Remembering Leonard Nimoy: Character and the hidden seeds of imagination
On February 27, 2015, it was hard to miss the death of Leonard Nimoy. The iconic actor who was known for the playing the character Mr. Spock on Star Trek, evoked a massive emotional response in millions of Tweets and Facebook posts, not to mention all the buzz on radio, television and traditional media. Living in a day and age where time, innovation and technology manifest so quickly into a futuristic present, it was fitting that so many millions of people were able to share the passing of Nimoy with an unusual global note of reflective sadness and a sense of wonder.
Leonard Nimoy had a profound impact on the collective consciousness of the 60s, and for those of us who grew up on the multi-racial, multi-national, multi-species visionary concept of the Star Trek. During the turmoil of the late 60s it was exciting to imagine a future with one humanity where Russians, Americans, blacks, whites, Asians and interplanetary beings could all work for one ideal and unified purpose. Naturally, there were some experiments and creative breakthroughs on television during that era, but there was nothing as compelling, exciting and imaginative as Star Trek. And the sublime union of spirituality and logic of the Vulcans – as represented by Mr. Spock – made him the true leader and hero of the Starship Enterprise.
While Nimoy had a certain ambivalence – and even antipathy – to the character that made him famous (he wrote an autobiography I am not Spock in 1976, and then reclaimed his alter ego with a second book, I am Spock, in 1985) Nimoy had remarkable influence in shaping the personality of his character. Nimoy was given wide latitude and even encouraged by Gene Roddenberry and to formulate Spock’s persona. Nimoy felt Spock was above human proclivities for violence, so he devised the nerve paralyzing neck grip as a more appropriately Vulcan manner of subduing an adversary. He also cultivated Spock’s ability to maintain a Buddhist-like detachment in face of fear, danger and perplexing circumstances, with Mr. Spock’s understated catch-phrase, “Fascinating!”
It turns out that Spock’s credo, “Live Long and Prosper” was Nimoy’s creation – it was a greeting he had heard in his synagogue as a young boy – and the hand sign was symbolic of the Hebrew letter Shin, part of Shaddai, one of the names of God. And so Nimoy the actor, as Spock, was offering his unique spiritual blessing to millions on TV in every episode. Mr. Spock was partly Nimoy’s creation, partly a character he was playing and partly an ideal of an advanced, highly-evolved spiritual being, trained in mystical techniques of concentration and the highest realms of pure logic. Some of these traits were more fully developed in the movies Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: Coming Home, which Nimoy directed and helped develop the concept and story. He took particular pride in Star Trek IV: Coming Home, because of its lack of violence and its environmental theme about saving the humpback whales.
The embellishments and evolution of Spock’s character were not just an expression of Nimoy’s creativity and intelligence; he genuinely cared about the context and ethics of the show and his work. When Nimoy learned that Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, was being paid less than the other actors, he was prepared to quit, until her pay was rectified. When the show’s producers decided to create an animated version of Star Trek – but without Nichols – Nimoy once again prepared to leave the production, until Nichol’s was included.
As much as we like to identify our favorite actors with the characters they portray, actors themselves are far more aware of how ambiguously they may be tethered to the personas their audience find so endearing. In many ways, of course, it unfair for actors to be defined by imaginary roles, fictitious personalities or as glamorous sex symbols, especially when they may feel their range of talent and inner being may extend far beyond the facade the public would like them to be. On the other hand, some celebrities care less about principles than the money, power or adulation they receive for their fame and may exploit the tenuous detachment between the public persona and an artist presiding backstage. Whatever human limitations actors, musicians and artists may have – in the Reality TV era of fame without talent – these issues matter. While Bill Cosby has undeniably been a seminal figure in American television, comedy and popular culture his legacy is severely tarnished (and some would say even lost) by accusations of rape and sexual abuse by more than 20 women. We certainly need more of the natural integrity, creativity and wisdom of Leonard Nimoy, and less smoke and mirrors lurking in the hidden personalities of our famous celebrities.