Leonard Nimoy, who did a great many things in his life but is synonymous with the hyper-rational half-Vulcan Spock in the public imagination, passed away at age 83 partly as a result of that most illogical of pleasures: smoking, which he gave up 30-odd years ago. “Not soon enough,” he wrote. The diagnosis was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Perhaps he would have liked to have lived longer — his fans would have preferred that he live forever — but 83 isn’t so bad.
Nimoy grew up in Boston in an observant Jewish household where Yiddish was spoken, his family having emigrated from what is today Ukraine (for the moment, still) but what was at the time of his birth the Soviet Union. His mother kept house, and his father was a barber who came to own his own shop. His was a familiar immigrant family story: His parents wanted him to go to college and study for a profession; he wanted to become an actor. He did both.
But there was something odd about Nimoy’s celebrity, as he told the story. (He wrote a memoir titled “I Am Not Spock,” and, worried that that first title had made him seem churlish or ungrateful, later published another, titled “I Am Spock.” Brent Spiner, who played the Spock-esque Data, self-deprecatingly joked that he was going to call his memoir “I’m Not Spock, Either.”) It was natural that NASA would use the actor who played a space explorer as a mascot, but people — people who know the difference between an actor and a character — often spoke to Nimoy as though he were Spock. Nimoy’s opinions on cultural and political matters were sought out, especially in the 1960s, with the expectation that he would answer like the sage of reason he portrayed. He was a Kennedy liberal who neither obscured his political views nor made them the center of his public life.
In drama, the little things have unpredictable effects. On the other side of the great sci-fi divide, it has been argued that without the lightsaber, Star Wars would have been simply another tiresome space western, but something about that luminous sword-analog tugged at the mystic chords of boyhood. In the case of Spock, it was the pointy ears. There is a legend that these were an afterthought, that originally Spock was going to have orange skin, but that on black-and-white television the makeup used for that effect looked like blackface. It is difficult to imagine Spock any other way, and Nimoy knew it: “When I put on those ears, it’s not like just another day.”
But perhaps that is not all so remote as it sounds: Leonard Nimoy, the thinking, feeling actor and artist, the Jewish kid from Boston’s West End whose parents wanted him to get a good education — and maybe play the accordion if he needed a creative outlet — and Spock, the epitome of logic and detachment, ultimately arrived at the same conclusion about what is good, about the right life and the right ambition: to live long and prosper.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.