Like countless others, I was saddened late last month to learn of the passing of actor Leonard Nimoy, who will forever be associated with the role he played on the TV series, “Star Trek”, that of the Vulcan science officer, Mr. Spock.
As a disenfranchised pre-teen at the time of the television show’s debut, I strongly identified with Spock, a character with feet in two disparate worlds, one of passion and one of dispassion.
As is often the case with obituaries, I learned more of the man than I thought I had known.
I knew he was Jewish, but I didn’t know he had been raised in the Orthodox branch of the faith. I assumed the so-called “Vulcan salute” with the forked fingers was something that had been written for him. In fact, it was something he devised largely on his own, with its roots in the characters of the Hebrew alphabet: a subtle but significant acknowledgement of the one true living God.
I also knew he had – for a number of years – sought to distance himself from his “Star Trek” role, concerned that his career would be limited by typecasting.
I got to see him act in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” as Malvolio, the villain. He was wonderful.
It was 1975 when he came to appear in the Pittsburgh Public Theatre production. I had been working at the local fine arts radio station, WQED-FM, at that time. One of my colleagues got to interview him for the radio station.
He came with just one caveat. His media handlers were very explicit on the point: “Please DON’T ask Leonard ANYTHING about “Star Trek” or Mister Spock. He doesn’t want people to conflate his entire career with this one role.” (He had recently published an autobiography pointedly entitled, “I Am Not Spock.”)
Naturally, his interviewer did his best to comply. Nevertheless, at one point, he couldn’t seem to help himself and made some thinly-veiled references to “the body of your television work.” You could almost hear Nimoy rolling his eyes in the interview session, but he gamely touched briefly on the matter, acknowledging that the role had been a great opportunity for him and his family.
His stage performance in “Twelfth Night” was absolutely enchanting and he achieved something I think Shakespeare had always intended for Malvolio: he made him ever so slightly sympathetic even as he plotted against the gender-bending hero and his mistress, Olivia. The scene in which he discovered Sir Toby Belch’s cryptic “love letter” was at once poignant and hysterical. As is so often the case with an antagonist’s role, he made the play and he made the show.
If memory serves, he took three curtain calls that night.
As for his work as a screenwriter and a director, I considered those “Star Trek” franchise movies in which he performed those additional duties to be among the finest of that particular series. His guest star appearances on the syndicated television series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” were virtual media events and those episodes rank among my favorites.
Several years before his death, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry told more than a few interviewers and fans that the “Next Generation” characters Lt. Cmdr. Data and Lt. Worf were each spawned by the Spock character. Data represented the dispassionate side of Spock, seeking to be human. And Worf represented the fiercely strong and loyal side of Spock, raised in a human family and hungering to re-connect with his native Klingon culture.
That’s some kind of exceptional immortality for an actor and his most iconic role. The late Leonard Nimoy will not only be missed, but unlike so many, he will continue to be loved.
Live Long And Prosper…