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The Greatest Role: Leonard Nimoy’s Struggle With ‘Being Spock’

21st Century Wire says…

His career was truly galactic. Actor Leonard Nimoy played the role of ‘Mr. Spock’ in the long-running Star Trek television and film series, a career which spanned nearly five decades. Sadly, this great icon of the screen died yesterday at the age of 83.

One thing is clear by the sheer amount of tributes from fans of Nimoy – that he was greatly admired and respected by so many, not just because of the brilliant character which he played, but because of the way he played it – inspiring audiences worldwide, with great poise, integrity and dignity.

As modern mythological avatars go, his was one of the strongest ever constructed. Within, the Star Trek story, Spock’s assumed qualities which were beyond the grasp of humans – a superior intellect and power to apply logic in any instance – even under extreme duress, reliability in adversity, as well as the uncanny  ability to transcend petty emotions, and ‘the seven deadly sins’ which seemed to handicap his human crew mates. Through these popular science fiction dramas, Spock’s innate Vulcan abilities saved humanity, and the galaxy, many times over. Occasionally (and when it mattered most) he would also exhibit, albeit measured, certain endearing human insights and emotions. One might say he represented a ‘cosmic missing link’ between what is “out there” and with humans on earth. This unlikely combination elevated Spock’s ‘humanoid’ character to an other-worldly status in the eyes of Star Trek followers. In this way, Nimoy’s role was perhaps bigger and more symbolic than any other.

The names Nimoy and Spock should be synonymous with astronomical expectations. With so many watching his every move, there was a tremendous amount of pressure placed on Nimoy’s shoulders – having to always conform to the parameters set forth by his role as ‘Mr. Spock’. Loyal fans did not always accept his forays into other areas, as if he was some sort of veteran public official, or intergalactic war hero. Such were the great expectations and high ideals set forth by his magnanimous off-screen personality, and larger than life on-screen character.

Regardless of the drawbacks, he dutifully played his role on, and off, camera…

A Leonard Nimoy mural on the corner of Kenmare Street and Mott Street in New York. (sliceofnyc)
A Leonard Nimoy mural on the corner of Kenmare Street and Mott Street in New York. (sliceofnyc)

The Switch

For decades, Leonard Nimoy lived and prospered. But on Friday, fans of the actor got the terrible news: the man who played Spock on the Star Trek franchise juggernaut died at his home in Los Angeles at 83.

Perhaps no actor was tied to Star Trek more than Leonard Nimoy, whose character Spock helped turn the franchise into a cultural touchstone. Though many alums of the show have had second and third public careers since — William Shatner on Boston Legal, George Takei as a gay-rights activist, Wil Wheaton and Patrick Stewart as lovable Internet celebrities — Nimoy is so synonymous with his half-Vulcan alter ego that fans revolted upon seeing the title of his first memoir, “I Am Not Spock,” despite Nimoy’s insistence that behind the name was merely a nuanced explanation of the distinctions between himself and his character.

Leonard-Nimoy-SpockNimoy passed away today from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, and a sobering reminder that despite the species’ incredible longevity, Nimoy was no Vulcan. That still hasn’t stopped fans from trying to determine where the Boston native ends and the green-blooded extraterrestrial begins. For many, there is no difference.

The irony is that Nimoy’s face might never have become one of the most familiar on television if he’d shown just a little more skepticism of the pointy ears; according to producer Gene Roddenberry’s early vision for Star Trek, Spock’s character was to be completely covered in devilish red makeup.

As Nimoy said a friend told him at the time, the actor could either portray Spock with so much makeup on that if the show failed, his career would be protected — or he could do it with the ears alone and “pray that it worked.” Luckily for the rest of us, Nimoy kept the ears. It was a scary choice, he recalled in an interview with Pharrell Williams.

For better or for worse, Nimoy’s success with Spock tends to overshadow many of his other achievements as a photographer, a director and a musician.

But some of these activities actually tell us a lot about how Nimoy put his own stamp on the Enterprise’s science officer.

Born in 1931 to Orthodox Jewish Ukrainian immigrants, Nimoy began acting at age eight and wound up studying it at Boston College. His parents disliked the profession — in interviews later in life, Nimoy said they believed thespians had a reputation for descending on a town and leeching off its residents before taking off again in search of the next act.

Nimoy never did finish his acting degree at Boston College, but sought out minor roles in various episodes of “Dragnet,” “The Twilight Zone,” and other, less memorable TV shows.

Nimoy got his start on Star Trek at the show’s very beginning, with an appearance on the first pilot, “The Cage.” Only he and one other actor from that episode — Majel Barrett, who would go on to marry Roddenberry and voice the U.S.S. Enterprise’s computer in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — would be included in the rest of the series.

[The Jewish roots of Leonard Nimoy and ‘live long and prosper’]

Star Trek would ironically prove more popular in syndication after the series was cancelled than the years the show actually aired, leading to Nimoy’s growing fame in the 1970s.

Although he joined the cast of “Mission: Impossible” and stayed there until 1971, Nimoy would eventually return to the relative obscurity of stage acting and studying photography at the University of California. Even then, Nimoy’s fame as Spock trailed him into the 1980s and 1990s, with appearances on “The Next Generation” as a 24th-century Vulcan ambassador and roles in the Star Trek film franchise. Two of those films were directed by Nimoy himself.

The actor was at first insulted by the idea of taking on a directorial role, thinking it a hint from producers that his acting was no longer up to snuff. But he soon developed a taste for being behind the camera, starting with “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.”

The fourth film in the series, “The Voyage Home,” was inspired by a book Nimoy had been reading at the time — “Biophilia,” by the famed Harvard scientist E.O. Wilson. Wilson’s ideas about keystone species heavily influenced Nimoy and inspired him to create a movie about the extinction of humpback whales and its devastating consequences for 23rd-century humanity.

In 2002, Nimoy published a collection of photographs called “Shekhina,” after the feminine Hebrew term describing the spirit of God. The scantily clad models in the book were Nimoy’s effort to capture that mystical idea and put it on paper, but like his autobiography, it stirred up more controversy than he anticipated. Nevertheless, Nimoy has repeatedly drawn inspiration from Judaism. His fascination with Shekhina — before he was fully aware of what it was — led to what countless Trek viewers have learned to imitate over the years: the Vulcan hand salute.

Spock’s gesture was created as a non-verbal greeting consistent with Vulcan culture’s stoic formality. But it actually comes from Nimoy’s early experiences attending synagogue with his father. During a ritual that Nimoy witnessed as a child, the priests extended their arms at shoulder level, fingers apart in a V-shaped pattern, palms down. Worshippers are told not to look while the blessing takes place, writes the author Yonassam Gershom:

The reason for this is to focus on the words of the prayer itself, rather than the personalities of the kohanim. The kohanim are merely the channels, not the source, of the blessing, which comes from God. Unfortunately, all sorts of silly superstitions have arisen about this ritual, such as ‘Don’t look at the kohanim, or you’ll go blind!’ and other nonsense … Like most Jewish children, young Leonard could not contain his curiosity about what the kohanim were really doing up there in front of the congregation.

Years later, when Nimoy was trying to think of ways to flesh out his character’s cultural background — he was filming the episode that first introduced viewers to Spock’s home planet — the hand gesture came to him. Nimoy says he wasn’t in a religious frame of mind then, but it’s clear the experience left an impression. Both on- and offscreen, this made Spock a vessel for culture — and later, for race and gender, too.

In “A Journey to Babel,” an episode that aired in 1967, the show explores Spock’s half-Vulcanness (or as the writers put it, “a half-breed”). We learn that Spock’s Vulcan father is upset about Spock’s decision to join Starfleet, which is led from Earth, by Earthlings. A crisis later requires Spock to give his father a blood transfusion, and in another indication of his otherness, we see that Vulcan blood is green.

Other characters on the show helped promote Star Trek’s racially progressive message; you had Uhura, who shared with Captain Kirk the first televised interracial kiss; a Russian tactical officer in the midst of the real-world Cold War; and a Japanese pilot. But Nimoy had the unenviable challenge of making social commentary with a character whose disposition was perpetually deadpan — not an easy task. It helped some that Kirk and Spock were foils to one another.

[Leonard Nimoy’s final public words: ‘Live long and prosper’]

And in part because they’re such different characters, a great deal of fan fiction has come about exploring their possible romantic connection. Whether you believe the eroticism is truly there, Spock helped people talk about sexuality both academically and otherwise in new ways.

Being in character for 14 hours a day caused Spock and Nimoy to merge. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Nimoy was becoming Spock, that the Vulcan was taking over. “My personality changed,” he told the BBC in 2009. “I became more rational. I became more logical. I became more thoughtful. I became less emotional. … I could feel it on the weekends.”

That’s not the only effect Nimoy experienced. His character’s buttoned up nature, combined with his growing fame, drove the actor to alcohol.

In a 2001 interview with his co-star William Shatner, Nimoy admitted that his assistant would hand him paper cups of wine and liquor on set after shooting wound down for the day. Nimoy’s addiction has been construed as a kind of Star Trek escapism — an impression that didn’t go away after the series ended. The performer’s résumé includes a dizzying array of television appearances, documentary voiceovers and musical recordings like this famous one from 1967:

But Nimoy maintains that that impression is a myth, spread partly by the negative reception to “I Am Not Spock.” Twenty years after that book, Nimoy released “I Am Spock,” a second autobiography meant to fix some of the problems surrounding the first. Some reviewers remained unconvinced by Nimoy’s more vocal defense of his character.

“In many ways he has yet to come to grips with his famous alter ego,” wrote Entertainment Weekly. “‘The Vulcan was always with me,’ he writes plaintively about his post-Trek acting experiences.”

Whatever conflict he may have felt over his character, Nimoy seemed to have made his peace with it. He reprised his role in the two most recent Star Trek films despite vowing to cut himself off years before. He also lent his voice — or was it Spock’s? — in 2010 to a popular online multiplayer game, Star Trek Online. He appeared to delight in being called “Spock Prime” to Zachary Quinto’s new Spock, in the alternate history envisioned by director J.J. Abrams.

“It gives a dignified presentation of the character,” he told the New York Times. Asked jokingly whether “Prime” could also be used in the “USDA sense,” Nimoy added: “That’s right. This is the good stuff.”

Passing the torch to Quinto seems to have triggered a new discovery: Spock belongs to somebody else now, if not to all of us.

It’s a wrenching bit of reality, and it’s a little scary. But it’s a reality born out of what makes Star Trek so interesting: The people inhabit a persistent universe with its own history and logic. Unlike other franchises — say, Spider Man or James Bond, which exist in a timeless world of their own and get rebooted over and over — characters in Star Trek age. They’re mortal. They go through black-hole-time-warp-things and never return home.

And while it’s sad when their story lines finally come to an end, those stories are so much richer for having explored the full breadth of the human — or Vulcan, or android, or Klingon — experience.

Just like their real-world actor counterparts.

This story was originally published at The Switch

READ MORE HOLLYWOOD NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Hollywood Files



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