Missing Leonard Nimoy and the Lasting Power of Mr. Spock

Live long and make cameo appearances

Nimoy and his wife, Susan Bay, arrive at the premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness.

Photographer: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Paramount Pictu

The death of Leonard Nimoy is a profound moment in American geek culture, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. The actor was the soul of the original Star Trek, a brooding pointed-eared presence who played an intergalactic half-breed, his human and Vulcan selves frequently  in conflict. You didn’t have to be a Trekkie to love him. It was logical to do so.

Nor do you have to be obsessed with a 1960s TV show to miss Nimoy. Star Trek remains a viable movie franchise, thanks to  J.J. Abrams, the director who rebooted the series in a well-received 2009 remake and continued the reinvented series with a 2012 sequel, Into Darkness. These films had smart scripts and great casts—and best of all, they had Nimoy himself to legitimize the proceedings by reprising his signature role. Perhaps the best moment in the first Abrams film came when the aged Mr. Spock, played by Nimoy, guided a younger version of himself, played by Zachary Quinto. It was a splendidly meta moment, and Nimoy repeated the cameo in the sequel as well. 

The ability to establish a shared legacy between the cherished original and its modern-day progeny turns actors such as Nimoy into enduring cultural forces. Presumably, Abrams hopes to achieve this legitimizing effect later this year, when he will present Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The much-discussed return of the original cast members is likely to give the new series an emotional resonance it might otherwise have lacked. None of the original Star Wars actors on hand for the new movie can quite match Nimoy's gravitas—you would need the late Alec Guinness for that.  

Nimoy’s obituaries bring to mind a current self-referential movie: the Oscar-winning Birdman. The movie’s protagonist, an actor known for playing a winged superhero, is trying  to reboot his career and escape a comic book movie past by producing and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s somber short stories. For a while, in fact, Nimoy tried to escape Spock. He wrote poems and novels. He appeared in reality-based television show and movies, some of which were quite good, without being as memorable as Star Trek. He penned an autobiography with a defensive title: I Am Not Spock.

Yet Nimoy admitted that he related deeply to his half-alien screen persona. He not only reprised his role, he appeared in Princeline.com commercials with William Shatner, the mediocre actor and tireless pitchman who played Star Trek's Captain Kirk and didn't appear in the Abrams films. It all seemed very Spock-like. It would have been logical for the talented Nimoy to be better about being typecast than his famous co-star, but he wasn't one to feel sorry for himself, especially when he looked handsome in pointed ears.

We'll miss him in the coming Star Trek films. It won't be the same without the real Mr. Spock. 

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