Leonard Nimoy’s career included everything from photography to poetry, but he will always be remembered as Mr. Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer on the classic TV show Star Trek.
Though he entitled his first autobiography I Am Not Spock, he later fully embraced the character and the reality that Spock had touched so many lives. “I projected some kind of quality that people said, ‘Okay, he’s a good alien,’” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1999.
As he noted shortly before his death last Friday, he played the character for nearly 50 years, beginning with a pilot episode in 1964 and ending with an cameo in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. He even did a witty Audi commercial with Zach Quinto, the young actor who now plays Spock.
The show has become a pop-culture phenomenon unequaled in the history of television. “It lives on and on in reruns, remakes, movie adaptations, comedy skits, Halloween costumes, conventions, memorabilia, fan fiction, and endless campy parodies on YouTube,” the New York Times noted. “The baby boom generation came of age under the twin pillars of Spock — Doctor and Mister — but it’s the Mister from Star Trek that has more resonance now.”
Nimoy spent some time thinking about why Star Trek clicked with so many people. In a 1986 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he concluded:
There’s something to seeing these very professional people helping each other to solve a problem and in the idea that mankind is humane and will do the right thing eventually to each other and to others. And we all like the idea that there are great mysteries still to be explored.
Mr. Spock and the show also resonated with me as a child. Although I was born an American citizen, I lived overseas from a young age, and when I returned to this country after living in Europe, I felt a little like an alien. I didn’t always fit in at school and I was shy. Mr. Spock proved that you could be cerebral and cool at the same time.
The original Star Trek had decent ratings but was headed for the ash heap in 1968 as it ended its second season. An unprecedented 1 million letters flooded NBC and Paramount, the studio that made the show, demanding it be renewed. In a rare bow to fans, NBC did order a third season but almost guaranteed its demise by giving it a horrible Friday-night slot.
Everyone thought Star Trek was over when it left the air in early 1969. But the fans didn’t give up. Reruns of the show in syndication posted great ratings as new viewers discovered it. Fans mailed more letters, and they formed a national group called STAR — Star Trek Association for Revival.
I joined a local chapter of STAR during high school in the 1970s. I and other members met Leonard Nimoy after he performed in Fiddler on the Roof near where I grew up in California. He always took his fans seriously (using the term “Trekkers” rather than the less serious “Trekkies”) and encouraged us to “go where our passion is.” So we decided to put on a local convention, bringing in some of the Star Trek actors, showing “blooper reels” and old episodes from the series, and letting NASA update kids on the space program. NASA saw Star Trek as one its best recruiters; one of its current astronauts, Terry Virts, sent a tribute from space over the weekend, with this image, taken from inside the International Space Station:
Our convention was so successful we put on others in the Bay Area and eventually formed a company to do them professionally. I became program director of Space, the Final Frontier Inc. just as I entered college, and I confess I learned more as a small businessman than I did in much of college. I had to negotiate appearance logistics and contracts with celebrities such as Nimoy and William Shatner. I had to book convention halls, help coordinate dozens of staffers and volunteers, and arrange for the costume shows and exhibit rooms. (Yes, I dressed up in a couple of shows.) Soon we branched out and included themes from the new movie Star Wars. Some of our conventions had between 10,000 and 20,000 ticket buyers.
In 1978, Paramount decided the phenomenon was so big that it revived Star Trek as a $15 million major motion picture ($55 million in today’s dollars). The “revival” of Star Trek has never looked back.
Shortly after Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered in 1979, I decided to go back to college, but the experience had changed my life. At one of the last conventions I did, Leonard Nimoy remarked to me on how he had observed my growth from the first time we had met: “You seem to enjoy turning plans into reality, and that is the essence of becoming an adult.”
His comment meant a lot to me, and he was right. I had been handed responsibility at a young age and succeeded with it. I was no longer shy, I had developed some self-confidence and social skills. I had learned to interact with adults and gained their respect. And I had helped build support for the goal of reviving a series that had entertained and inspired millions and that didn’t deserve to die.
Neither did Leonard Nimoy, a gracious and good man, but he accepted the inevitable. His final tweet last week was incredibly poignant:
A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP
All of Leonard’s tweets ended with the Vulcan phrase “Live Long and Prosper.” He meant it, and so too did the show that has inspired so many to believe our future can be better than our present.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.