In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy

In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy

A few thoughts in memory of Leonard Nimoy.

First, about the actor. We venerate Nimoy because of the magic, the serendipity, of the perfect marriage of actor and role. His talent as an actor was limited — not absent, just limited: a great voice, an unruffled dignity and gravity, and the ability to crack that strategically to hint at, give a glimpse of, great emotion beneath. He never had much range at all, his physicality was at best limited, and when he did emote he tended to overdo it pretty severely. You could imagine an alternate-history career where he never got cast as Spock and you’d just think of him on IMDB trivia nights as a minor character actor in the mold of Martin Landau. (Landau was actually offered Spock before Nimoy was, but turned the role down because he didn’t want to play a “wooden” and “emotionless” character. Nimoy knew better.)

But in that one role somehow none of his limitations mattered. He and that character were so perfect and so perfectly united that they both transcended all their limitations and became greater together than they could’ve been apart. The greatest actor in the world couldn’t have done more with the role. So in thinking about Nimoy we have to realize that his life had this one thing in it that almost none of ours will ever have — that he did this one perfect, unimprovable thing.

Second, about Spock himself. Spock on paper, the way Roddenberry (et al.) wrote him in the early scripts, is a thin, robotic shtick and not much more; Nimoy deepened him into a really multilayered person (clearly, by far, the most complicated character on the show). And there’s occasionally a trace of actorliness about the way Nimoy plays him. Sometimes a casual viewer of the show will see him (even playing next to Shatner!) as a bit of a ham — but the greatest trick of all is that almost all the time he projects the sense that even that is Spock’s, not Nimoy’s. You can see that he’s, that is Spock is, enjoying and playing up his own difference from Kirk and McCoy, that he takes a not-too-secret pleasure in his role as their straight man and would never trade them for Vulcan crewmates. This is Nimoy’s real creation, that the secret to Spock is and always was that he’s half human: not just that “logic is his shtick” (as Mark Altman memorably put it) in some cheap easy way — that’s not how he truly inspired a generation of scientists even if they say it is, they’re just unaware of what else he was doing — but that he has to work at it so hard. Spock is not a robot or a computer, it doesn’t come easy to him; he’s a man, full of all these strong currents of feeling constantly surging beneath the surface (and not just during “Amok Time”! think of “This Side of Paradise” too), but he has nonetheless devoted his whole life to this difficult project of rationality. That sense of duty and commitment and calling are what make him, Spock, an inspiration. And all of that is really Nimoy’s creation; Roddenberry, Sturgeon, Fontana, and the rest of them would never have written that character if Nimoy hadn’t led them there first, by showing how he could play him.

Third, on the show’s cosmopolitanism. Nimoy was fond of joking that his parents had been aliens before immigrating, where he, born here, had become famous by turning into an alien. The joke isn’t as dumb as it sounds: it points up how he made Spock into a model for understanding difference. Nimoy was in his own way just as important in the show’s social modeling of racial and cultural alienness without hostility, its liberal-pluralist utopianism, as Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura. Of course the real reason Roddenberry wrote the character as half-human in the first place was that everyone anticipated that the audience would be terrified of a full-blooded alien. They had to humanize him, literally; and the network nearly vetoed the character anyhow because he was thought to look “Satanic.” And of course Nimoy drew heavily on his Jewishness to embellish the character and Vulcan culture, and enjoying playing up his otherness, enjoying the exoticism without stereotyping that is so much easier in science fiction than in historical reality. It has always struck me as either a wonderful irony or a secret parable about assimilation that he played this Judaized exotic other opposite the wholesome all-American white humanity of Kirk, played by Canadian and fellow Jew William Shatner. But in any case it’s important to recognize Nimoy as a contributing thinker as well as a performer here too, as part of the work of imagining the show’s politics, the pluralist, noninterventionist utopian vision that gave it real meaning beyond the camp.