For Leonard Nimoy, Spock’s Hold Made Reaching Escape Velocity Futile
The title of Leonard Nimoy’s autobiography was “I Am Not Spock,” and that so offended some fans that he followed it with a second, “I Am Spock.”
The actor who won a permanent place on the altar of pop culture for his portrayal of Mr. Spock on “Star Trek” was almost as famous for wanting to be remembered for other things.
And that is, of course, highly illogical.
It’s hard to think of another star who was so closely and affectionately identified with a single role. Even George Reeves, the first television Superman, was also one of the Tarleton twins in “Gone With the Wind.”
It’s even harder to think of a television character that so fully embodied and defined a personality type. Just as Scrooge became synonymous with miser, and Peter Pan became a syndrome, Spock was dispassion personified.
Crime fiction and the movies offered Sherlock Holmes as the ultimate aloof, brainy hero. But until “Star Trek,” television didn’t really have anyone that distinctively — and irresistibly — coldblooded, cerebral and punctilious. (Mr. Peabody of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show came close, but he was a beagle and quite affectionate in his fusty way.)
Before the word Asperger’s was in common parlance, before Sheldon showed up on “The Big Bang Theory,” there was Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human science officer on the Starship Enterprise who revered reason and eschewed emotion.
The original “Star Trek” that was created by Gene Roddenberry and went on the air in 1966 lasted only three seasons, but it has never really left the picture: It lives on and on in reruns, remakes, movie adaptations, comedy skits, Halloween costumes, conventions, memorabilia, fan fiction and endless campy parodies on YouTube.
The baby boom generation came of age under the twin pillars of Spock — Doctor and Mister — but it’s the Mister from “Star Trek” that has more resonance now.
Even people who have never seen any of the “Star Trek” television series or movies know and use the words “Vulcan” and “Spock.” The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has described President Obama’s detachment as Vulcan-like. Mr. Obama once posed in the Oval Office with Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura, giving the split-fingered Vulcan salute.
“Star Trek” had many beloved characters, but Spock stood out as a prototype: His persona seemed new, but it had classic roots.
Spock was mostly impervious to love, but his mother (played by Jane Wyatt) was human, which meant that he couldn’t always suppress his feelings. And that made him the most unattainable and romantic hero imaginable — Hippolytus, Euripides’ chaste and scornful warrior, or a Mr. Rochester for the sci-fi age. Naturally, some of the more memorable episodes revolve around Mr. Spock’s extraterrestrial love life.
In “Amok Time,” Spock suddenly turned erratic and confessed that he was in heat, so to speak: In their mating season, Vulcans return to a primal lust. (He got over it.) While on a mission in the episode “This Side of Paradise,” Spock was infected by mysterious plant spores that made him giddy with happiness and romance.
But his strongest bond was with Capt. James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner, and that was a bromance that still resonates.
Mr. Shatner moved on; he even found a new screen buddy, James Spader, on “Boston Legal.” Mr. Nimoy stayed in the game for a while, notably by playing Paris on “Mission Impossible” and doing a lot of theater, but he had a hard time finding roles that eclipsed the éclat of Spock. He turned to philanthropy and art, publishing poetry record albums and several books of poetry and photography, including a collection of nude portraits of overweight women, titled “The Full Body Project.”
A little like Spock struggling between his two sides, Mr. Nimoy was torn between his real self and his “Star Trek” identity, the one fans were so passionate to prolong. And like Spock, Mr. Nimoy was gracious about the pressure, allowing for human weakness even when he didn’t share it. Everyone wanted him to be Spock, forever. Once in a while, Mr. Nimoy complied.
He lent his voice to a Spock action figure on a 2012 episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” in which Sheldon (Jim Parsons) dreams that his toy Spock is real. Even that brief cameo alludes to Mr. Nimoy’s ambivalence about his stardom. Sheldon rhapsodizes about what it would be like actually to be on the bridge of the Enterprise. The miniature Spock replies dryly, “Trust me, it gets old after a while.”
Not for his fans. In his later years, Mr. Nimoy took to Twitter and gamely ended his tweets with the abbreviation for the Vulcan adieu, “Live Long and Prosper.”
“LLAP” sounds a lot better than R.I.P.