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How Spock Became a Sex Symbol

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour” and “The Future and Its Enemies.”
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When "Star Trek" debuted in 1966, showing a beautiful black woman and a dashing Asian man as bridge officers was an idealistic political statement. Turning someone who looked like Leonard Nimoy into a sex symbol, however, was entirely unintentional.

Before he played Spock, Nimoy, who died today at 83, played a surprising number of parts as Indians and Mexicans in the Old West. With his long, thin face, prominent nose and deep smile lines, he looked like The Other.

That’s why he fit the part of Spock. “All I wanted at first was pointed ears and a faintly satanic appearance,” said series creator Gene Roddenberry in “The Making of Star Trek,” published in 1968.

Spock’s “alien features” -- as Roddenberry called them in the book -- weren’t limited to prostheses. Nimoy was handsome, but not in a way that Hollywood in 1966 recognized. He didn’t look like a leading man. He looked like what he was: the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. And if you looked like that, you were a character actor, not a star.

But Nimoy became a star. He was a Method actor and in creating Spock, he gave what could have been a gimmicky, two-dimensional character hidden depths. Those hidden depths in turn gave him sex appeal. Within the show’s plots, Captain Kirk was the lady killer. But Spock was the one who made female viewers swoon.  

Spock offered alienated nerds a glamorous role model -- an ideal self in ideal circumstances. Nimoy had to remind fans that the character wasn’t real and wasn’t him: His 1975 memoir was titled “I Am Not Spock.”

But in an important way, he was.

Not only was the actor largely responsible for the character’s compelling personality. Nimoy also provided Spock’s physical form -- and by doing so helped change the face of Hollywood. If actors like Jeff Goldblum and Adrien Brody aren’t stuck playing villains, it’s partly because Nimoy proved that looks like theirs could be not satanic but sexy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net