Friday, March 13, 2015

Leonard Nimoy

It's been two weeks since Leonard Nimoy died, and given his state of health in recent months, the only thing surprising about his passing is that the news of his death didn't break the internet. If ever there was a patron saint of Geekdom, Nimoy, or rather, his famous alter-ego, was it.  

The appeal of the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock owes much to Nimoy's portrayal of him.  There are numerous stories of the specific things he brought to the character, most famously the "Live Long And Prosper" salute and the neck pinch, but he also brought a willingness to work with what the writers and producers gave him.  Early in the first season of Star Trek, he was presented with a script written by Dorothy Fontana (who once had been Gene Roddenberry's secretary, by the way, a common circumstance for women in creative fields in the fifties and sixties).  In it, Spock was to fall in love. Nimoy was stunned at first, as he was still trying to get a grasp on the character; in the then-unseeen pilot episode from 1965 called "The Cage" and in the second pilot from 1966 "Where No Man Has Gone Before," Spock does quite a bit of yelling as he gives out orders.  Even in the first aired episode, "The Man Trap," Spock is excitable and aggressive, attacking the "salt vampire" at the episode's climax. That aspect of the personality had been toned down, for the cooler, logical character we came to know.  And now, here comes another wrinkle, as Spock is to be affected by spores that will allow him to express happy emotions and feel love for a woman who had loved him once before and never got over him.   But as written by Fontana, Spock's transformation is wonderfully treated, and Nimoy delivers a great performance (though the moment of transformation itself is a bit over the top, courtesy of the score used). 

Is there luck involved in all this? Sure?  Trek was initially produced by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's Desilu Productions; their other great drama program from the same era was Bruce Geller's spy series Mission:Impossible.  One of its stars was Martin Landau, who had also auditioned for the part of Spock.  Can you imagine Landau in the role?  As gifted as he is, I think Landau's acting was often intense, florid, in appropriate for the part.  (Could he play a cool customer? Yes, especially in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. But his gifts generally lay elsewhere.)  The reverse is also the case; when Landau and his wife Barbara Bain walked away from the series in a contract dispute, Nimoy stepped in (Trek's run was shorter than Mission's) to play a new master of disguises, and while he was fun, it was not the same.   Nimoy's Spock was perfect for television, cool, like the medium he worked in. 

I go back to McLuhan's definition of tv as a cool medium because indeed, Spock's character was one that we could also "fill in," bringing our own feelings and desires on him.  Spock was cool on screen in the way the Kennedy was cool and Nixon was not (until he learned how to be).  Plus, the character suggested endless possiblities, as writers of Trek fan fiction will tell you.  Because he was an alien, because he had the pointed ears, and because Nimoy was tall, Spock always drew your attention, even though it was Bill Shatner's Kirk in the big chair in the center of the frame.  We've seen characters similar to Kirk before, as great as that character is (and yes, as great as Shatner was as him -- yes WE all MAKE fun OF him AND his draMATic STYLE, but IT'S part OF its uh-PEEL). Spock was something else. 

For teenagers, "something else" was important.  Spock is an alien among humans, which is what it feels like to be fourteen (except that the fourteen year olds usually get to go overboard with their emotions).   Spock was an idealized being because of his intelligence and his great strength; teenagers are beginning to feel their power, yet don't have a handle on how to rain it in.  Spock could show them how, though sometimes in tragic ways. (There have been a few stories of youths who have committed suicide because they tried to imitate Spock's lack of emotional expression, but failed.)   As Spock's human mother, Amanda, once explained to Kirk, it's never been easy, being neither human nor Vulcan, "at home nowhere."  That's a pretty damn good description of adolescence: you're not a kid, but you're no adult either. 

The world that Gene Roddenberry created with Star Trek has had an enormous reach; the fandom of the series still amazes me. (I've been only to one convention.)  Those early fans who organized the events were passionate about the series, and they were able to raise money to bring the cast together to talk about their work; it was the beginning of a relationship between tv stars and the public that has helped them to connect more. (This has had both positive and negative consequences, yes.)  Nimoy spent years trying to draw a line between himself and Spock, but remained in awe of the devotion of the fans.  In the seventies, Paramount had tried to launch a new network with a revamped Trek as its flagship series, but when the money fell through, decided to try and make some films.  Nimoy was a bit reticent to do it, the first film did well enough (despite weak reviews) to warrant a second, and of course that film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is still held as the apex of the old cast's movies. 

Again, Nimoy took a chance. He didn't want to keep appearing in the films, so new producer Harve Bennett said, let's kill him off! I don't think I need to remind the fans of those final scenes ; they are moving and beautiful, as hurt as we all felt at watching this icon die.  (For the record, I'm a pro-bagpipes guy.)  But then, Nimoy turned to Bennett at the wrap party and said, I can't wait to do Star Trek III! Since Spock was dead, Bennett decided to give Nimoy a chance to direct; Nimoy also directed the fourth film, "the one with the whales" (as non-fans know it), with much success.  (Compare those two films with the fifth, which Shatner directed, if you dare.) 

Nimoy didn't get behind the camera much after that, though Three Men and a Baby was a surprise hit.  He did do a lot of theater work throughout his career, and you can hear his voice reading more than a few short stories as part of public radio's great Selected Shorts series, which often films at the theater named after him at Symphony Space in New York.  He was a great patron of the arts as much as he was an arts-worker.  And I haven't even mentioned his photography!   or the series of unexplained phenomena he hosted in the seventies, In Search Of ! (I loved that series, and I found the DVD boxed set at Costco a few months ago!)

I hope that as he neared the end of his life, Nimoy could fully grasp how many lives he touched by his work, as Spock and beyond Spock.  It is a richer world because he was here.  (My way of giving the salute with words.)  

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