Leonard Nimoy lived long and prospered

02.27.15 4 years ago

Film Nerd 2.0 has become one of the things I am most closely identified with, which is fine by me. I think there is real value in talking about how we introduce media to our children, and there's absolutely value in talking about how that media affects them. It wasn't a column that I consciously set out to create, though. It just sort of gradually became clear that it was something I wanted to write, and the turning point, the moment of actual creation, was all because of “Star Trek.”

For Toshi, the 2009 film was not just his entry point to “Star Trek,” but also his entry point to movies in general. When I took him to the theater to see the film, he stood the entire time, and he didn't want to be touched or spoken to or distracted in any way. He was fascinated, and he had a million questions afterwards. The thing that he asked more questions about than anything else was the relationship between Old Spock and Young Spock. It was the first time he was introduced to the notion of time travel and alternate universes and the idea of more than one actor playing different versions of the same role. There's a lot to unpack there for a nascent science-fiction fan, and when the box set of Blu-rays showed up at my house for the first six “Star Trek” movies, he made it very clear that he wanted to watch the films.

The screening we had of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is still one of the most magical evenings I've had with any movie. Toshi got completely wrapped up in the film, and because he'd already seen Old Spock show up in the Abrams film, he had no idea what was coming at the end of the film. “Wrath Of Khan” features one of the great death scenes in all of genre filmmaking, and part of me wishes they'd had the courage to simply let that death stand as a sacrifice that resonated through any films that followed. When we reached that scene in the film, Toshi climbed into my lap, and I could feel from his body language that he was tense, freaked-out. When Spock finally died, he began to cry, the first time he cried about any death, onscreen or off. The tears continued all the way through the funeral, and it was only once the credits rolled that he finally composed himself.

I worry about how he'll take it when I tell him later today that the real Spock has passed away, that Nimoy is no more. His pure and blinding love for Spock was his entry point to everything else he loves, and even now, six years after the Abrams film came out, Toshi plays Spock more often than any other character when he and his brother play pretend. I suspect that for many people, the passing of this icon will hit very close to home, and that for many people, viewing “Wrath of Khan” will serve as a memorial service this weekend, a tribute to the depth of love there is for that character and that performance.

Leonard Nimoy has a complicated relationship with fandom, and it was only in later years that he seemed to fully embrace just how much he was loved. I have been delighted by him my entire conscious life. “Star Trek” was a big part of my childhood, as was “In Search Of…”, the documentary series that he hosted for many years. My father was a huge fan of “Mission: Impossible,” and it blew my mind when I realized he'd been a regular on that as well.

His uneasy relationship with how he was defined can be clearly charted just looking at the two titles of his two books, released twenty years apart. “I Am Not Spock” felt like an angry reaction to fandom, while “I Am Spock” felt like a man reaching a place of peace. Like many of the actors from his generation, he worked in guest spots on tons of famous TV shows of the day. “The Twilight Zone,” “Bonanza,” “Wagon Train,” “The Outer Limits,” “Combat!”, “Get Smart,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, “Sea Hunt,” “and “Dragnet,” just to name a few, and watching those old shows, seeing him pop up in small roles, he was obviously someone who came at each new role with an interesting focus. You remembered him when you saw him.

And then “Star Trek” landed on him like a bomb, and vice versa, and one of the great characters of pop culture popped into being. Spock is more than a character; he's an archetype now. And it's the collision between actor and writing that made Spock into that archetype. It's the way he played the struggle between the human and the Vulcan in his nature that brought Spock to life. He showed sides to the character that we'd never seen from a science-fiction lead before. My god, there's an entire episode about how catastrophically dangerous it is when Spock gets horny. Considering how logic defines the Vulcans, it's interesting to see just how strong the carnal nature of the character shone through, and not just as subtext.

His frustration made sense in the years after “Star Trek” went off the air. He worked, certainly. “Mission: Impossible” was after “Trek,” and he continued to make guest appearances on shows for years before his next series, “In Search Of…” went on the air. I loved his work in Philip Kaufman's uber-creepy “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers” remake.

And then “Star Trek” made the jump to the bigscreen, and Spock once again defined him. He took control of things when he directed “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” which still may be the most universally loved film in the entire franchise. He had a short directing career away from “Trek,” with his one monster hit being “Three Men & A Baby.”

There was one performance of his that I never shook, and that I rarely see mentioned. I had to go look the title up to be sure, but it was a cable movie about an Auschwitz survivor who sued a hate group over Holocaust denial. Based on a true story, the film featured Nimoy as the survivor, and it was a bruised and beautiful performance by Nimoy, maybe the saddest thing I ever saw him do.

He had retired from acting around the turn of the century, so when he ended up making his appearance as Old Spock in the Abrams film in 2009, it was an unexpected but lovely way for him to put one last stamp on the character, and to make an onscreen handoff to Zachary Quinto, who appears to have been genetically created in a lab to step into the role for Nimoy.

After seeing the six “Star Trek” features on Blu-ray and seeing the first Abrams film, Toshi became fixated on learning how to make the hand sign for “Live Long and Prosper,” and the smile he gave me the first time he got it right, the first time he got his fingers to do it, was pure bliss. My little nerd still uses it, frequently, and often flashes it to me after I've tucked him in, and just before the lights go out. Nimoy created the hand gesture himself, and it is a beautiful thing to have contributed to pop culture. There is a kindness and a generosity to the simple wish, made each time his character says goodbye. “Live long and prosper.” There's nothing science-fictiony or metaphorical about that. It's direct. It is simply a toast, a hope for health and happiness. All over the world, when people think of Nimoy, when people think of that character, that is the gesture. People working in media and science and government, all united by that same simple gesture that they say to one another. No wonder he's so loved. Think of all of that wonderful positive energy created by all of those people making that same wish over and over. Each time my son says it to me, it hits me right in the heart. “Live long and prosper.”

Leonard Nimoy certainly did.
I'll leave you with his final Tweet. He will be terribly missed by friends, fans, and family.


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