Leonard Nimoy, Spock in 'Star Trek' Series, Dies at 83

Leonard Nimoy, the actor behind one of pop culture’s most famous and distinctive fictional characters, the half-human, half-alien Mr. Spock in the “Star Trek” television series and films, has died. He was 83.

He died Friday at his home in Los Angeles, according to an e-mailed statement from the actor’s representative, the Gersh Agency in Beverly Hills, California. The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which he attributed to the cigarette habit he had quit 30 years before.

As the Vulcan science officer Spock, Nimoy was part of the “Star Trek” crew of the fictional U.S.S. Enterprise on its five-year mission in the 23rd century “to seek out new life and civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

The show, which aired on NBC from 1966 to 1969 before being canceled after 79 episodes, became a cult hit in syndication and led to Nimoy and co-stars including William Shatner and George Takei reprising their roles in several feature films, with Nimoy directing two. He most recently appeared as an elderly Spock in director J.J. Abrams’ 2009 and 2013 big screen reboots of the “Star Trek” franchise.

Spock, with his large pointy ears and arched eyebrows, introduced many of the show’s hallmarks: the V-shaped hand salute of the Vulcan race, their “live long and prosper” farewell and disdain for anything “illogical,” and an ability to share thoughts through a “mind meld” and paralyze an enemy with a pinch of the neck.

Greatest Characters

Nominated for Emmy awards for each of the show’s three seasons, Nimoy created a character that won honors of his own. Cable television’s Bravo channel named Spock No. 21 on its list of 100 greatest television characters in 2004 (with Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk at No. 9). The Chicago Tribune ranked Spock seventh on its 1995 list of the 25 greatest characters, noting, “He made being calm and smart -- not to mention having pointed ears -- cool.”

Though his half-human side gave Spock emotional conflict on occasion, the character’s hallmark was calm decisiveness. Barbara Walters, in a 2011 interview on ABC’s “20/20,” asked President Barack Obama, “What’s the biggest misconception about you?” Obama answered, “Detached, or Spock-like, or very analytical.”

To the astonishment of many, Nimoy among them, Spock even became something of a sex symbol. “The sacks of Spock mail reached 10,000 letters a month,” People magazine reported in 1977, “mostly from women, much of it torridly erotic.”

For all his success, Nimoy long gave off hints that he resented how his acting career, which included films and Broadway plays, became so entwined with one role.

Film Sequel

He was the only member of the original TV cast not to sign up for a planned TV sequel, which wound up scrubbed for other reasons. He did agree to join his cast mates in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979), though he quipped to the Washington Post that he “threw up” upon getting the offer.

“My concern always was the writing,” Nimoy said in a 2000 interview with the Archive of American Television. “The last year of ‘Star Trek,’ the writing deteriorated badly. I was so glad when it was over. I really was unhappy the final season -- sad, I was sad, because I knew what it could be when it was well written and well produced, and it wasn’t.”

Show’s Decline

He cited the first episode of season three, “Spock’s Brain,” as an example of the show’s decline, a sentiment widely shared among fans of the series.

Nimoy made waves with the title of his 1975 book, “I Am Not Spock,” which many took to be his expression of dislike for the character he had played.

He called his follow-up 1995 memoir “I Am Spock” and said he hoped that book would put the “ugly and unfounded rumors to rest.” For the record, he said, “I like and respect and admire” Spock.

Leonard Simon Nimoy was born in Boston on March 26, 1931, the second of two sons of Russian Jewish immigrants Max Nimoy, a barber, and his wife, Dora Spinner. He was raised in the city’s immigrant tenement West End, “a Jewish kid living in a mostly Italian neighborhood,” as he described it, and sang in his synagogue choir.

He began acting at age 8 at a local theater, and following high school moved to California to study drama at the Pasadena Playhouse. While working in an ice-cream parlor he sought acting work, landing the title role in “Kid Monk Baroni” (1952), as a gang member who become a professional boxer.

Entertains Troops

During a two-year stint in the U.S. Army starting in 1953, Nimoy trained in infantry before reassigned as an entertainment specialist, directing and hosting radio, television and stage shows for soldiers.

After his discharge he appeared in an episode of “The Lieutenant,” which aired on NBC in 1963-1964 and was created by Gene Roddenberry. A few weeks after the shooting, Nimoy recalled, his agent got a call from Roddenberry about a part in a new science-fiction show he was developing.

“The character hadn’t been completely fleshed out yet,” Nimoy wrote in his memoir, “but Gene was adamant about one thing: Spock had to be obviously extra-terrestrial, in order to visually emphasize that this was the 23rd century and these were interplanetary, not just international, crew members aboard a space ship.”

Of the major characters introduced in the first “Star Trek” pilot, which starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike and which NBC deemed not ready for prime time, only Nimoy’s Spock was retained for a second pilot, which got the green light with Shatner’s Kirk in command.

Spock’s Trademarks

Nimoy said Spock’s trademark restraint began crystallizing in a first-season episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” when the director, Joe Sargent, advised him to be “cool and curious, a scientist” when uttering the word “fascinating.” The delivery became one of Spock’s trademarks.

When confronted with a script calling on Spock to assault an evil version of Kirk, Nimoy came up with the non-violent alternative, the disabling Vulcan nerve pinch. And when Spock returned to his home planet for a mating ritual, Nimoy again went off script, and into his own Jewish upbringing, to create a V-shaped hand salute representing the Hebrew letter shin, which begins the word Shaddai, or God.

Following cancellation of the series in 1969, Nimoy joined “Mission Impossible” for its fourth and fifth seasons, and appeared in films including “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978). He earned a master’s degree in education from Antioch College in Ohio, which closed in 2008. (The school reopened in 2011.)

Convention ‘Trekkies’

“Star Trek,” meantime, thrived in syndication and reignited the passion of its fans, the “Trekkies,” who began packing conventions thousands-strong in the early 1970s and urging for the show to return. The success of “Star Wars” (1977) persuaded film studio Paramount Pictures Corp. to revive “Star Trek” on the big screen.

Nimoy was among the critics of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979), which he called too heavy on special effects and too light on plot. He thought he was saying goodbye to his character in the better sequel “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), which had a dramatic death scene for Spock.

Yet the character returned in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (1984), with Nimoy also working behind the camera as director -- a position he won after convincing Michael Eisner, then head of Paramount, that his supposed dislike of Spock was not true.

Hits Stride

He said he “hit my stride” as a director in charge of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986), the only film featuring the original cast that topped $100 million at the box office. He played Spock in two more films, “The Final Frontier” (1989), directed by Shatner, and “The Undiscovered Country” (1991).

His work on stage included a one-man play about Vincent Van Gogh he wrote and starred in, and “Equus” on Broadway. He directed films including “3 Men and a Baby” (1987). He was also a poet and accomplished photographer who shared his work in books including “The Full Body Project” (2007), featuring pictures of plus-size woman without clothes.

He earned his fourth Emmy nomination for his work in “A Woman Called Golda,” a 1982 TV movie, playing the husband of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier.

With his first wife, the former Sandra Zober, Nimoy had two children, Julie and Adam. That marriage ended in divorce, and she died in 2011, according to a notice in the Los Angeles Times. He married actress Susan Bay in 1989.

His survivors include his wife, children and grandchildren, according to the Gersh Agency statement.

“A life is like a garden,” Nimoy said on Twitter on Feb. 23. “Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.” The abbreviation stands for “live long and prosper,” a Vulcan greeting.

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