Farewell, Leonard Nimoy
If you are of a certain age, then a little bit of you just fell away. A charismatic actor has died.
Leonard Nimoy has died at the age of 83. Most men and women of a certain age will feel that a little bit of their childhood died with him.
Thank heavens for television. Without Star Trek, it seems unlikely many people outside the actor’s immediate circle would have been familiar with this extraordinary personality. You don’t meet too many folk like this anymore. Born in Boston, the son of Jewish barber from Ukraine, Nimoy had an early life that reads like a variation on The Jazz Singer. His dad, like so many smart immigrants, wanted his son to take up a respectable trade — maybe the law — but Leonard had ambitions to act and made his first appearance in the then still-healthy Yiddish theatre. He went on to develop a busy enough career as the second bloke from the left — very much like future co-star DeForest Kelley – but only the most serious TV buff would have been able to put a name to the long, characterful face. You could have spotted him in series such as Broken Arrow, Sea Hunt and Bonanza. Many of those standing beside him lived the rest of their lives in that semi-obscurity.
Do the maths. He was 35 when he was cast as Mr Spock, half-human, half Vulcan Science Officer, in what would eventually become one of the most influential TV shows of all time. Everyone know the story. At first, Star Trek didn’t really take with audiences. It is not, however, true to say that it was a failure. The science fiction epic lasted for three series and made its way into syndication. But it was cancelled just three years after creation. We didn’t know it, but, by the time kids of my generation saw Star Trek in Ireland, it had already ceased to exist as a going concern. That hardly mattered. The show continued to play practically daily and generated an animated series, a film sequence and, eventually, various spin-off series (before such things had become common place).
There are many reasons to admire Leonard Nimoy. A warm man, with a fine sense of humour, he toured with a one-man show on Vincent Van Gough; he wrote novels; he appeared in such films as Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and was a key cast member in Mission: Impossible. It is a piece of movie trivia worth treasuring that, in 1987, despite competition from Fatal Attraction, Nimoy directed the most successful film at the US box office. Look it up. Three Men and a Baby was a smash. Still, the titles of his autobiographies made no effort to conceal what enabled these later developments in a busy career: I am not Spock was followed by I am Spock.
Why did that character register so strongly with successive generations? Spock was certainly unintentionally funny. A few too many Star Trek episodes ended with Captain Kirk — an intergalactic shit played beautifully by William Shatner — laughing heartily at some manifestation of Spock’s genetic oddness. Moreover, his logical approach to life, far from generating amorality, hung around a class of utilitarian decency that Jeremy Bentham might have appreciated. It is often argued that, unlike 90 percent of futurology, Star Trek takes an optimistic (if not Utopian) approach to humanity’s story. Mr Spock (along with his pure Vulcan relatives) deduce their way towards a largely civilised, mostly benevolent society. It is the hugely emotional Klingons who, initially at least, are most inclined towards war.
The relative rarity of Spock’s emotional outbursts make them all the more easy to cherish. If you can watch the great half-breed’s death at the end of Wrath of Khan without choking up then you are a harder, less sentimental man than me. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” Spock says (which is a Utilitarian sentiment if ever I heard one). But the line which really hits home is: “I have always been and shall always be your friend.” The acknowledgment of emotional connection means so much more coming from a character who argues for the uselessness of such empathy. There is, after all, nothing more human than a reluctance to release potentially embarrassing emotions.
As Star Trek gathered huge followings throughout the world, Kirk and Spock became one of our era’s great Ying/Yang partnerships. You can play this game with all kinds of contemporaries. Kirk is the playful, less weighty McCartney. Spock is the more self-important, less clubbable Lennon. The friendship worked as a rough model of the conflict that goes on with all developed psyches. When some ass in a bar calls us a rude name, the inner Kirk yearns to punch him on the jaw while the hidden Spock suggest caution and reflection.
None of this theorising would get us anywhere if the creators of Star Trek had not found a charismatic actor to inhabit the role. We may, now, be slightly uncomfortable about the fact that the part exploited the actor’s supposed “foreignness” . It seems unlikely that the round James Doohan (actually a Canadian), who played Scotty, would have been quite so welcome as a creature from the planet Vulcan. Never mind. That’s how thing are. Nimoy had, it transpired, the talent to immediately extract the key characteristics of a wispy character and make him as resonant as Sherlock Holmes, Dracula or Long John Silver. I admit no accusations of hyperbole as regards that last sentence.
Live long and prosper.