Leonard Nimoy passed away at age 83 last week. I was among those weeping over my phone as the news spread across social media. He was best known as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, but his considerable talent went far beyond that. He was a gifted photographer and director, and by all accounts a nice guy. It’s a blessing and a curse for an actor to be so well-known for one role. A curse for an actor who wants to be so much more, but a blessing for us in the audience if the character he is forever known for is so wonderful and has as much depth as Mr. Spock.
A lot of the public mourning — including my own — focused on Spock. Because it felt like we had lost Spock, as much as Nimoy. In a way we have: there will be no new scenes filmed with Spock. Nimoy had a presence on camera that will be sorely missed. But as Spock said once, “I’ve been dead before.” We’ve already experienced Spock’s death and rebirth. There is something eternal about Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of the character over the decades. We feel intuitively that the wise old Vulcan is immortal, so the death of the actor who first played him is a nasty shock. We wanted Spock to convey some of that immortality to Nimoy.
We will always have Spock and I am grateful we had Leonard Nimoy bring this character into our lives. Every actor brings something different to a role. Embodied by a lesser actor Spock might have never come to terms with his human side, he might have been a stilted awkward alien, always the odd man out, never a character we could learn from because he never learned from his human companions.
Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future was one of peace and harmony, in which people of all different cultures and backgrounds could live and work side by side. Anyone, even a pointy-eared green blooded alien, could be your friend. Romulans and Klingons were enemies, but eventually even the battle-oriented Klingons were brought into the Federation fold, something Spock lobbied for. He also went so far as to go on a secret mission to the Romulans on his own initiative. He had hope all races could come together in peace. Hope, a human emotion, but no doubt Spock also calculated the odds.
I didn’t like Spock when I first started watching the original Trek in syndication. (Trek movies and other Trek TV shows were still in the future.) I thought Spock was too cold. Too odd. Too alien. I was just a little kid, a potential xenophobe. I had a little kiddie crush on Captain Kirk. Boyish charm, a man of action. All kids love swashbuckling play-acting. William Shatner has talent and chrisma: he made Kirk irresistibly likable. Spock was awkward, often a naysayer, cold-blooded in his assessment of things. I didn’t understand him; he was difficult to sympathize with. He was not human. He did not compare well with Kirk in my mind. At least not at first.
Everything changed for me with the episode “Amok Time”. Spock must return to Vulcan to marry (and he’s raging and throwing things until he does). Once there, his bride-to-be forces a challenge, a battle to the death between Spock and Kirk. You must understand, I was a little kid, I was very naive. Back then major characters were never killed off on TV shows, but I didn’t know that. When Spock apparently kills Kirk, I didn’t immediately assume that the death was fake. I thought the character I disliked (and at that moment probably hated) had just killed the character I loved. I’m sitting on the floor in front of the television crying when Spock is told to “live long and prosper” and he replies, “I shall do neither, for I have killed my captain and my friend.”
At that moment, when Nimoy uttered that line, everything changed for me. In that instant I realized that Spock, too, loved Kirk. And I cried harder because I was grieving with Spock and for Spock. He had suffered a terrible unbearable loss, too. And at his own hands. And he would have to live with that soul-destroying thing for the rest of his life. When Kirk was found to be alive and well (thanks to Dr. McCoy’s medical trickery), Spock and I were both relieved, but more than that, I now had a strong feeling of affection for the cold alien on the bridge. I forgave him his shortcomings, I rooted for him, I began to understand him.
Leonard Nimoy had a very tough role in playing Spock. He had to be logical and unemotional. Stoic. (Except for early episodes when they were still figuring out the character.) Yet Nimoy made this character beloved by millions of people. A character that it was difficult to empathize with, a character who showed little facial expressions of emotion. I think he did it with tone, with posture. With the look in his eyes. When he says he will neither live long nor prosper after the apparent killing of Kirk, you believe him. You think that he’s just going to go away and die somewhere like a sick animal crawling under a rock. There’s a quiet agony in those words.
Even an alien can feel pain. And that’s at the heart of the concept of universal brotherhood that Star Trek was founded on. We can’t think of someone as “other” or “enemy” if we empathize with them, if we can see ourselves in them, if we know they feel pain and we feel it through them.
As I grew up my affection for Spock grew. Much has been said about lonely disaffected teenagers identifying with Spock as the alienated outsider, but for me, from the moment I bonded with him over the loss of Kirk, he was not an outsider. He was one of us, however you choose to define “us”. I loved his magnificent intellect, his problem-solving, his love of science and reason. Later still, I loved how the character grew to incorporate important parts of his human heritage with his Vulcan heritage, retaining the best of both cultures. Over the decades Spock became warm and wise.
There’s a new actor playing a young Spock in an altered time line. Zachary Quinto has done a good job of it in two movies so far. This is partly a credit to him as an actor (those are very big shoes to fill), but it’s also partly due to the incredibly excellent foundation Leonard Nimoy established over the course of a lifetime playing Mr. Spock.
Not many actors are given the opportunity to create a character that has the depth, longevity, and impact of a Mr. Spock. Leonard Nimoy was lucky to have the chance to create such a wonderful complex role, and we, the audience, the Trekkies or Trekkers, were blessed to have his performance. For a character who shows no emotion, he has uttered an astounding number of memorable lines over the decades, memorable for their emotional impact.
Rest in Peace and Godspeed, Leonard Nimoy. Live, Long and Prosper, Mr. Spock.