When an actor is associated with a single specific character which has transcended genre to become iconic, it is sometimes difficult to disassociate those memories when they are seen in other roles, or indeed even as themselves. Over fifty years after he first played Science Officer Spock on board the USS Enterprise, Leonard Nimoy is perhaps the very definition of an actor whose image is immediately recognised the world over, yet the wealth and breadth of his work, his diverse interests and abilities and his endless connection with and availability to his fans ensured that he was never mistaken for being limited to just Spock.
One of the key roles in The Cage, the first rejected pilot for Star Trek, the character of Spock was the only one to be carried forward to the second pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before over the objections of the network to whom Desilu wished to sell the show. Creator Gene Rodenberry was known to be single minded, a capacity which often made him difficult to work with, but on this matter he was correct, and Spock would become the ambassador for the show, the window on the actions of his Captain for whom he would act as a sounding board for difficult decisions, a spokesman for alternative points of view, a plea for rationality in the heat of emotion, and the voice of unavoidable logic when options were limited and a hard decision would have to be made.
In their book Inside Star Trek – The Real Story, producers Herbert F Solow and Robert H Justman said that while both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy came to them and Roddenberry with ideas, suggestions and arguments over their characters, over the scripts, over the direction of the show, that while Shatner’s were frequently to improve his role, Nimoy would invariably wish to preserve the integrity of the character and would fight for his fellow actors within the ensemble as much as for himself.
At the time of the publication of his first volume of autobiography in 1975, it was seen that the title I Am Not Spock was an attempt to deny the character, when in fact it was an in depth of many aspects of the character, much of it written as a discussion between the actor and the alien, examining their differences and similarities.
When Star Trek Phase II was proposed during the late seventies, it was not that Nimoy did not wish to be associated with the phenomena, for he regularly attended science fiction conventions to meet his fans and on September 16th, 1976 he was present with his former cast members to attend the rollout ceremony of the first space shuttle, Enterprise. Rather it was that he did not wish to return to a regular television role, and when the fledgling show metamorphosed to Star Trek The Motion Picture, Nimoy was delighted to revisit the character who had made him famous.
So ingrained was the belief that he had requested that his character be killed in the sequel, 1982’s The Wrath of Khan, Nimoy actually had to request a copy of his contract be sent to Paramount studio executives when he lobbied to direct The Search for Spock, confused as to why he would wish to remain associated with a character they believed he hated; in fact it had been director Nicholas Meyer who had tempted Nimoy with the idea of playing an unforgettable death scene, a promise he delivered on in the final scene of The Wrath of Khan.
Nimoy’s motion picture debut was a success, and his followup, 1986’s The Voyage Home was the most successful of the motion pictures featuring the original crew of the Enterprise. A change of tone from the military and philosophical themes of its predeccessors, it was a true ensemble film which allowed each of his co-stars to participate in the story, which emphasised environmental concerns and respect for intelligent species beyond humanity, and the gentle comedy was embraced by audiences critics beyond the core fanbase.
Never content to remain inactive or to repeat himself, one of the reasons he had left his role on Mission: Impossible was that he felt retired magician the Great Paris was fulfilling the same plot mechanic in every script, and Nimoy’s directorial career reflected this, from the American remake of the French comedy Trois Hommes et un Couffin with Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson to the hard family drama of The Good Mother with Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson.
It was during this period that Nimoy was able to participate in two project of great importance to him, the television movies A Woman Called Golda (1982), a biopic of the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir starring Ingrid Bergman in her last role, and Never Forget (1991), where he played Auschwitz survivor Mel Mermelstein who fought through the American court system against a neo-Nazi hate group to obtain legal recognition of the holocaust as a historical event.
Playing Spock for what he believed would be the last time in 1991, Nimoy’s appearance on Star Trek The Next Generation‘s Unification set him with actors Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner, whose character Data in many ways served the same dramatic purpose as Spock had twenty five years before. Airing the same week as the death of Gene Roddenberry to whom it was dedicated, it was intended not only to bring together the two casts but to also dissolve the rift between the two branches of fandom and launch The Undiscovered Country which would effectively close the story of Star Trek and bid farewell to the bridge crew of the USS Enterprise under James T Kirk.
An accomplished television, film and stage actor, Nimoy had a parallel career in music, photography, published several volumes of poetry, served as host or narrator on many documentary series, notably In Search Of… and Lights, Camera, Action and as a voice artist on many animated projects, including an unexpected revival of Spock on Futurama‘s Where No Fan Has Gone Before, while he remained a silent but unmistakable presence in the videos for The Bangles’ Going Down to Liverpool and Bruno Mars’ Lazy Song.
When Star Trek was reborn in 2009 under the direction of J J Abrams in 2009, it was again Nimoy who was approached to bridge the two universes, forty five years after he had first played Spock, older, wiser, bound by his friendship to a young officer who did not even recognise him, it was his warmest ever performance as Spock and possibly a career best for an actor who received three Emmy nominations for acting during the original run of the series.
That led to a series of commercial appearances alongside his onscreen successor Zachary Quinto, playing on the warmth and rivalry between the two actors, and at the same time Nimoy took a recurring role on J J Abrams’ television show Fringe. Nimoy’s final appearance was an unannounced cameo in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, offering advice and support to his younger self.
Aware of his failing health, Nimoy communicated regularly with his fans via his official Twitter account maintained by his granddaughter, approaching his end with calm dignity and reflection. He may be gone, but the warmth, kindness, generosity, intelligence and gentle spirit remain an inspiration.