Leonard Nimoy didn't just have a massive impact on science fiction, he also transformed pop culture. Nimoy, who died today, took the thankless supporting role of an emotionless alien science whiz, and turned Spock on Star Trek into an icon.
Before Spock came along, alien beings in mass media (and most written SF as well) were one-dimensional. They represented the "other," the strange and unknowable beings who could only throw our human characters in relief. In the hands of most actors, Spock would have been a one-note joke character: the guy who spouts off formulas and equations in a monotone. Spock could easily have become the butt of Star Trek's jokes, or just a weird side character.
But Nimoy imbued Spock with a life and complexity that were impossible to deny. Far from being a one-note character, Spock became one of the most complex and nuanced people on television. From his inner torment to his quiet amusement at the humans around him to his occasional flashes of anger, Spock was a constantly surprising mystery, with a lot of layers.
As I wrote a few years ago (in a piece that I was overjoyed that Nimoy retweeted):
Nimoy was playing a common science fiction "type" — the impassive alien — and he took it to a different place. Before Spock, science fiction was full of emotionless aliens who spoke in a monotone or imitated a stereotypical "computer" inflection. Nimoy gave a whole range of nuance to the Vulcan role, conveying a lot of different stuff with every raised eyebrow or furrowed brow. Nimoy's Spock never seemed to have emotions, as we understood them — but he still had a range, and moods. A huge host of sympathetic aliens on television owe their genesis to Spock.
Here's a pretty great video from just over a year ago, where the singer Pharrell interviews Nimoy about his process in creating the role of Spock:
In an anecdote that Nimoy has recounted many times, the genesis of his portrayal of Spock came from one early episode, where he learned to say the word "fascinating" in a detatched, cool fashion. As NPR recounted:
The first time actor Leonard Nimoy said the word [fascinating] was in an episode where the crew of the USS Enterprise faced a strange, sinister entity. No matter where the ship turned, the object managed to be in their way. The bridge was on high alert — so Nimoy shouted out his next line with the same energy: "Fascinating!"
"The director, God bless him, said be different from everyone else," Nimoy remembers. So on the next take: "Fascinating," in that cool, collected way.
"I think in that moment a very important aspect of the character was born," Nimoy says.
The NPR article also gets at a couple of other important points about Nimoy's portrayal of Spock: his half-human heritage, which contributes to his complicated, divided nature but also has helped to inspire other mixed-race people in the United States. And his commitment to the philosophy of IDIC (Infinite Diversity In Infinte Combination), which makes Spock a unique symbol of acceptance and curiosity. These are qualities that Nimoy embodied, and they helped make Spock a lasting icon.
No less a luminary than Isaac Asimov paid tribute to Spock, in an essay called "Mr. Spock is Dreamy!".
So not only did Nimoy make an invaluable contribution to the success of Star Trek (inspiring other "outsider" characters like Data and Odo), he also helped change the way pop culture represented people who were strange and different. His sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of Spock meant a lot, not just to science fiction lovers like Asimov, but also to anyone who didn't identify with the narrow range of types that were available in mass media at the time. There's a reason why fanfiction started with stories about Kirk and Spock — they provided a way to envision masculinity, and male friendship, that was deeper and richer, and sometimes stranger, than what was otherwise available.
While Nimoy was still playing Spock on television, he started to have fun with the character, and with his notoriety, in other venues. He put out a series of novelty albums, including Mr. Spock's Music From Outer Space, and recorded the famous "Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" about J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. He also wrote a series of books, ranging from poetry about the importance of self-expression to the provocatively titled I Am Not Spock.
We had finished making the original series, and "Star Trek" became enormously popular in reruns in the 1970s. Around 71, 72, suddenly this whole thing erupted into a phenomenon. There was this tremendous hunger for "Star Trek," but there were none produced for 11 years. During that time, whenever I went about my business acting in other projects, the questions were always about "Star Trek": Tell us about "Star Trek." Why don't you do more "Star Trek"? It was a problem then.
And I did write a book called "I Am Not Spock," which was a mistake. I was trying to illuminate the actor's process in creating a character. I talked about the fact that I grew up in Boston and Spock did not. My parents were Russian immigrants; Spock's were not. I'm an actor who portrays this character. But I did say in that book that if I were given the choice of any character ever portrayed on television, I would choose Spock. Not enough people made it to that page of the book. A lot of people didn't get past the title.
Later in his career, Nimoy was still willing to go back and spoof his famous image, notably with appearances on The Simpsons:
But Nimoy also went on to do a number of other great genre roles. He pretty much immediately segued from Star Trek into Mission Impossible, playing the master of disguise Paris in an attempt to avoid type-casting. He had a vital role in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He was in the relaunched Outer Limits, and Invasion America. He provided voicework for the Transformers films.
But his most famous post-Star Trek role, for science fiction fans, was probably William Bell, one of the villains of Fringe. Nimoy told us that he enjoyed the "theatricality" of playing William Bell, especially once the tech mogul and universe-hopping maniac became unambiguously evil.
But Nimoy also used his Trek power to help popularize science (along with a certain amount of pseudo-science), hosting the insanely popular show In Search Of... in the late 1970s and early 1980s. To some extent, the show was the precursor to present-day series like Ancient Aliens, but it also included segments on real scientific phenomena, like the study of earthquakes.
It's safe to say that, post Original Series, Nimoy had a complicated but mostly positive relationship with Star Trek. He was not going to be part of the second live-action TV series, Phase Two, if it had gotten on television — but he did appear in The Motion Picture in 1979. Nimoy originally planned not to return for any further Trek movies, and at one point he was going to die at the beginning, not the end, of Wrath of Khan. But then Nimoy enjoyed his experience with Wrath of Khan so much, he kept coming back. Nimoy also wanted to play the villain in Star Trek V.
And one thing that kept Nimoy coming back was that he got to direct two of the Star Trek movies — in the process, playing an important role in helping to shape how Star Trek looked on the big screen. He also directed the first comedic Star Trek movie, Star Trek IV, which is in most people's list of the top three or four best films in the series.
After that, Nimoy returned infrequently to the role of Spock. He made one memorable appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but turned down a chance to be in Star Trek: Generations, because Spock was purely going to be spouting expositional dialogue and Nimoy didn't consider it worthwhile. But then, he was a linchpin of helping to make the J.J. Abrams reboot work, by providing emotional grounding as well as continuity to the new universe.
The real essence of Star Trek is humanism — the belief in the power of pure humanity. And Nimoy, throughout his career, was someone who believed in people. Even after he mostly retired from acting, Nimoy had a second (or maybe third) career as a photographer, where he focused on finding the beauty in people that other photographers wouldn't necessarily think of: including plus-sized burlesque dancers and people whose truest, most creative selves are hidden. Nimoy never stopped being curious — and fascinated — by humans and our incredible diversity.
Here's the very last thing Nimoy tweeted: