The actor who helped bring science fiction into the mainstream as Spock on ‘Star Trek,’ died today of lung disease at his home in Los Angeles.
It was not the writers of Star Trek, but rather Leonard Nimoy himself who invented Spock’s trademark V-fingered greeting. Who knows how many times in his career the actor kindly obliged fans with that gesture (one that was inspired by a Jewish blessing he witnessed as a child). It was a call sign he made in feature films, interviews, and countless Star Trek conventions. Even President Obama once saluted the actor with the Vulcan greeting which meant “Live long and prosper.” Leonard Nimoy, the actor who helped bring science fiction into the mainstream, died today of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 83.
Although he was best known for his role as the emotionless half human, half Vulcan science officer of the Starship Enterprise, Leonard Nimoy was a serious, working actor who loved art and took a pragmatic approach to his career.
He was well into his 30s by the time he landed his role on Star Trek. Although an accomplished actor, Nimoy lacked the middle-American, matinee idol looks of his contemporaries and found himself struggling for regular work throughout his early twenties. He had drifted through a series of supporting roles on such shows as Dragnet, Dr. Kildare, Perry Mason, and Bonanza. He appeared in a serial called Zombies of the Stratosphere, in which he played a martian plotting to blow up the earth. However, a guest role on the TV show The Lieutenant caught the eye of Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry and soon Nimoy was offered the role of Mr. Spock.
“I thought two things,” he said in an interview. “One was that it offered the potential for a steady job. Up until that time, I had never had a steady job as an actor. The longest jobs that I ever had had been two weeks on a movie or a TV show. This was potential for steady work, which was a very desirable experience. It was something that everyone was striving for. You could support yourself, and not be at the mercy of the next phone call.”
Soon after Star Trek premiered on television in 1966, Nimoy became a household name. It wasn’t always easy for the actor, however. Initially, show executives were worried that Spock’s ears appeared “devilish” and altered his prosthetics so as not to discourage advertisers in the Bible Belt. Tension rose when Nimoy’s co-star, William Shatner, began to resent Nimoy’s popularity among fans and critics (Nimoy was nominated for three Emmy awards during his time on the show, while critics called Shatner’s acting “wooden.”) Nimoy also struggled with alcoholism and blamed it for destroying his 32-year marriage with Sandra Zober.
Despite the show’s popularity, it was cancelled after only three years. But thanks to his work on the series, he never again had to struggle to find steady acting jobs. Throughout the 70s and early 80s he had extensive television roles in such shows as Mission: Impossible and Columbo. In 1982, he played opposite Ingrid Bergman in the television film A Woman Called Golda. He also appeared in plays such as Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, and My Fair Lady. In 1989, he married Susan Bay.
He was at the height of his career, and a fitting climax for the son of Jewish immigrants who fell in love with acting as a youth in Boston’s West End: “When I was eight years old, I was cast in a production of Hansel and Gretel… I was cast as Hansel. I enjoyed doing it. I continued doing children’s theater at the Peabody playhouse until I was about 17. I was cast in a production of a play called Awake and Sing by Clifford Odetts. This was my first experience in a serious piece of adult drama. It captured my imagination totally, and I decided that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Ten years after the Star Trek television finale, the franchise was revived for the big screen. Critics panned Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) as a humorless effort that emphasized special effects over the characters Trekkies had grown to love. Nimoy called the experience of making the film frustrating, depressing and very painful. He had the last laugh, however, when he directed Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) — both of which garnered box office success and helped spawn five spin-off television series. (He also directed the 1987 blockbuster Three Men and a Baby.)
In 2009, Nimoy appeared once again as Spock in a revival of the Star Trek franchise. In February 2014, he was diagnosed with lung disease. The actor recently tweeted: “Don’t smoke. I did. Wish I never had. LLAP.” He was fond of signing off all his tweets with that acronym: live long and prosper.