Farewell to Leonard Nimoy

Few fictional characters, particularly from television, have been as enduring in the public consciousness, memorable and profound as Spock, and few actors have both inhabited and created a character as fully and brilliantly as Leonard Nimoy did with Spock. Leonard Nimoy, who died today at 83 years old, played many roles, supported the arts, wrote poetry, published books of photography, and even sang songs, albeit not well, but will always be remembered for being Spock, the character he created and immortalized.

Spock was, of course, the half-Vulcan, half-human science officer and first mate on the original Star Trek television show. Spock possessed a superior intellect but sought to repress any emotions due to his understanding of Vulcan philosophy, which raised the idea of logic to a guiding, almost spiritual, principle. The character could have become a one-dimensional robot-like character, but instead Nimoy turned him into the most profound, and most human, character on the show. Spock, as the only non-human in the crew, wrestled with feelings of alienation, struggled to have his views recognized, and frequently bickered with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly), who distrusted the Vulcan Spock and thought his logic was too frequently insensitive and inhuman.

Spock's multidimensionality shone through best in his close friendship with Captain Kirk (William Shatner). The friendship between Spock and Kirk lasted decades and spanned three seasons of the original series and six movies. It even survived Spock's temporary death at the end of the second Star Trek film and only ended when Kirk died in the 1994 film Star Trek: Generations. Spock was the ultimate best friend. He was calm and reliable, always had Kirk's back, and was usually smarter and stronger than everybody else in the room or on the planet. 

Nimoy, of course, was not Spock, but the actor and the character have always been identified very deeply with each other. Nimoy addressed his concerns about this in a 1975 book called I Am Not Spock but revisited those concerns two decades later in a book called I Am Spock. The character was initially the work of Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry, but Nimoy embraced and developed the character, ultimately making Spock his own, and occasionally making it difficult to determine where Spock ended and Nimoy began.

In this regard, Nimoy was not simply an actor who will be remembered for one major role, like Jason Alexander as George Constanza or Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker. To some extent it can be said that Nimoy created not only Spock and Spock's backstory but the entire Vulcan race and history.

Spock and the Vulcans were not created entirely out of whole cloth, however. Nimoy drew heavily on his own Jewish background to flesh out who Spock was and who the Vulcan people were. It is reasonably well known that the Vulcan salute, created by Nimoy, was taken from the Kohanim blessing, but Jewish influences on Spock go much deeper than that. In an speech given late in his life, Nimoy referred to Spock as "a diaspora character if there ever was one."

It does not take much imagination to see Spock's quest to feel fully part of Starfleet as part of the quest of Jewish Americans to be fully integrated into American society. This is particularly true given that Star Trek was a product of the late 1960s, a period of great societal transition, but also one where anti-Semitism and exclusion of Jews from various institutions was still strong. The themes of alienation, struggling to fit in, and being caught between two worlds, with which Nimoy's Spock wrestled across three televisions seasons, several movies, a few other cameos in later Star Trekprograms, and even a few novels, are universal, but they are also distinctly central to the Jewish experience.

In the end Nimoy lived a life that would have made Spock proud. He lived long, and he prospered. Despite his years as a photographer, his work on television shows ranging from Three Men and a Baby to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and roles including Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Nimoy will always, and rightly, be remembered as Spock. In his later years Nimoy embraced his most extraordinary creation and spoke frequently and often with great profundity about Spock and was aware of the depth of the impact Spock had made.

Spock's home planet does not exist in our universe, but for Nimoy and many of his biggest fans, it is real. Perhaps only Leonard Nimoy knew how to sit shiva on Vulcan, but today that is what they are doing on that not-quite-real planet. I don't know how to speak Vulcan, but I suspect at a time like this the phrase they use there is "Alav Hashalom." Farewell, Leonard Nimoy. We will miss you here on Earth.