the Chicago Tribune suggested that the original three seasons of Star Trek – complete with Nimoy’s eyebrows and minus his singing voice – has been on somewhere in the world on a daily basis since syndication of the show began. Not everyone chose to broadcast every episode. While much of the first series is enjoyable and the second series contains The Trouble With Tribbles (which is one of those episodes that feels like it would be iconic as a stand-alone drama) the third series features several episodes with reduced Point and unnecessary violence (including an episode devoted to randomly torturing characters on a black set, which at least had the benefit of saving on the props budget). The attempt to satirise the world’s apartheid systems makes for appropriately uncomfortable viewing, but this does not necessarily make for great television. Most of these episodes were not broadcast in Britain as part of the BBC’s presentation of the series. It made an interesting contrast with the BBC’s home-grown science-fiction programme – Doctor Who had been given a more current setting, a leading female character and did its exterior filming in quarries rather than Mid-Western deserts.

Nimoy was never quite sure what to make of this success; one argument for not casting younger (under 50) actors in major productions is they develop a horror of being typecast. (Older actors seem to be less worried. Observe the difference between the younger lead actors in Doctor Who, who mostly quit after three or four years, against one of the oldest, William Hartnell, who appreciated the work and had to be levered out. Not that it necessarily does the younger actors any good, but they do it anyway.) Nimoy became rather too good at distinguishing himself from his creation (and Spock, with his neck-pinches, hand gestures and expression, was as much Nimoy’s as the producer’s or the scriptwriters’), titling his 1977 autobiography I Am Not Spock. If he hoped that the ensuing controversy would merely promote book sales, he might have been well advised to have done promotional charity abseils instead.

After a stint as a master of disguise on Mission: Impossible (and those prosthetic ears would take some hiding) he returned to the character of Spock for a 1979 film logically called Star Trek. When he was persuaded back for a second film, it was on the basis that he would be killed off and a suitably-affecting death scene resulted. Spock was subsequently revived and Nimoy directed the next two films before the original cast began to be wound down (and, in the case of Shatner’s Captain Kirk, killed off rather more permanently) as characters from various subsequent Star Trek series were elevated to prominence.

Nimoy provided a summary of his Star Trek years in 1982 in a rather memorable programme presented entirely by himself.

After his 1987 divorce he produced a second autobiography, under the title of I Am Spock, which acknowledged on its cover the connections with his famous character and, in many ways, alter ego. He continued directing films and in 2002 produced a book of his photographs of women, under the title of Shekhina. It is intended as a demonstration of the glory of God’s creation.

The Star Trek franchise was rebooted in the 21st century and Nimoy duly reprised his role – albeit as a version of Spock who has fallen back in time to provide some form of guidance to his younger self, now portrayed by Zachary Pinto. Pinto has a rather rounder face than Nimoy’s, though this does in many ways merely serve to emphasise the youthful element. It was as this “Spock Prime” that Nimoy made what was to be his final film appearance in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, opposite Pinto, Christopher Pine (who played William Shatner) and Benedict Cumberbatch. Although Spock was not his first major character, there was still a certain poetic aptness to this.

The wonders of modern technology, somewhat advanced beyond Star Trek‘s flip phones and 3½” floppy disks, allow world-renowned actors to utter meaningful last statements to the farthest corners of the globe without having to go through their publicity agent. Nimoy signed out from Twitter in thoughtful mood on the 23rd of February 2015:

“A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. Live Long and Prosper.”

Leonard Simon Nimoy, born Boston Massachussetts 26th March 1931, died Bel Air, Los Angeles, 27th February 2015.


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