Saturday February 28, 2015
Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)
Airdate: Sept. 8, 1966: Our first shot of the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and Spock has the conn.
I met him once. From February 27 through March 3, 1979, “Vincent,” a one-man play he wrote, directed and starred in, in which he mostly played the brother, Theo Van Gogh, rather than the title character, debuted at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. For much of that spring, he toured the country with “Vincent”; then, as the program noted, “He will reprise the role of Spock in ‘Star Trek—The Motion Picture,’ scheduled for release in 1979.”
That’s why I was at the Guthrie, of course, solo like the man onstage. I was 16, and a Trekkie, or Trekker, and because of my father’s Star-Tribune connections I got to go backstage. There was a group there, all older and better-dressed than me—I think I had an ill-fitting brown suit on—and when Leonard Nimoy finally emerged everyone applauded and crowded around and asked questions about art and Van Gogh and not at all about Spock, who, reprised or not, was still the sore subject of Nimoy’s autobiography, “I Am Not Spock.” I was so quiet during all of this, so Minnesota Nice, that Nimoy signed everyone’s programs but mine. I had to be pointed out to him so he wouldn’t miss me. He didn’t. (See below.)
Most of what I know of TV shows, I know because of “Star Trek.” Once I became a fan, a true fan, I became aware of the following:
- episodes had titles
- production dates didn’t necessarily correlate to air dates
- what a pilot was.
Remember in “Pulp Fiction” when John Travolta’s Vincent Vega asks that question? “What’s a pilot?” Obviously not a “Star Trek” fan. Every Trekkie knew it was “The Cage,” about Capt. Christopher Pike, which was remade into the two-parter, “The Menagerie,” in the first season, since ... why not? They had the footage. At one point, probably around 1978, I had a chart up on the wall of my bedroom running down the episodes. I remember being monumentally disappointed with the production date/air date thing. “Wait, you mean they showed ‘Man Trap’ first? And ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before?’ later? Wouldn’t that seem odd to people watching?” I tried to memorize all the episode titles. The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. I learned Shakespeare because of “Star Trek.” I learned about Horatio Hornblower. In college, my humanities professor used “Star Trek” to exemplify the human dilemma between logic (Spock) and emotion (McCoy). I was always a McCoy; I aspired to Spock.
“Star Trek” also made me realize this: 4) network executives are idiots. Among their notes after seeing the pilot: “Get rid of the guy with the ears.” When they promoted the show in the fall of 1966, they barely showed Spock at all. They thought America would reject him, this elf creature, this Satanic figure. Instead, l’opposite. He became the breakout star. Spock was the outsider of the crew, cooler than cool. In an emotional time, he was all about that logic. He was also the only one with superpowers: mind-melds and neck pinches. Much has been written about “Star Trek”’s optimistic vision of the future—that eventually, after some messy eugenics wars, we would all be united together in space: black, white, yellow, brown, green. The show debuted only a year after Selma, while we were fighting hot in Vietnam and cold across the Iron Curtain, so this was a far-seeing vision. At the same time—and this has been written to death, too—the show simply transposed many our problems into the future. Humans may have been united, but aliens, even half-aliens like Spock, were the new minority: forever mistrusted, first scapegoated. You don’t think Muslim-Americans don’t identify with Spock in the first-season “Balance of Terror” episode? The Enterprise has been attacked by people who look like Spock; so crewmembers blame Spock. They assume he’ll betray them; they want to incarcerate him. Even Stiles stops short of waterboarding, though.
In “The Man Trap,” Spock is the man not trapped, despite the flirtations of Lt. Uhura.
I was three when “Star Trek” debuted on Sept. 8, 1966, so I caught the show in syndicated reruns in the ’70s, weeknights at 6 PM on Channel 11 (MetroMedia Television, Minneapolis). At the same time, I listened to Nimoy narrate “In Search of ...” on ... was it Saturdays? I saw him in the remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It always seemed odd seeing him as not Spock, with his hair feathered and parted, with his ears rounded. Nimoy had his problems with the character, about being so identified with something he’d created, but what a world it opened for him. Before “Star Trek” he was the go-to ethnic guy on episodic TV; he never had an acting job that lasted longer than two weeks. Afterwards? From the “Vincent” program:
Without Spock, would anyone have given a shit about his love poetry? Or his rendition of “I Walk the Line”? What must that be like, really? To be as ignored and marginalized as any actor, struggling to break though; and then you do, you break through, and become beloved on the earth. That must mess with your head a little. That must make you believe you should not only sing “Proud Mary” but record it.
I always assumed he was a reluctant participant in anything “Star Trek,” but he kept showing up, didn’t he? When NASA rolled out the space shuttle Enterprise in 1976, he was there on the tarmac along with most of the original cast; it was Shatner who was absent. Nimoy showed up in the first movie (barely, it turns out), and when he died in the second we heard it was because he wanted out. Not really. He wanted to direct. And he did: “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”; then he directed something completely different, “Three Men and a Baby,” which became the most popular movie of l987. Here’s the odd thing: he wasn’t able to cash in on it. Did any director of the biggest movie of the year have a shorter shelf life afterwards? Nimoy only gave us three more: “The Good Mother” (1988) with Diane Keaton; “Funny About Love” with Gene Wilder (one of his last starring roles); and “Holy Matrimony,” in which, in a Hutterite community, a 13-year-old boy (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is forced to marry his late brother’s 26-year-old wife (played by Patricia Arquette). Oddly, the kid doesn’t seem happy about it. (My 13-year-old self would’ve passed out from happiness.) Then Nimoy directed one show in 1995 and no more.
But he kept acting. And he kept playing (or playing off) Spock. Despite “I Am Not Spock,” he was the last survivor of the original U.S.S. Enterprise crew—part of J.J. Abrams’ alternate universe, where, sadly, he became responsible for the destruction of the planet Vulcan. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to get rebooted.
The usually reticent New York Times has a lovely obit, in which Virginia Heffernan not only translates Spock’s signature phrase, “Live long and prosper,” into Vulcan, but writes that Nimoy brought to life “one of the most indelible characters of the last half century.” Indeed.
The autographed program: Click for a slightly bigger version.