A few days ago, when I first heard that Leonard Nimoy had gone to the hospital with heart trouble, I was wearing his face on my t-shirt. The shirt, bright red with Nimoy as a jowlier, heavier-featured late-vintage Mr. Spock—he always reminds me of Jackie Mason in that picture—holding up his split-fingered Vulcan salute next to the inevitable well-wish “LIVE LONG AND PROSPER,” was a gift from The Wife and The Kid. There are days when I suppose I might be a little embarrassed to admit that, at the age of fifty-two, I still sometimes wear Star Trek t-shirts.
This is not one of those days.
I’ve been a Star Trek fan for the vast majority of my life. I can dimly remember the show’s original run, but it was a few years later, when it ran in syndication in the very early ‘70s, that it became one of the fanatical enthusiasms of my childhood. And it appears that the original Star Trek is something I’m not likely to ever outgrow. I still watch it, still notice new aspects of the episodes—often new absurdities and illogicalities—and take comfort and refreshment from it. I recognize the validity of every criticism that could be leveled against Gene Roddenberry’s silly space opera—the cultural chauvinism, the jocularity, the often preposterous science, the inconsistent social values—and I say there’s something about the show, some core of decency and good-will and gallantry, that transcends all of it and makes it mythic.
Spock was one of the main reasons for this. Nimoy, who passed on today at 83, had a fairly rich career as an actor before Spock, and very rich career as an actor and a director after Spock. But it is, of course, as Spock that he’ll be most remembered—a supposedly emotionless native of the planet Vulcan, though plagued by emotional flare-ups from his maternal human half, cool, curious, expansively knowledgeable, quietly ironic. Spock was my childhood role model, and though I have never succeeded in emulating him—I’m far closer, alas, to the irascible and sentimental Dr. McCoy—I’m still extremely grateful for the influence.
We were, of course, always meant to see that Spock’s lack of emotion was a pose—that he was more compassionate, and in his way possibly even more passionate, than any of the other characters. His cerebral rationality, sometimes mistaken for callousness, was really in service of a bottomless, if sometimes bemused, sympathy for the wound-up humans around him.
When I say that Star Trek in general and Spock in particular were major and lifelong influences on me, I mean it without condescension—my gratitude is serious. But one of the reasons that Spock was able to influence so many people of my generation is that Nimoy wasn’t that serious. Like many members of that cast, he was a little sheepish about his identification with the character, to the point that he titled his first memoir I Am Not Spock. He later made enough peace with the role—finally getting some serious financial reward for it probably helped—that the sequel was titled I Am Spock.
All of those actors were essential to the show’s unique alchemy, but the original Star Trek would have been an especially dreary affair without Nimoy’s droll sensibility. I was watching Star Trek just last weekend, before I heard about Nimoy’s illness, and had been thinking how truly good he was, how much wry deadpan comedy he was able to bring to the show (“Sir, there is a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.”).
The actor’s slyness fed into the character’s—I remember hearing Nimoy, in various interviews, explain that he came up with Spock’s handy nerve pinch so that he could avoid the strenuous fight scenes that William Shatner so often had to engage in, and how Spock had borrowed the Vulcan hand gesture from rabbis at the Orthodox services of his Boston youth. In short, like many hero figures, he—and Kirk and McCoy and the rest, each in their own way—made heroism look like fun. Spock’s upraised eyebrow may ultimately prove as iconic as Groucho’s brow-wiggle.
I had hoped to meet or see all the members of the original Star Trek cast before they headed off to the Undiscovered Country, and so far I haven’t done too badly—I saw Shatner in a play in Ohio in the ‘70s, and in the decades that followed I interviewed DeForest Kelley and Walter Koenig and Grace Lee Whitney, and got an autograph from James Doohan. I haven’t yet caught up with George Takei and Nichelle Nichols, and now Nimoy (along with Majel Barrett) has slipped away from me. No doubt Mr. Spock would tell me that it’s highly illogical to feel sad about this, but I do. No matter though—Nimoy lived long, and prospered, and will live on in many of our memories.