Leonard Nimoy, The Man Who Gave 'Star Trek' Its Heart

"Given the choice, if I had to be someone else, I would be Spock."
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Leonard Nimoy in 1982's 'Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan'

It’s only surrendering slightly to hyperbole to say that, for many people, Leonard Nimoy was Star Trek.

Certainly, Spock — the emotionless Vulcan who nonetheless acted as an everyman as often as he did a dispassionate outsider — was not only the role he was most often associated with, it is the longest-loved character inside the franchise, with Nimoy appearing both in the very first episode filmed (“The Cage,” the unaired pilot shot in 1964) and the most recent movie, 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. Nimoy’s was the face, or at least the ears, most commonly associated with the franchise, and the origin point for many of its most well-loved concepts (the Vulcan salute and Vulcan nerve pinch, both created by Nimoy himself) and catchphrases, including “Live long and prosper,” “I have, and always shall be, your friend” and “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Although Nimoy’s relationship with Spock was a complicated one — he wrote two memoirs, the first of which was titled I Am Not Spock, the second I Am Spock — his relationship with the audience was much simpler and more affectionate. Through Nimoy’s performance, at once playful and cold and infinitely charming as a result, Spock became one of the most complex and sympathetic characters in Star Trek. Initially created as an alien out of necessity, to show that humanity wasn’t traveling through space alone in the far future, he quickly became a lens through which the show’s writers could explore humanity as a whole, both as an outsider and (thanks to metaphor and implication) a representative of cultures that we had hopefully moved beyond.

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When the original series became a movie franchise in the 1980s, it was Nimoy that was its backbone at its height. Spock’s death and subsequent resurrection was the narrative that thread through its most successful installments — 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home — with Nimoy himself directing the latter two.

And even when he, along with the rest of the original crew of the Starship Enterprise, retired with 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it turned out that Nimoy’s Spock lived on, and prospered, making appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek as the character. It was unsurprising, in many ways; a Star Trek without Nimoy felt incomplete, somehow. There was both a gravity and levity in his performance, a humor behind the stone-faced, eyebrow-raised stare of disbelief he so often employed. Star Trek, as a series, is a mixture of tones and genres, as much comedy as drama, and Nimoy managed to embody that in a way unlike any other.

(It helped that Nimoy’s voice, especially as he got older, was especially warm; he often spoke as if he was in on some joke that no one else had gotten just yet, but without any malice or superiority that that description might suggest.)

He had a full life outside of Star Trek, of course; in addition to other roles on stage and screen (including his time on the first Mission: Impossible television series), he was a singer, a writer, a poet, a photographer and movie director — he was behind 1986’s Three Men and a Baby, as strange as that might seem in retrospect — but Spock endured throughout it all. It was something that he struggled with at times (despite a 1967 album called, of all things, Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space), but ultimately came to not only accept, but embrace.

“Given the choice, if I had to be someone else, I would be Spock,” he wrote at one point. It’s easy to see why: Spock, as Star Trek fans could see early on, was filled with many of the best parts of humanity in general, and of Leonard Nimoy in particular. Without Nimoy, the Vulcan would have had no kindness or humor. Through Spock, Nimoy showed audiences the best of himself — and themselves.

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