Leonard Nimoy has passed. Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard this. Everyone was shocked, although if we’d been paying attention, maybe we wouldn’t be. He’d been struggling with disease brought on by decades of smoking for many years. He was hospitalized on the 19th.
Yet here we are, grieving for a man that nobody really knew. He seemed to struggle with finding success for most of his life, yet we all remember him, if anything, as the eponymous Spock. I, too, am guilty of not paying enough attention to this great man and his achievements. While looking into his life for the purpose of writing this article, I found myself surprised by the struggle, the passion, the tragedy, and the intellectualism that made up his life.
I’m glad he’s getting the attention of the media now, but as with all great figures and artists, the best are always forgotten until after they pass. That said, I am going to contribute to the mass collection of Leonard Nimoy articles that will be written over the weekend. Why? Well, mostly because I feel a sense of regret that may be relieved with the publication of an article dedicated to him as a person. I don’t feel bad for him, as he lived a full and accomplished life. I feel bad for us, for never truly paying attention to his greatness, for never listening well to his wisdom, for elevating the passing glories of immediate entertainment above the simple wisdom of a Nimoy poem about love. We’ve lost a great man on Friday, but maybe we never deserved him in the first place. At 83 years old, he lived a long and full life, and will now finally be remembered for his many non-Spock accomplishments.
But I do not believe he would want us to mourn a loss. Just as his character encouraged a new and younger Spock to embrace the beauty of emotion, the wonder of humanity, and the balance inherent in tragedy, he now speaks from the grave through the power of the internet as a muse to various editors, writers, and bloggers. And so, grab a cup of tea, a cup of coffee, or something warm, and let’s meditate on the life of a man we forgot to appreciate.
A Varied and Talented Actor
Nimoy will be best remembered for his role as the enigmatic Spock, but many forget that when he landed the role in 1966, he’d already been acting for 15 years. Most of these roles were minor bit parts in TV shows and B movies, but his roles ran the gamut of some of the most popular shows of the time. He could be found in Perry Mason, Dragnet, The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Untouchables, The Eleventh Hour, The Outer Limits, Get Smart, Wagon train, Colt .45, and Gunsmoke, not to mention the numerous roles he landed in Sci-Fi B-movies of the time period. During these 15 years before Star Trek, he’d worked nearly 50 acting roles, from an Army Seargant, to a professor, to professional killers, to intellectual villains. However, television acting did not pay during this time, and despite the roles, he typically sought out additional work to provide for his family with his wife Sandra Zober. Yet despite his financial troubles, this period of his life is intriguing for being the most prolific period of his life. He truly shows an incredible acting talent through his embrace of dozens of different rolls.
However, while Nimoy pursued acting despite the urging of his father, an orthodox Jewish immigrant from what is now Ukraine. His father openly discouraged his acting, and instead encouraged him to get a college and get a stable job. When talking about these early family dynamics, he once stated that, ”I’m a second child who was educated to the idea my older brother [Melvin Nimoy] was to be given respect and not perturbed…I was not to upstage him. I was to give ground. So my acting career was designed to be a supporting player, a character actor.” These complicated family dynamics would forever influence his career and personal life. While he would certainly have preferred to benefit financially, he tended to avoid the limelight that his fellow actors, like William Shatner, would revel in.
Nimoy spent his 20’s and half of his 30’s landing nothing but minor roles and B-movies, meanwhile thinking about the advice of his father and what could have been. In 1987, his then ex-wife confirmed their struggle by saying, “I spent the first 15 years being the only one who believed in him and struggling with him. I believe I had a lot to do with where he is now.” And I would imagine that she is right.
Of Star Treks and Spocks
Obviously, this was to change when he landed a recurring role as Spock in a little television serial called Star Trek from 1966 to 1969. This might have been the lucky break that Leonard needed. ”For the first time I had a job that lasted longer than two weeks and a dressing room with my name painted on the door and not chalked on,” he said to the New York Times. But in reality, this role ended up haunting him for years to come. While he did continue acting after Star Trek, immediately landing a role as Mission Impossible’s Paris for two years, he never was able to get any major roles. Due in part to a combination of Hollywood shyness, and the haunting legacy of Spock, as his acting career from Mission Impossible on would consist only of minor roles, cameos, or voice acting parts for television series, made-for-TV movies, and video games for the rest of his life. The only exception to this was his role in A Woman Called Golda, where he played opposite of the famous Ingrid Bergmann in her final role, for which he received an Emmy nomination. However, he had to convince Paramount to give him this role in exchange for him agreeing to work in the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan.
Not only had the role of Spock affected his career, it had also affected him personally. One can imagine what can happen when a man who used to work from job to job, performing one varied character after another, and now found himself saddled with playing a cold, emotionless, and logical character for 12-14 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 3 years. He would tell of a time when a little girl recognized him in an airport as Spock. When he sought to correct her by telling her his name was Leonard Nimoy, she refused to relent from calling him anything other than Spock.
This event would later cause him to write his first autobiography, I Am Not Spock. And if anything proves his state of mind at the time, it is this book, published directly in the decade interim between the end of Star Trek and the filming of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The autobiography was written in a very different style which pits himself, Leonard Nimoy, his life, history, accomplishments, and personal philosophies, against the same aspects of Spock. The book seems like an exercise he might have undertaken in private, to convince himself that he is different than this character at the same time that he is trying to convince the world. The book is an intriguing read, specifically because it demonstrates how much Leonard Nimoy struggled, not necessarily with the worry that he might be typecast, but with the idea that playing Spock had changed him somehow.
Moving Beyond Acting
And perhaps it had. During the 70’s, Nimoy began to experiment with other art forms. He would take photography classes at UCLA, experiment with taking pictures, and even write poetry. Inevitably, he would return to acting as the first two Star Trek motion pictures presented themselves, but always reluctantly. During this time, he seriously considered switching to a photography career.
But after two Star Trek movies, he was offered a career opportunity he never thought of before. For the third Star Trek movie, The Search for Spock, he was offered the role of director. His first reaction was to take offense, believing that they were dismissing his acting talent. His second response was to feel overwhelmed with the possibility of taking the reins from the great Nicholas Meyer, who had directed The Wrath of Khan. When propositioned by a Paramount Executive, he quoted a line from Shakespeare, “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus; and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves,” which demonstrated his discomfort with such a prominent role.
Thankfully, Nicholas Meyer ended up reaching out to him and mentoring him. As a result, A Search for Spock was just as much of a financial success as The Wrath of Khan. He later wrote and directed the only original cast Star Trek movie to break $100 million, The Voyage Home. He would then go on to direct 1987’s most financially successful film, 3 Men and a Baby, which broke his previous record and earned $167 million.
Changes, Acceptance, and the 90’s
Nimoy was now a star director, and could have grabbed almost any role he wanted. But he once again shyed from the limelight, grabbing two more minor movies, The Good Mother and a Gene Wilder movie, Funny About Love. Neither of these movies were particular successful and he ended up giving up directing, except for the odd television episode here and there. He would write the story for the sixth iteration of the Star Trek movie series, The Undiscovered Country, but the director’s chair went back to Nicholas Meyer.
Something changed in Nimoy during the late 80s and early 90s. Part of it could be attributed to finally achieving the financial success that he’d lacked for decades. However, something much more personal changed within him. In 1986, the year before 3 Men and a Baby launched, he walked out on his wife of 33 years and a relationship that had reportedly “gone stale.” The next year, his father died. Six months later, his mother also followed. In a single year, his life had been turned upside down. His directing career was gaining him success both critically and financially, and yet he’d also lost the parents he was never able to please. He’d seen the relationship with the wife who supported him through 20 years of struggle, fade and deteriorate into eventual divorce.
Yet the loss of his past seemed to push him towards the future. During this time, he finally quit smoking, he started to take voice-acting roles, turned to philanthropy with his local Jewish communities, became more and more accepting of the legacy of Spock that had haunted him years before, and even seemed to exorcise some demons with his explorations into female sexuality. The Good Mother, his first directing job after 1987, explored a woman’s struggle between sexuality and motherhood, a precursor to his photographic work later in the early 2000’s. The next year, he married Susan Bay, a younger cousin of director Michael Bay.
While the 90’s were fairly uneventful for him, as he mainly took voice acting roles and minor television roles, he did finally release a follow up autobiography, I Am Spock, meant to respond to the decades long criticism he’d received from his previous book. This autobiography showed that he finally accepted the influence that his role as Spock had played on him. He admitted that the role had changed him, but Spock’s character had also made him think about life, choices, and hardship in ways that he never would have otherwise. Despite the loss and tragedy of the 80’s, he’d managed to find peace with his past by 1995.
Photography and Poetry
With The Good Mother, he’d wanted to make waves, to make a statement. But it mostly fell on deaf ears, as the movie was not nearly as successful as he wanted it to be. But his photography nothing but controversial. And as a writer, I firmly believe that an artist cannot call himself an artist if his work is not controversial.
And for the first time in his career, he deliberately pushed boundries. Far from shying from the lime light, he created deliberately provocative photographic exhibitions, seeking to challenge our repression of female sexuality. His first major project, titled Shekhina (2005). Titled after a feminized version of the Yiddish phrase for the glory of God, Shekinah, this project was a collection of semi-nudes of Jewish women wearing thin white robes or traditional ceremonial attire. By taking the feminine derivative, he pointed towards an exploration of a “softer, empathetic feminine counterpart to God who could speak for humanity’s sake.” It was controversial, and reactions raised from abject praise to outright condemnation and accusations of blasphemy.
He followed up with another controversial photographic work, The Full Body Project, which was a collection of nudes featuring large and “curvy” women dancing, supporting each other, and celebrating, and collecting in circles. Once again, his work found controversy, but I find it incredibly important. Once again, he celebrates female sexuality, female power, and celebrates femininity.
For his last major photographic project, Secret Selves, he asked for volunteers to pose showing off their secret desires, unknown hobbies, or hidden shames. The work was a huge success and phenomenally interesting. Most of it is available online, but you can also buy the book as well.
Leonard Nimoy and the New Spock
During the last decades of his life, it was clear that his photography finally freed him from his shell. He’d found a way to say things, to act upon the world, and to claim his future. The struggles of the 80’s forced him to adapt, the typecasting forced him to humility, and photography finally gave him a voice.
And he did exercise his voice. Out of all the Star Trek stars, he was probably the most active on Twitter, posting photographs and poetry several times a week. His last Tweet will now go down in history as a touching poetic reminder of how short life can be.
As a final reminder of the fact he’d found peace with Spock, he would sign every tweet with LLAP, a shortening of Spock’s catchphrase, Live Long and Prosper. It’s funny now to think that this phrase was adapted by him from a traditional Judaic blessing. Even the Spock “V” was his interpretation of a Rabbi’s raised hand, upon giving this blessing. To think that the role that defined him, that changed him, and that forced him to struggle for identity, was so impacted by his own creativity.
And so I find it touching to look back on Leonard Nimoy’s last performances as Spock, within J.J. Abram’s Star Trek remakes, and to see how much that character changed from the series and the movies to the current day. The Spock he plays within these two movies is wise, emotional, and much more human than the Spock he played so many years ago. He speaks to the new younger Spock as a counselor, urging him to embrace the beauty of emotion, to find balance in tragedy, and celebrate the wonder of humanity. In a way, these final performances were his final vengeance against the character that haunted him for so long. Now that he’d found his voice and the will to speak it, he used his voice to change the character of Spock into a character that is truly fitting of an actor like Leonard Nimoy.