Man and Nimoy

The tragedy of the TV actor is that they are haunted by one character for their entire life. For Leonard Nimoy, who died of end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease last Friday at 83, the character of Mr. Spock overshadowed fine performances in many of the defining TV series of the 1960s and 1970s. But popular culture would never allow his empirically-minded alien starship science officer from Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek to die, and if the onscreen death of the character and demise of the movie franchise didn’t finish him off, then it’s unlikely that Nimoy’s passing will do it either.

Finding Nimoy.

Finding Nimoy.

Spock will continue as a character in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek movies and will continue to be played by Leonard Nimoy, albeit as an impersonation by Zachary Quinto. TV characters are so much their actors that for a replacement to offer an original interpretation would be as detrimental as casting them in the wrong age or gender. Rather than passing the gauntlet, the movie prequel to the original Star Trek series (and I suppose sequel to Enterprise if you put it that way) concocted a scenario in which Quinto’s Spock was a younger version of the character as played by Nimoy – who also appeared in the movie because time travel heals all continuity wounds – and thus had to customise his mannerisms and delivery according to his predecessor. This freely admitted in plot terms that no-one but Nimoy could play Spock. Technically, re-setting the clock allowed Quinto to go his own way with the character but if anything his performance became more like Nimoy’s in the sequel Star Trek into Darkness, attested to by another appearance by Nimoy as Spock’s future self. Without Nimoy to play off in future films, I fully expect Quinto to compensate further with thorough mimicry.

Looking back from the Spock-themed obituaries, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when Nimoy would have played Spock for only three years. Of course, three years is another ten in re-runs, and the re-circulation of Star Trek (as much in off-air audio recordings shared between fans as repeats) is what brought Nimoy back to play Spock, first in the astonishingly comparable animated series spin-off that ran in the mid-70s and then in a series of continuation movies that ran from 1979 to 1991, or between Shatner’s third and seventh girdle, whichever way you care to think about it. After that, Spock made his way back onto TV featuring in two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, before he became the missing link between Gene Roddenberry and J.J. Abrams. Spock was the Jack Bauer of his day, unkillable by man or logic. Neither death, nor time, not even the series not being about him anymore, would stop him appearing in it. And this doesn’t even begin to include the times Nimoy performed Spock outside of Star Trek, perhaps most poignantly as a disembodied head reviving the Vulcan for the entertainment of an omniscient teenage alien in Futurama.

Nimoy was already a face in American television by the time he took the role of Spock, and good television at that. He already had a Twilight Zone and an Outer Limits under his belt, which gave the actor anthology pedigree to add to his generic bow of westerns and detective shows. Nimoy had a knack for finding his way into the most accomplished shows of the 1960s, including The Man from UNCLE (which has no reboot forthcoming, regardless of what ANYONE says) and Mission: Impossible, his first TV role after Star Trek was cancelled. Even into the 70s, he was on Rod Serling’s horrific(ally underrated) Night Gallery and Columbo, because no American actor is allowed in SAG without it. His was a face for television, betraying nothing and letting whatever fine piece of screenwriting he was bestowed do the work. It was a time on American TV when emotions were optional, but class was not. Sci-fi TV is his, and it owes him a living. He returned to The Outer Limits when it re-appeared in the 90s, in a re-make of the same episode he had starred in during the 60s. A role was waiting for him on Fringe.

Nimoy also did pro-bono legal work for robots

Nimoy also did pro-bono legal work for robots

There’s more to Leonard Nimoy than Spock (and there’s at least two of his careers I haven’t mentioned) but the character presented him with limitless possibilities for remaining in the zeitgeist long after he ceased playing him on TV. He lived longer and more prosperously than even Spock could predict.

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