Leonard Nimoy, Portrait Collection (PASC 204), UCLA Library Special Collections.
How could Leonard Nimoy have possibly known that the supporting role he accepted in 1965 on a Gene Roddenberry television pilot would shape his acting future and inspire legions of fans the world over? That a Boston born son of Ukrainian immigrants, who decided to become an actor at the age of eight, and learned his craft in the über intense Method technique, would become synonymous with a pop culture phenomenon is well, as Mr. Spock would say, “not logical.”
Leonard Simon Nimoy was born on March 26, 1931, the second son of an Orthodox Jewish family. According to the New York Times, young Leonard began acting in local community productions during grammar school, a passion he pursued through high school.i Nimoy moved to Hollywood in 1949, shortly after taking a college acting course. By 1951 he was cast in small roles in two forgettable films but making progress when his career was interrupted by two years of military service. After his discharge from the Army, Nimoy returned to California to resume his acting studies at the Pasadena Playhouse whose students included Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. Nimoy “achieved wide visibility in the late 1950s and early 1960s on television programs like Wagon Train, Rawhide and Perry Mason.”ii Indeed, Roddenberry used examples of successful episodic dramas, especially Wagon Train,iii to devise a template for his idea of a show that would go where no producer had ever gone before.
Segment of “Spock’s Brain” script by Lee Cronin, Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series (PASC 62), UCLA Library Special Collections
The character of Spock, so sensitively portrayed by Nimoy, resonated with audiences from the beginning; Nimoy survived the major casting changes between the initial pilot and the series’ debut in NBC’s prime time schedule in 1966. Nimoy brought subtlety to his portrayal as the Enterprise’s lone alien by using his life experiences to shade and shape the character; Spock’s iconic greeting was Nimoy’s contribution, inspired by memories of his religious upbringing. He brought a certain asceticism to the role, adding a philosophical mien to the rationally advanced, emotionally reticent character. Writers featured Spock prominently in the show’s plot lines. If, at first glance, Spock seemed to be the brain among all the characters, Roddenberry dubbed him “the conscience of Star Trek.” Spock was also, in a less obvious way perhaps, its heart. Journalist Virginia Hefferman noted that Spock was “the most complex member of the Enterprise crew, who was both one of the gang and a creature apart, engaged at times in a lonely struggle with his warring racial halves.”iv This made Spock – with the attendant whiff of miscegenation – a highly provocative figure to be beamed into American living rooms giving those turbulent, racially fraught times. Unfortunately, not even Nimoy’s compelling performance could keep Star Trek on the air. Plagued by low ratings, the show was cancelled after three seasons.
Cultural celebrity came later, slowly at first, then gradually cresting in a wave of tsunami sized popularity that threatened to consume Nimoy. His likeness as Spock became a distinctive brand used to sell related merchandise to children and adults. “I went through a definite identity crisis,” Nimoy wrote in a 1975 memoir titled I Am Not Spock, “the question was whether to embrace Mr. Spock or to fight the onslaught of public interest. I realize now that I really had no choice in the matter. Spock and Star Trek were very much alive and there wasn’t anything that I could do to change that.”v
Leonard Nimoy as “Spock,” Portrait Series (PASC 204), UCLA Library Special Collections
There was more to Nimoy, who died on February 27 at age 83, than Spock, of course. He had many acting roles after Star Trek‘s brief network run, including a recurring role on the long running television espionage thriller Mission: Impossible. Nimoy also enjoyed a fruitful career as a director. Among the film she made were two installments for the successful Star Trek movie franchise, and the box office hit Three Men and a Baby (1987). A renaissance man, Nimoy published books of poetry and photographs; he earned a Master’s Degree in Spanish. Still, he was indefatigably gracious towards, and appreciative of, the millions of aficionados he called trekkers. He understood their enthusiasm. “Given the choice,” he wrote, “if I had to be someone else, I would be Spock.”vi
- By Lauren Buisson, Technical Services