Leonard Nimoy, Spock of ‘Star Trek,’ dead at 83: A tribute

Leonard Nimoy, best known for his portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer/first officer Spock on the Starship Enterprise on the classic TV and movie franchise “Star Trek,” died this morning at his home in Los Angeles. He was 83.

Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy

This one hurts, if for no other reason than his signature character was well into his 150s. It was entirely possible to believe we would have Spock around forever.

Which, of course, we will.

It is not hyperbole to say that Spock was one of the popular and unforgettable fictional characters of the TV era — the ears, the demeanor, the “live long and prosper”, the split-fingers salute.

But part of the reason Nimoy struggled with separating himself from Spock (and he did title his 1975 autobiography “I Am Not Spock” — then again, the 1995 follow-up was “I Am Spock”) was that he was so incredibly good at playing this guy.

Going counterfactual with anything is a bit of a fools’ errand, especially the “What if THAT guy played THIS character instead of THAT guy” thing.

But it is very easy to imagine that anyone else’s hands, Spock would have been just another alien.

But Nimoy was just fantastic. If you have not seen the original “Star Trek” series in a while, fire it up on Netflix and watch a few.

There are classic Spock episodes, of course (“The Enterprise Incident,” “Amok Time,” “This Side of Paradise,” “Mirror, Mirror” [aka the one where evil Spock has a goatee] and the exceptionally bonkers, largely terrible “Spock’s Brain”) but you can practically fire up any episode and see a rock-solid performance from the guy.

A still from "Star Trek" (Paramount Pictures)

A still from “Star Trek” (Paramount Pictures)

As much as any actor who has ever played a series regular on TV, Nimoy seemed to “get” Spock — what was smart about the guy, what was sweet, what was thoughtful. Nimoy always played Spock with a canny combination of cool distance (or, as the character would insist, “logic”) and eye-rolling bemusement. Nimoy figured out that giving Spock a sense of humor, however deeply suppressed and droll and bone-dry, was a key to making the character work. Emotionally complicated weirdos have been playing off that persona ever since. (Hello, Stephen Malkmus.)

No wonder  Spock was a role model for kids (and adults, for that matter) who were not great at processing emotions or were bad at social cues.  And the friendship between Spock and Kirk, possibly pop culture’s all-time greatest bromance, proved that folks who were bad at feelings could get along with people who had an excess of them.  “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982) is by far the best Star Trek movie not just because it is a high adventure with a hammy bad guy and a story ripped from Moby-Dick. It’s where Kirk and Spock’s friendship, their character development, their ease with each other was at an apex.

 Of course, Nimoy was more than Spock. He published poetry, publish collections of photos, made terrible record albums and starred in everything from “Mission: Impossible” to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Post-“Star Trek,” his most visible TV role was as the host of “In Search Of…” a show which embodied the deep weirdness of 1970’s TV as much or more than “Match Game ’73,” or anything by Sid and Marty Kroft.

Spinning out of the “ancient aliens”/supernatural craze of the mid-70s, “In Search Of…” was a sort of documentary take on the Twilight Zone” (indeed, Rod Serling was supposed to be the original host), focusing on mysterious…stuff. Topics could range from Atlantis to Nostradamus to the death of Marilyn Monroe to, uh, great lovers in history (Captain Kirk was not included).

Presenting it all was Nimoy, sometimes with mustache, sometimes not, often in a turtle neck and sport coat, pointing out the bizarre and the unexplained with chilled out demeanor of a hip but never inappropriate history professor.

Nimoy also became a movie director, helming both the decent but  “Star Trek III” (1984) and “Star Trek IV” (1986) ala The One With The Whales. “Star Trek IV” remains a stroke of pop genius, trading in far-future mythology for deadpan wit in 20th century San Francisco.  He also directed “Three Men and a Baby,” a fact which almost nobody remembers.

Obviously a living god in nerd culture, Nimoy was a willing participant in TV send-ups of his public persona, especially those by from the mind of Matt Groening: The Simpsons” and “Futurama.”

Nimoy riffed on “In Search Of…” role in two terrific Simpsons episodes “Marge vs. the Monorail” (considered my some to be the single best “Simpsons” episode of all time) and “The Springfield Files,” a parody of the “X-Files,” itself a show that owed a lot to “In Search Of…”

On “Futurama,” he played himself twice as a head in a jar. In the pilot, he virtually sets the tone for the show when he gobbles fish food an attendant dumps in.

In his later years, Nimoy continued to work, appearing as Spock in JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboots and as a key villain on Abrams’ show “Fringe,” which was absolutely perfect. He became an active participant on social media and seemed at ease with his singular career.

A still from "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"

A still from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”

So long, man. May your coffin tube soft-land. You were incredibly cool.

 


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