Remembering Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, One of History’s Greatest TV Characters

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Leonard Nimoy, who died today at 83, had a long, prodigious career as an actor, writer, and director. Despite all his other achievements, he will always be known as Mr. Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan first officer of Star Trek’s Enterprise, and that’s what I want to focus on here, because the pointy-eared Starfleet officer was one of the great characters in TV history. He was killed off and then resuscitated, not just officially (in the second and third Star Trek films, then in J.J. Abrams reboots, where he appears as young Spock’s grizzled future self) but symbolically, in the form of new Trek characters who at times seemed like prismatic shards of Spock, and who all grappled with feelings of otherness (Geordi La Forge, Worf, Data, Seven of Nine).

From fairly early in the show’s run, Nimoy seemed to realize the symbolic power invested in Spock, and perhaps to mistrust or fear it. “The network, and a good many fans, would have been happy if the show had been called ‘The Mr. Spock Hour,’” confessed Star Trek writer David Gerrold in his book The Trouble With Tribbles. As a professional who prided himself on his versatility, he resisted being identified too strongly with a single role — it’s the main reason he went on to play Paris, the “master of disguise,” on Mission: Impossible from 1969–71 — and it was a long time before he entirely made peace with the legacy he’d done so much to shape.

After Star Trek got canceled, then became a surprise syndication hit in the early ‘70s — spawning a cartoon, several more live-action series, and a hit film franchise — Nimoy published a philosophical rumination on his acting career titled I Am Not Spock; 20 years after that, he published a sequel, I Am Spock. The second title was partly meant to quell fans’ concerns that the first book’s title meant Nimoy resented them for adoring the character. But anyone who’s read both books can testify that his attitude was always conflicted and complex, mingling skepticism, gratitude, and fascination. The proof can even be seen in the books’ choice of cover art: They don’t signal “either/or,” but “both/and.” The first carries a black-and-white photo of Nimoy performing the character’s split-fingered Vulcan salute, hardly the clearest way to isolate himself from his character. But while the second book’s title affirmed Nimoy’s basic allegiance to Spock, the cover showed him in an actor’s head shot pose, with a neatly trimmed beard and close-cropped hair and a tasteful dark sport coat: civilian garb, as it were. Either volume could have been titled I Am and Yet Am Not Spock.

This was no coy actor’s pose, though. Trekkers who met the actor will tell you that while he could be prickly about the character early on, Nimoy was always respectful of their love for Spock, because he realized how much he’d meant to them, and to him, over the years — how they appreciated him and identified with him because of Nimoy’s lovingly detailed, obviously personal performance, which in some small way helped illuminate whatever struggles they were going through. Nimoy’s attitude toward Spock warmed over time, eventually becoming something close to an unabashed embrace. While I never had the chance to interview him at length, I did speak to him briefly at a Los Angeles screening about 15 years ago, and he didn’t scowl or flinch or otherwise recoil from my fanboyish eagerness to discuss the character. I asked, “Do you ever feel that in some ways the character was as much a curse as a blessing?” He said simply, “All actors should be so cursed.”

As a former editor of mine said, “Grief for one who lived so long would be illogical, yet my human emotions demand it.” Nimoy’s talent, intellect, and moral compass demand it, too. The character was created by Gene Roddenberry and defined by many Star Trek writers and directors, including story editor D.C. Fontana, but it was Nimoy who incarnated Spock and breathed life into him, and he deserves credit for bringing so much of himself to the role, and using it as a tool to explore his own identity, and helping  viewers to consider their own.

Nimoy was born in 1931 in Boston to a barber father and a homemaker mother. Both were Yiddish-speaking Russian Jewish immigrants, and his religious and cultural heritage informed many of his choices from the late ‘60s onward. This aspect of Nimoy’s significance has barely begun to be appreciated. It wasn’t until the 1970s, the heyday of stars such as Elliott Gould, Barbra Streisand, and Dustin Hoffman, that Hollywood started routinely allowing Jewish actors to read as something other than generically Jewish or ethnically indeterminate. Nimoy’s performance as Spock served as a subtle bridge between eras of invisibility and assimilation, and transparency and pride. (Nimoy’s stage roles after Trek’s initial run included stints as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and the widowed Jewish refugee in Robert Shaw’s The Man in the Glass Booth.)

This is a big part of the reason why the character or Spock — a “half-breed,” per Dr. McCoy’s slur, in some ways passing for human while staunchly insisting on his cultural Vulcan-ness — made such a powerful impact on viewers who felt, in one way or another, like outsiders. Counterculture-minded whites adored the character, naturally, and the show clumsily tried to capitalize on this in a silly third-season episode, “The Way to Eden,” wherein Spock was basically adopted as a harp-strumming mascot by space hippies. One of the infinite number of ways to read the character was as a person who had to tamp down his undeniable individuality in order to function as part of an institution with hard rules and hallowed traditions.

But he also became immensely popular with African-American, Latino, and Asian viewers (including Bruce Lee, reportedly a huge fan of Spock); all of whom had more than theoretical experience with trying to be — to paraphrase Groucho Marx — part of a club that wouldn’t have somebody like them as members. The sense of belonging yet not belonging, to both the dominant culture and one’s own, was especially acute among mixed-race viewers, and Spock struck a powerfully resonant chord with them. In More Than Black: Multiracial Identity and the New World Order, G. Reginald Daniel writes of his trepidation at contemplating his own mixed-race heritage while reading an Ebony article about “mulattoes … Like Mr. Spock on Star Trek! Like twilight, that zone between day and night that we all pass through at dusk and dawn.”

Nimoy and Spock inspired many such “Eureka!” moments; this made him, in a strange but vivid way, as much of a “minority” character in the original cast as George Takei’s Japanese-American Lt. Hikaru Sulu, or Nichelle Nichols’s Swahili-named Uhura, a character so symbolically important that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King talked the actress into staying on the show when he learned that she was thinking of quitting. The show’s affinity for Shakespearean flourishes is well-documented, but in in a sense, Spock himself might be the most Bard-like character of them all: He’s a green-blooded Othello who has to be twice as good as the full-blooded human officers to earn their respect, and who must tamp down his natural passions despite constant racist needling and doubts about his loyalty. Part of this stemmed from his uncomfortably “devilish” appearance, which flirted with anti-Semitic stereotypes as well as intimations of some dark-skinned Other. The character was originally slathered in red makeup, which read as dark grey when the show was viewed on black-and-white sets. The book Star Trek FAQ says the makeup was discarded because Spock “came out looking like an African-American satyr.”

In the 2005 book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, Nimoy talked about being typecast because of his decidedly non-Waspy looks. ““Guys like me were playing all the ethnic roles, usually the heavies — the bad Mexicans, the bad Italians. And those were the jobs that I took and was happy to get for a long time. I played Indians in Westerns many times. The first Indian role that I took was a role that a Native Indian turned down because the Indian character was so unredeemably bad. I was happy to get the work, thank you very much.” Nimoy created the Vulcan greeting — a forked hand with upraised fingers — based on his memory of “seeing the rabbis do it when they said the priestly blessing.” Throughout the run of the original series, you can see Nimoy, Roddenberry, and the writing staff integrating more and more culturally specific touches; the apotheosis might be Spock’s resuscitation at the end of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which takes place amid slender, jagged What’s Opera, Doc? mountain spires but features Dame Judith Anderson delivering fiery rabbinical incantations; the cognitive dissonance here is spectacular and delightful, as if Wagner had momentarily been claimed for the chosen people.

Trek and Nimoy built Spock, the Vulcans, and their entire history out of bits and pieces of lived experience, which is why their world continues to exert such powerful fascination. And on a more basic level, there’s Spock’s struggle to be that which he’s not necessarily inclined to be: cool, rational, divorced from feeling. His mother is human, his father Vulcan; he is neither and both, a warrior who always reaches first for the peaceful solution, and who is in some way doomed, like The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, never to entirely belong to the civilization he’s sworn to protect.

Six years ago, on the eve of the release of the first Star Trek reboot, I did a video (embedded below) that tried to get at Spock’s eternal inside/outside status. I ended it with Nimoy, in one of his many rough but touchingly sincere musical performances, singing “Where Is Love,” from Oliver! It’s so easy to laugh at recordings like this one — like so many stars, Nimoy couldn’t resist an ill-advised attempt to conquer one more art form — but if you think of Mr. Spock, the space hero whose coiled passions were rarely signified by anything other than a raised eyebrow, it’s strangely moving. Where is love? Spock never really found it anywhere but on the deck of the Enterprise: in the job where he could be fully actualized, fully himself. The final frontier is contentment.

Remembering Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock