He Was, And Will Always Be, Our Friend: Remembering Leonard Nimoy

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While Leonard Nimoy became famous as Star Trek's Mr. Spock, he was conflicted about the role. He later came to embrace it. He's shown here with actor William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk. (Getty Images)
While Leonard Nimoy became famous as Star Trek's Mr. Spock, he was conflicted about the role. He later came to embrace it. He's shown here with actor William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk. (Getty Images)

In 1966, when Leonard Nimoy was offered a minor role on a new space drama, he was thrilled. As he told Archive of American Television: "You have to understand that prior to Star Trek I never had a job that lasted longer than two weeks in any TV show or movie. Never. Two weeks — max. And here I was, looking at a season of work."

The actor beloved for his role as the pointy-eared half-human, half-Vulcan died of lung disease at his home in Los Angeles on Friday. He was 83.

Before he became an interplanetary sex symbol, Nimoy was a two-bit character actor knocking around Hollywood. He tended to play a lot of ethnic roles — Cherokees, Basques, Mexicans, Russians, Italian-Americans.

After filming the Star Trek pilot, Nimoy was worried when his picture was played down in the network's promotional materials. Some executives thought Spock looked satanic. "They thought the character would be offensive ... and they didn't want to take a chance," he recalled.

But it was Spock who got the most fan mail. An alien sidekick with dignity was unusual. "He was the conscience of Star Trek," says Mark Altman, quoting show creator Gene Roddenberry. Altman is writing a book about the history of Star Trek.

Nimoy flashes the famous Vulcan salute at the 2013 premiere of Star Trek: Into Darkness. He originally based the gesture on a Jewish blessing.
Nimoy flashes the famous Vulcan salute at the 2013 premiere of Star Trek: Into Darkness. He originally based the gesture on a Jewish blessing.

Altman says Nimoy stood up for actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura, when he found out she was not being paid as much as other supporting cast members. And he refused to take part in a 1970s animated Star Trek TV show when he learned that she and George Takei, who played Sulu, had been excluded. "Often when there were issues like this, Leonard was the guy who would go to bat for people," says Altman.

But Nimoy's relationship to his character was ambivalent. In 1975, he wrote a book called I Am Not Spock. In 1979, the first Star Trek movie came out. Its director, Robert Wise, told NPR in 2001 he was shocked when he first read the script. "There was no Spock character in it," Wise said. "Leonard had said he was tired of putting those ears on and he didn't want to do it anymore."

Desperate, last-minute negotiations got Nimoy back onboard the Enterprise. At the time, Nimoy was appearing in serious plays on Broadway. He agreed to do the second Star Trek movie only if Spock was killed off. But Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was an enormous success. Nimoy agreed to be resurrected in the third movie on the condition he direct the fourth.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home the crew travels back to 1986 to save humpback whales from extinction. Nimoy fought to keep the studio from adding subtitles to the whales' communication with an alien probe. "I felt extremely, extremely strongly about that issue," he said. "They are communicating with the whales, it's not necessarily for us to understand what they're saying to each other — it's not important. The magic is that they are communicating with each other and we must understand that not all things are given to us to understand — nor is it necessary."

Nimoy was proud of the film's environmental message and that this was the only Star Trek movie that did not involve weapons or even villains. Then Nimoy directed 3 Men and a Baby, the 1987 comic blockbuster. He remembered a reviewer saying, "One wouldn't think from his past work that Mr. Nimoy has the appropriate humor necessary to do this job. Fortunately he does."

Nimoy contained multitudes. He wrote a play based on the letters of Vincent van Gogh and published multiple books of poetry and photographs, including one that sensually depicted large women. And Nimoy felt a profound connection to his Jewish faith. He narrated a public radio series about Jewish music and starred in a TV movie about a real-life Auschwitz survivor who legally challenged Holocaust deniers in court.

Over the years, Nimoy would come to make peace with his pointy-eared alter ego. His second autobiography was titled I Am Spock. Nimoy was the only original cast member who appeared in the rebooted Star Trek movie, bringing some of the conscience of the original.

As Dr. McCoy says in a scene after Spock's death in Star Trek II: "He's not really dead as long as we remember him." And as Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy said goodbye to us so many times: "Live long and prosper."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Leonard Nimoy was beloved for his role as the pointy-eared Vulcan, Spock, on the original "Star Trek." He died today of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at his home in Los Angeles. He was 83. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on his career and his legacy.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Prior to 1966, Leonard Nimoy was a two-bit character actor knocking around Hollywood. He intended to play a lot of ethnic roles - Cherokees, Basques, Mexicans, Russians and an Italian-American in the movie "Kid Baroni" from 1952. His character was a street punk scorned for his unconventional looks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KID MONK BARONI")

LEONARD NIMOY: (As Paul Monk Baroni) When I was a kid, none of the other kids would play with me. The neighbors would look at me like I had the evil eye or something.

ULABY: That's Nimoy before he became an interplanetary sex symbol. Half-human, half-Vulcan, Mr. Spock was the ultimate ethnic role. When "Star Trek" started, Nimoy told the Archive of American Television he was thrilled to be offered a minor role.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIMOY: You have to understand that prior to "Star Trek," I never had a job that lasted longer than two weeks in any television show or movie. Never. Two weeks. And here I was looking at a season of work.

ULABY: But after filming the pilot, some executives thought Spock looked satanic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIMOY: They thought the character would be offensive, the people at NBC, at least in the sales department. And they didn't want to take a chance.

ULABY: But it was Spock who started getting the most fan mail. An alien sidekick with dignity was unusual. In a 2008 NPR interview, Nimoy remembered the first time he used Spock's signature word, fascinating, in an episode where the U S S Enterprise faced a strange, sinister entity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NIMOY: It was an object, a large object of some kind that seemed to have these amazing powers to get in our way whichever way we turned.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Lieutenant Dave Bailey) It's blocking the way.

NIMOY: (As Mr. Spock) Quite unnecessary to raise your voice, Mr. Bailey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NIMOY: The energy was very high on the bridge and the captain was shouting orders.

ULABY: So Nimoy shouted out his next line with the same energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NIMOY: Fascinating. And the director - bless him - said, be different than everybody else. And I got it and I said, uh-huh and I said, fascinating. I think in that moment a very important aspect of the character was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

NIMOY: (As Mr. Spock) Fascinating.

MARK ALTMAN: He was the conscience of "Star Trek."

ULABY: That's Mark Altman quoting "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry. Altman's writing a book about the history of "Star Trek." Altman says Nimoy stood up for actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura, when he found out she was not being paid as much as other supporting cast members. And Nimoy refused to take part in a 1970s animated "Star Trek" TV show when he learned that she and George Takei, who played Sulu, had been excluded.

ALTMAN: Often when there were issues like this, Leonard was the guy who would go to bat for people.

ULABY: But Nimoy's relationship to his character was ambivalent. In 1975, he wrote a book called "I Am Not Spock." In 1979, the first "Star Trek" movie came out. Its director, Robert Wise, told NPR in 2001 he was shocked when he first read the script.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROBERT WISE: There was no Spock character in it. Nimoy said that he was tired of putting those ears on and he didn't want to do it anymore.

ULABY: Desperate last-minute negotiations got Leonard Nimoy back on-board the Enterprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR TREK")

NIMOY: (As Mr. Spock) Science Officer Spock, reporting as ordered, Captain.

ULABY: At the time, Nimoy was appearing in serious plays on Broadway. He agreed to do the second "Star Trek" movie only if Spock was killed-off. But "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" was an enormous success. Nimoy agreed to be resurrected in the third movie on the condition he direct the fourth. In "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," the crew travels back to 1986 to save humpback whales from extinction. Nimoy fought to keep the studio from adding subtitles to the whales' communication with an alien probe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NIMOY: I felt extremely, extremely strongly about that issue. It's not necessary for us to understand what they're saying to each other. It's not important. The magic is that they are communicating with each other and we must understand that not all things are given to us to understand, nor is it necessary.

ULABY: Nimoy was proud of film's environmental message and that this was the only "Star Trek" movie that did not involve weapons or even villains. It's success let Nimoy direct "Three Men And A Baby," the 1987 comic blockbuster. He remembered a reviewer saying...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NIMOY: One wouldn't think from his past work that Mr. Nimoy has the humor necessary to do this job. Fortunately, he does.

ULABY: Leonard Nimoy contained multitudes. He wrote a play based on the letters of Vincent van Gogh and he published multiple books of poetry and photographs. And Nimoy felt a profound connection to his Jewish faith. He narrated a public radio series about Jewish music and he starred in a TV movie about a real-life Auschwitz survivor who took on Holocaust deniers in court.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEVER FORGET")

NIMOY: (As Mr. Mermelstein) My immediate family all arrived in the same boxcar, and my ears are still to this day hurting from the cries of men, women, little children, crying for help.

ULABY: Over the years Nimoy would come to make peace with his pointy-eared alter ego. His second autobiography was titled "I Am Spock."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN")

DEFOREST KELLEY: (As McCoy) He's really not dead, just as long as we remember him.

ULABY: That's from a scene after Spock's death in the second "Star Trek" movie. As Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy has said goodbye to us so many times.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN")

NIMOY: (As Mr. Spock) Live long and prosper.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.