By Ed Garea
Leonard Nimoy, who won a global following as Mr. Spock, the human-Vulcan first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie versions of Star Trek, died on February 27 at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 83.
His wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, confirmed his death, attributing the cause to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Nimoy had announced last year that he was suffering from the disease, stating that it came from years of smoking, which he had given up three decades earlier. He had been hospitalized earlier in the week.
Although he had been acting in television and films since 1951, it was the character of Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek that made Nimoy a household name in popular culture as he brought to life a character who was cerebral, resolutely logical, and imperturbable, known by his pointed ears, his unique salute and blessing, “Live long and prosper.”
Born Leonard Simon Nimoy in Boston on March 26, 1931, the second son of Ukrainian immigrants Orthodox Jewish immigrants Max Nimoy, a barber, and Dora Spinner Nimoy. He was raised in the city’s predominantly Italian West End and sang in his synagogue choir.
He got the acting bug early, beginning at age 8 at a local theater and in high school productions. After graduation, he relocated to California to study drama at the Pasadena Playhouse. His start in the movies came with a bit part in the 1951 production of Queen For a Day, based on the popular radio (and later television) show. He also scored an unbilled part as a ball player in the 1951 movie, Rhubarb, a comedy about a cat that inherits a baseball team.
He scored the title role in the 1952 low-budget production, Kid Monk Baroni, as the disfigured leader of a street gang who becomes a boxer to escape his life in the “Little Italy” section of New York. Drafted into the Army in 1953, Nimoy began training for the infantry before being reassigned as an entertainment specialist, directing and hosting radio, television and stage shows for the Army’s Special Services branch.
After his discharge, he returned to California, studying at the Pasadena Playhouse and working as a soda jerk, movie usher, and cabdriver in between acting jobs, mainly in television, as he was cast in guest spots in such shows as Luke and the Tenderfoot, Navy Log, The Man Called X, Highway Patrol, Harbor Command, and Broken Arrow. What few movies he appeared in during this period have become cult classics. In 1952, he was Narab, a Martian invader in the Commando Cody serial for Republic Studios, Zombies of the Stratosphere. His turn at the end to helping the forces of Earth against his planet somewhat foreshadowed his turn as Mr. Spock. He played Chief Black Hawk in Old Overland Trail (Republic, 1953), one in a series of oaters starring Rex Allen. He was the Army sergeant at the telex in 1954’s Them! After that, his only movie role in the ‘50s was as Professor Cole in the 1958 low-budget version of Robert Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters, titled the Brain Eaters.
As the ‘60s rolled around so did the quality of the television shows in which Nimoy worked. He began receiving guest shots on such shows as The Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, Sea Hunt, M Squad, Bonanza, Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, Death Valley Days, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., where he worked with future Star Trek shipmate and later close friend, William Shatner. In between assignments, Nimoy taught Method acting at his own school. But in 1963, a guest shot on the police drama, The Lieutenant, led to his big break.
The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was impressed with Nimoy’s performance and called his agent about a part in a new science-fiction show he was developing. Although the character was not yet fleshed out, Roddenberry told Nimoy’s agent that it would be extra-terrestrial, as the show was set in the 23rd century, and the space ship’s crew members were not just international crew, but interplanetary as well. The name of the show would be Star Trek.
Nimoy shot the pilot, which introduced his character of Mr. Spock and that of Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. NBC rejected it and plans were made for a second pilot with a somewhat different cast. Because Hunter had already committed to another project when the second pilot was to be filmed, Shatner was cast as Captain James T. Kirk.
As the character of Spock was unknown territory, Nimoy was given free rein to create. He incorporated his childhood memories of the kohanim blessing from his religious upbringing and created the Vulcan split-fingered salute, along with the salutation, “Live long and prosper,” which was an accompanying blessing to the prayer from Numbers 6:24-26.
Another of Spock’s trademarks was the result of improvisation. After reading in the script that Spock was to knock another character out cold with the butt of his phaser, Nimoy worked out a better solution: the Vulcan nerve pinch, claiming that Spock studies would have included knowledge of anatomy to be used in self-defense.
The character of Spock connected with the public and Nimoy was reported to have been receiving about 10,000 letters week, most of them from women. He also received an Emmy nomination for each season the show aired. After the show was canceled after a three-year run, however, Nimoy seemed pleased and highly reluctant to play the character again. He was the only member of the cast who did not sign up for a projected sequel in the ‘70s (abandoned for other reasons), and after much soul-searching, finally agreed to be part of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. The reason for this reluctance, he said in interviews, was the poor quality of writing on Star Trek, especially in its third – and last – season. But Nimoy was also reluctant to attend the Trek fan conventions that become wildly popular in the ‘70s. Fans were also dismayed by the title of his 1975 book, “I Am Not Spock,” which was taken by many as Nimoy’s rejection of, and distancing from, the character of Spock. Perhaps it was the very real fear of being permanently typecast, though he did have a successful run in Mission Impossible, which he signed on for right after Star Trek finished its initial television run, as Paris, an IMF agent who was a ex-magician and make-up expert.
But it seemed that Nimoy had a change of heart about Spock after the character was killed off in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (supposedly at his insistence). Given the chance to direct the next Trek installment, he seemingly made peace with the character, allowing it to be reborn in the course of the movie. He also directed Star Trek IV (1986) and Star Trek VI (1991), both of which he helped write, and guest-starred as Spock on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
When director J. J. Abrams revived Star Trek in 2009, with an all-new cast, he included a cameo part for Nimoy as an older version of Zachary Quinto’s Spock. Nimoy also appeared in the 2013 sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness.
Of his work outside Star Trek, Nimoy received kudos for his work in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the 1982 TV movie A Woman Called Golda, where he played Morris Meyerson, the husband of Golda Meir, played by Ingrid Bergman. He also directed the successful 1987 comedy, Three Men and a Baby.
From 1977 to 1982, Mr. Nimoy hosted the popular syndicated series “In Search Of ...,” which explored such mysteries as the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and U.F.O.s. In addition, he narrated Ancient Mysteries on the History Channel, took on a recurring role on the science-fiction series Fringe and was heard, as the voice of Spock, in an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
Nimoy also performed on stage, appearing in such works as Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, Caligula, Twelfth Night, and My Fair Lady in regional theater, and Full Circle and Equus on Broadway. In 1975, he toured with and played the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Sherlock Holmes, and in 1981, he starred in Vincent, a one-man show based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh.
If all this wasn’t enough, during and following Star Trek, Nimoy also released five albums of musical recordings. His first was titled Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space. His second album, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, features him singing as Spock. On the final three albums he sings popular folk sings and covers of works such as “Proud Mary” and “I Walk the Line.” Though the critics panned his recordings, fans ate them up, perhaps enjoying the campy performances.
He also published several books of poetry and photography, and came to terms with himself in his 1995 tome, “I Am Spock,” in which he said he hoped the book would place to rest the ugly and unfounded rumors about his relationship to the character. For the record, he said that he liked and admired Spock.
Regarding his personal life, Nimoy returned to college, earning his M.A. in Spanish from Antioch College in 1978. The school later awarded him an honorary doctorate.
His first marriage to actress Sandi Zober lasted from 1954 to 1987 and produced two children, Julie and Adam. In 1989, he married actress Susan Bey (cousin of director Michael Bay).