Leonard Nimoy has passed away, at age 83. Tributes are appearing far and wide. The character of Spock on Star Trek is obviously his most famous role, and the commitment to logic without emotion, and yet the forging of friendship and self-sacrifice, coupled with the ideology of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, offered a worldview that, although fictional and alien, inspired many human beings.
Here is a video in which Nimoy talks about the Jewish roots of the famous Vulcan salute.
Leonard Nimoy didn’t just have a massive impact on science fiction, he also transformed pop culture. Nimoy, who died today, took the thankless supporting role of an emotionless alien science whiz, and turned Spock on Star Trek into an icon.
Before Spock came along, alien beings in mass media (and most written SF as well) were one-dimensional. They represented the “other,” the strange and unknowable beings who could only throw our human characters in relief. In the hands of most actors, Spock would have been a one-note joke character: the guy who spouts off formulas and equations in a monotone. Spock could easily have become the butt of Star Trek‘s jokes, or just a weird side character.
But Nimoy imbued Spock with a life and complexity that were impossible to deny. Far from being a one-note character, Spock became one of the most complex and nuanced people on television. From his inner torment to his quiet amusement at the humans around him to his occasional flashes of anger, Spock was a constantly surprising mystery, with a lot of layers.
As I wrote a few years ago (in a piece that I was overjoyed that Nimoy retweeted):
Nimoy was playing a common science fiction “type” — the impassive alien — and he took it to a different place. Before Spock, science fiction was full of emotionless aliens who spoke in a monotone or imitated a stereotypical “computer” inflection. Nimoy gave a whole range of nuance to the Vulcan role, conveying a lot of different stuff with every raised eyebrow or furrowed brow. Nimoy’s Spock never seemed to have emotions, as we understood them — but he still had a range, and moods. A huge host of sympathetic aliens on television owe their genesis to Spock.
Here’s a pretty great video from just over a year ago, where the singer Pharrell interviews Nimoy about his process in creating the role of Spock:
In an anecdote that Nimoy has recounted many times, the genesis of his portrayal of Spock came from one early episode, where he learned to say the word “fascinating” in a detatched, cool fashion. As NPR recounted:
The first time actor Leonard Nimoy said the word [fascinating] was in an episode where the crew of the USS Enterprise faced a strange, sinister entity. No matter where the ship turned, the object managed to be in their way. The bridge was on high alert — so Nimoy shouted out his next line with the same energy: “Fascinating!”
“The director, God bless him, said be different from everyone else,” Nimoy remembers. So on the next take: “Fascinating,” in that cool, collected way.
“I think in that moment a very important aspect of the character was born,” Nimoy says.
The NPR article also gets at a couple of other important points about Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock: his half-human heritage, which contributes to his complicated, divided nature but also has helped to inspire other mixed-race people in the United States. And his commitment to the philosophy of IDIC (Infinite Diversity In Infinte Combination), which makes Spock a unique symbol of acceptance and curiosity. These are qualities that Nimoy embodied, and they helped make Spock a lasting icon.
No less a luminary than Isaac Asimov paid tribute to Spock, in an essay called “Mr. Spock is Dreamy!”.
So not only did Nimoy make an invaluable contribution to the success of Star Trek (inspiring other “outsider” characters like Data and Odo), he also helped change the way pop culture represented people who were strange and different. His sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of Spock meant a lot, not just to science fiction lovers like Asimov, but also to anyone who didn’t identify with the narrow range of types that were available in mass media at the time. There’s a reason why fanfiction started with stories about Kirk and Spock — they provided a way to envision masculinity, and male friendship, that was deeper and richer, and sometimes stranger, than what was otherwise available.
While Nimoy was still playing Spock on television, he started to have fun with the character, and with his notoriety, in other venues. He put out a series of novelty albums, including Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space, and recorded the famous “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” about J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. He also wrote a series of books, ranging from poetry about the importance of self-expression to the provocatively titled I Am Not Spock.
We had finished making the original series, and “Star Trek” became enormously popular in reruns in the 1970s. Around 71, 72, suddenly this whole thing erupted into a phenomenon. There was this tremendous hunger for “Star Trek,” but there were none produced for 11 years. During that time, whenever I went about my business acting in other projects, the questions were always about “Star Trek”: Tell us about “Star Trek.” Why don’t you do more “Star Trek”? It was a problem then.
And I did write a book called “I Am Not Spock,” which was a mistake. I was trying to illuminate the actor’s process in creating a character. I talked about the fact that I grew up in Boston and Spock did not. My parents were Russian immigrants; Spock’s were not. I’m an actor who portrays this character. But I did say in that book that if I were given the choice of any character ever portrayed on television, I would choose Spock. Not enough people made it to that page of the book. A lot of people didn’t get past the title.
Later in his career, Nimoy was still willing to go back and spoof his famous image, notably with appearances on The Simpsons:
But Nimoy also went on to do a number of other great genre roles. He pretty much immediately segued from Star Trek into Mission Impossible, playing the master of disguise Paris in an attempt to avoid type-casting. He had a vital role in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He was in the relaunched Outer Limits, and Invasion America. He provided voicework for theTransformers films.
But his most famous post-Star Trek role, for science fiction fans, was probably William Bell, one of the villains of Fringe. Nimoy told us that he enjoyed the “theatricality” of playing William Bell, especially once the tech mogul and universe-hopping maniac became unambiguously evil.
But Nimoy also used his Trek power to help popularize science (along with a certain amount of pseudo-science), hosting the insanely popular show In Search Of… in the late 1970s and early 1980s. To some extent, the show was the precursor to present-day series like Ancient Aliens, but it also included segments on real scientific phenomena, like the study of earthquakes.
It’s safe to say that, post Original Series, Nimoy had a complicated but mostly positive relationship with Star Trek. He was not going to be part of the second live-action TV series,Phase Two, if it had gotten on television — but he did appear in The Motion Picture in 1979. Nimoy originally planned not to return for any further Trek movies, and at one point he was going to die at the beginning, not the end, of Wrath of Khan. But then Nimoy enjoyed his experience with Wrath of Khan so much, he kept coming back. Nimoy also wanted to play the villain in Star Trek V.
And one thing that kept Nimoy coming back was that he got to direct two of the Star Trekmovies — in the process, playing an important role in helping to shape how Star Trek looked on the big screen. He also directed the first comedic Star Trek movie, Star Trek IV, which is in most people’s list of the top three or four best films in the series.
After that, Nimoy returned infrequently to the role of Spock. He made one memorable appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but turned down a chance to be in Star Trek: Generations, because Spock was purely going to be spouting expositional dialogue and Nimoy didn’t consider it worthwhile. But then, he was a linchpin of helping to make the J.J. Abrams reboot work, by providing emotional grounding as well as continuity to the new universe.
The real essence of Star Trek is humanism — the belief in the power of pure humanity. And Nimoy, throughout his career, was someone who believed in people. Even after he mostly retired from acting, Nimoy had a second (or maybe third) career as a photographer, where he focused on finding the beauty in people that other photographers wouldn’t necessarily think of: including plus-sized burlesque dancers and people whose truest, most creative selves are hidden. Nimoy never stopped being curious — and fascinated — by humans and our incredible diversity.
Here’s the very last thing Nimoy tweeted:
A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP
[Author’s note: What follows is a portion of my eulogy at Leonard’s funeral on Sunday morning, March 1. He was married to my dear first cousin, Susan.]
Leonard shared with me after he and Susan married 26 years ago that he had never met a woman like her, never had he loved anyone so dearly and passionately, that she’d saved his life and lifted him from darkness and unhappiness in ways he never thought possible. His love, appreciation, respect, and gratitude for her transformed him and enabled him to begin his life anew.
Susan – you were a stellar, loving and brilliant life-partner for your Leib. He knew it and in loving you he learned how to love his own children and grandchildren more deeply, and he came to recognize that his family was his greatest treasure and gift.
At the moment Leonard’s soul left him on Friday morning, his family had gathered around him in a ring of love. Leonard smiled, and then he was gone. It was gentle passing, as easy as a “hair being lifted from a cup of milk,” as the Talmud describes the moment of death. What did Leonard see? We can’t know, but Susan imagines that he beheld his beloved cocker spaniel Molly, an angelic presence in life and now in death.
My wife Barbara and I shared much with Susan and Leonard over the years, in LA and in so many spectacular places around the world – so many joys and not a few challenges, and through it all we grew to love Leonard as a dear member of our family and were honored that he felt towards us as members of his own family.
At his 80th birthday celebration three years ago, I publicly thanked him for all he’d meant to my family and me, for being the love of Susan’s life, and for bringing her so much happiness.
Kind-hearted, gentle, patient, refined, and keenly intelligent was he.
As I listened to NPR’s story of his passing on Friday, I was struck by how uniquely recognizable to the world was his voice, not only because of its innate resonance and gentle tone, but because it emanated who he was as a man and as a mensch.
He was unflappably honest and warm-hearted. He embodied integrity and decency. He was humble and a gentleman. His keen sensitivity and intuition connected him with the world and offered him keen insight into the human condition. Whatever he said and did was compelling, inspiring and provocative. He strove always for excellence.
Leonard’s Hebrew name was Yehudah Lev, meaning “a Jew with a heart.” His interests and concerns were founded upon his faith and belief in the inherent dignity of every human being, and he treated everyone regardless of station, friend or stranger, with kindness and respect. His world view was enriched by his Jewish spirit and experience.
Leonard was nurtured in the Yiddish-speaking culture of his childhood on the West End of Boston, yet he transcended the particular categories with which he was raised. He cared about the Jews of the former Soviet Union, about Jews everywhere, and he was concerned for all people as well.
Because he grew up as a minority in his neighborhood, even sensing at times that he was an outcast living on the margins (which is what his Spock character was all about), Leonard adventured out from the conservative home and culture of his youth, courageously at a very young age, into the world where he sought greater truth and understanding. He was curious about everything and was a life-long learner.
Leonard appreciated his success, never taking his fame and good fortune for granted. He was generous with family, friends and so many good causes often contributing without being asked, quietly and under the radar, to individuals and causes selflessly, without need of acknowledgment or credit. In his later years, he learned that by fixing his name to some gifts, he could inspire others to give as well.
Over the years, from the time he performed in the Yiddish theater as a young actor, Leonard was particularly drawn to Jewish roles in film, television, stage, and radio. Most enduringly he brought the gesture of the Biblical High Priest to the world’s attention as an iconic symbol of blessing. He was amused that his fans unsuspectingly blessed each other as they held up their hands and said, “Live long and prosper!”
Most recently, Leonard created magnificent mystical images of feminine Godliness in his Shekhinaphotographs, one of which he gave to me as a gift graces my synagogue study and adds a spiritual dimension for me of everything I do in my life as a rabbi.
One year Leonard asked me what I thought of his accepting an invitation from Germany to speak before thousands of Star Trek fans. He told me that he’d been asked before but always turned the invitation down due to his own discomfort about setting in a country that had murdered six million Jews. I told him that I thought it was time that he went, and that he take the opportunity to inform a new generation of Germans about who he was as a Jew and about the Jewish dimension of Spock’s personality and outlook. He liked the idea, and so on that basis accepted the invitation.
When he returned he told me that he had shared with the audience his own Jewish story and that Spock’s hand gesture was that of the Jewish High Priest blessing the Jewish community, an image he remembered from his early childhood attending shul with his grandfather in West Boston on Shabbesmorning and peeking out from under his grandfather’s tallis at the Kohanim-priests as they raised their hands in blessing over the congregation.
He told me that when he finished his talk he received a sustained standing ovation, an experience that was among the most moving in his public life.
There’s another incident worth recalling.
The Soviet Film Institute had invited Leonard in the mid 1980s to come to Moscow to speak aboutStar Trek IV, which he had directed. Leonard agreed to come on the condition that he be granted free passage to Zaslov, Ukraine to visit Nimoy relatives he’d never met. The Soviet officials refused, so Leonard declined. Then they had a change of heart and caved, and he and Susan visited the Ukrainian Nimoys thus reuniting two branches of his family tree divided eighty years earlier. Who else but Leonard Nimoy could stare down the former Soviet Union and win!?
Over time, Leonard became one of the most positive Jewish role models in the world. He cared about all the right things, about promoting the Jewish arts, about peace and reconciliation between people and nations, and about greater justice in our own society.
He and I talked frequently about our love for Israel and its need for peace. He understood that a democratic Jewish state could survive only alongside a peaceful Palestinian state. He was disgusted by terrorism and war, disheartened by Israeli and Palestinian inability and recalcitrance to find compromise and a way forward towards a two-state solution and peace, and he was infuriated by continuing Israeli West Bank settlement construction and by both Islamic and Jewish fundamentalist extremism.
Though keenly aware of, knowledgeable about and savvy when it came to national and world politics and history, Leonard was at his core a humanitarian and an artist, and that was the lens through which he viewed the world.
Among his favorite quotations was that spoken by the 19th century actor Edwin Booth who claimed to have heard the solemn whisper of the god of all arts:
“I shall give you hunger and pain and sleepless nights, also beauty and satisfaction known to few, and glimpses of the heavenly life. None of these shall you have continually, and of their coming and going you shall not be foretold.”
Leonard did indeed glimpse the heavenly life in his artistic pursuits and in his love for his family and friends.
In thinking of him, I am reminded of Shakespeare’s words:
“Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
“Romeo and Juliet,” Act III, Scene 2
I’ve never known anyone like Leonard – he was utterly unique. I loved him and will cherish his memory always.
Zicharon tzaddik livracha – May the memory of this righteous man be a blessing.