Saturday, February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy: A Fascinating Life

Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr Spock in the cult TV series Star Trek and its numerous film and TV spin-offs - you knew that, right? - has died at the age of eighty three in Los Angeles. His son, Adam, said that Leonard had died from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on Friday morning. Even the US President took a moment on Friday to appreciate Nimoy's most famous character and his lasting legacy to the world. 'Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy,' Barack Obama said in a statement from The White House. 'Leonard was a lifelong lover of the arts and humanities, a supporter of the sciences, generous with his time and talents. And of course, Leonard was Spock. Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the centre of Star Trek's optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity's future. I loved Spock.' And, so did many of us.
     Despite a career which also embraced directing, writing, painting and photography, Leonard never managed to escape the character that came to define him. At times it seemed the actor and character were becoming one and the same and Nimoy battled with alcohol abuse and bouts of depression as a result. But, he eventually grew to accept and embrace the fascination with which his character was regarded by several generations of the general public, and he ultimately claimed to derive great satisfaction from the role that dominated his life.
    Leonard Simon Nimoy was born in Boston on 26 March 1931. His parents were Orthodox Jews who had emigrated to America from an area of the Soviet Union which is now part of Ukraine (although, they way things are going, it might soon be part of Russia). He began acting as a child and quickly developed an ambition to pursue a career on the stage - much, he would later recall, to the dismay of his parents. Leonard began attending a local drama school in Massachusetts before giving up his studies, moving to Los Angeles and making his first film appearance in 1951 (a tiny role in Queen For A Day). A year later he was given the title role in Kid Monk Baroni, where he played a boxer. It was, said Leonard in his autobiography, the type of movie 'that made unknowns out of celebrities.' A complete flop at the box office, it was instrumental in condemning Leonard to a decade of bit parts and walk-ons. Such were his meagre earnings from acting that at one point he delivered newspapers to make ends meet. He was drafted into the army in 1953 where he reached the rank of sergeant and returned to acting after his discharge. While serving, he married his first wife, Sandy. It was she who persuaded him to stick with acting when his thoughts turned to more secure employment. He had more than fifty small roles in b-movies, television series such as Perry Mason and Dragnet and film serials like Republic Pictures' Zombies Of The Stratosphere (1952). He played an army sergeant in the 1954 schlock science fiction thriller Them! and a professor in the 1958 b-movie The Brain Eaters and had a role in The Balcony (1963), a film adaptation of the Jean Genet play. With his friend Vic Morrow, he produced a 1966 version of Deathwatch, an English-language film version of Genet's play Haute Surveillance.
   On television, Leonard appeared as the character Sonarman in two episodes of the military drama The Silent Service, based on the submarine section of the navy. He had a number of guest roles in Sea Hunt (1958 to 1960) and a minor role in the 1961 The Twilight Zone episode A Quality Of Mercy. He also appeared in Bonanza, Waggon Train, Two Faces West, Rawhide, The Untouchables, Combat!, Daniel Boone, The Outer Limits (the memorable 1964 episode I, Robot), The Virginian (where he first worked with his future Star Trek co-star DeForest Kelley in the episode Man Of Violence), Get Smart and Gunsmoke. In 1964 he played the villain in an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. where, for the first time, he worked with William Shatner. At the same time, Gene Roddenberry was attempting to pitch his idea for a new science-fiction series to the networks. Roddenberry eventually persuaded Desilu Productions to make Star Trek and NBC agreed to screen a pilot episode, The Cage. Leonard, by this time well known in Hollywood as a capable TV character actor, was approached to play Spock, the ship's science officer who has a human mother and an alien, Vulcan, father. At the time he had also been offered the role of Steven Cord in the massively popular soap Peyton Place. He decided to ignore small-town America and, instead, reached for the stars. It fell to Leonard to speak the first lines in a Star Trek episode. 'Check the circuit', followed by 'Can't be the screen, then.'
     Ultimately, NBC decided that the plot of The Cage was too intellectual and too slow - which may have been true although it's a rather sad indictment of the priorities of 1960s TV commissioners and where they believed their audiences' heads were at - but they were, at least, enamoured enough with the concept to commission a second pilot, Where No One Has Gone Before. Spock was the only character kept from The Cage (despite, in a story Leonard loved telling, Roddenbury saying that one of the network executives had ordered him to 'lose the guy with the ears') and he appeared in the second pilot, which NBC decided was good enough to risk a full series. 'For the first time,' Nimoy later recalled, 'I had a job that lasted longer than two weeks and a dressing room with my name painted on the door and not chalked on.' Roddenberry described Spock as  Star Trek's 'conscience', a quizzical, alien and yet also humane moral sense which pervaded the original series as well as subsequent big-screen outings, most recently in the rebooted films directed by JJ Abrams. It was Leonard who created the famous Vulcan 'w' salute which first appeared in 1967. He based it on his childhood memories of Jewish priests giving a blessing. It was usually combined with the greeting: 'Live long and prosper.' Leonard's portrayal of Spock in the pilot episodes was far removed from later characterisations. The early Spock was quite jovial and not at all like the much more serious, logical and usually emotionless, character that he became.
    Leonard reportedly found that the intensity of the role was such that it became difficult to separate himself from the character. He described how he would go home at weekends and it would take him until Sunday afternoons to finally shake off the role, only to have to begin all over again on Monday mornings. He began to take solace in drink - 'just one after a show and then more' - and eventually he had to go into rehab. Never a big hit during its lifetime, NBC dropped Star Trek after three series (seventy nine episodes, including the two pilots) in 1969 citing low ratings. But its imaginative adventures, strange new futurist worlds, occasionally over-earnest but fundamentally optimistic and liberal view of the universe, the tackling of some quite taboo social issues under the cloak of science-fantasy and an often under-rated and wry sense of humour won the drama a growing army of devotees across the world when the show went into syndication, in the process turning Spock, Captain Kirk, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov into genuine pop culture icons. Yes, the special effects were primitive by today's standards and sometimes the scripts could be a bit up-their-own-arse in stressing broadly American 'mom's apple pie'-style morality and values but nevertheless, for an eight year old it was the greatest TV show ever. In Britain, it became a TV staple on BBC1, constantly repeated throughout the 1970s and 80s and was, for many of us 'of a certain age', one of the first programmes we can all remember seeing in colour - with the shocking realisation that those grey Starfleet shirts were, actually, red and yellow and blue.
    Leonard wasn't out of work for long, being hired for Mission: Impossible, whose producers had to replace the recently departed Martin Landau just months after Star Trek ended. Leonard was cast in the role of The Great Paris, an IMF agent who was a magician and make-up expert, He played Paris for two highly successful series (forty nine episodes) before leaving in 1971. He then went back to playing a character roles in films and television and made a large number of stage appearances in plays as varied as Caligula and My Fair Lady. He was brilliant in a small but crucial role in Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Invasion Of the Bodysnatchers. And was also unforgettable - in every sense of the word - in a truly wretched adaptation of Sherlock Holmes (1976). If you've never seen the latter, dear blog reader, Keith Telly Topping urges you to track it down. Your life simply isn't complete until you've sat through that once, and survived. He also began his directing career with an episode of Rod Serling's horror anthology series Night Gallery in 1972. But Leonard was unable to shake off Spock and he returned to the franchise to voice the character in Star Trek: The Animated Series, which was made in 1973. Two years later he published the first volume of his autobiography, entitled, rather bitterly, I Am Not Spock, in which he conducted imaginary conversations with his alter ego. 'The question was whether to embrace Mr Spock or to fight the onslaught of public interest. I realise now that I really had no choice in the matter,' he said later. Leonard continued to have an ambivalent relationship with Spock for some years, seeming, at different times, too both cherish and resent his close association with the role. In the end, though, he decided to embrace Spock; the second volume of autobiography was titled I Am Spock as if in final acceptance of the inevitable. The book featured a tongue-in-cheek foreword by Spock himself. In this memoir, Leonard was frank about how difficult an actor he had been to work with for the show's producers and also about his personality clashes with Bill Shatner. He attributed Star Trek's troubled third season to the departure of Gene Roddenberry as producer and to his replacement by Fred Freiberger. In 1979 Leonard was back on the Enterprise with the majority of the original cast in the first feature film in the franchise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Which was flashy and big budget and made lots of money even if it didn't seem to, quite, have the heart of the best of TV series' episodes. Despite apparently dying at the climax of its - much superior - sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, Spock didn't stay dead for long and Leonard both directed and starred in two of the subsequent films, The Search For Spock and The Voyage Home - the latter, a light comedy which sent up many sacred cows was, arguably, the highlight of the movie series - as well as contributing to the screenplay and producing the sixth Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country (another good one). He also made two appearances as Spock when the franchise returned to television in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Leonard was an unlikely sex symbol. According to the Los Angeles Times, when he spoke at Ohio's Bowling Green State University in the 1970s, a young woman asked: 'Are you aware that you are the source of erotic dream material for thousands and thousands of ladies around the world?' 'May all your dreams come true,' he responded with his characteristic dry humour.
    Away from the Enterprise, Leonard directed the 1987 comedy Three Men & A Baby, one of the top-grossing films of that year and a handful of other, less successful, movies. He also embraced acting roles reflecting his Jewish heritage. In 1982 he appeared as the former husband of the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in the TV movie A Woman Called Golda. He also played a Holocaust survivor in the courtroom drama Never Forget. His photography book, Shekhina, pictured nude women, including a cover shot of a woman wearing Jewish ritual objects traditionally worn by men. Leonard shrugged off traditionalist outrage and claimed that his work was entirely consistent with the teachings of the kabbalah. 'I'm not introducing sexuality into Judaism. It's been there for centuries.' He announced his retirement from acting in 2010 but was coaxed back on-screen a year later to reprise his popular semi-regular guest role as Doctor William Bell in the cult science-fiction series Fringe.
     He continued to make regular appearances at Star Trek conventions but admitted that he didn't always share the fans' encyclopaedic knowledge. 'Star Trek fans,' he confided, 'can be scary. If you don't get this right you're going to hear about it.' But, like several of his co-stars, he  was a good friend to fandom and seemed happy to occasionally parody his over-serious public persona in episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama. Never afraid to lampoon himself, he proved his keen sense of self-deprecating humour in Conan O'Brien's 1993 The Simpsons episode Marge Vs The Monorail. This version of Leonard relentlessly nitpicked every anecdote about Star Trek recited in his presence. He returned to The Simpsons four years later for another memorable cameo in the episode The Springfield Files. Last year, the actor revealed he was suffering from chronic lung disease, despite having given up smoking more than thirty years previously. It was reported earlier this week that he had been taken to hospital on 19 February after suffering from chest pains. He later tweeted: 'A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.' He signed off what was to be his final message to the world with 'LLAP' - a reference to his character's famous catchphrase.
    Among the torrent of tributes on Twitter following the announcement of his death was a message from NASA crediting both Leonard and Star Trek in general as being an inspiration to a generation of real-life scientists, astronomers and astronauts. William Shatner said in a statement that he loved Leonard 'like a brother. We will all miss his humour, his talent and his capacity to love,' The Shat said. Despite a couple of periods of estrangement during the 1970s and 90s, Leonard and Bill had remained good friends and Nimoy was best man at Shatner's third marriage in 1997. Leonard's interest in photography began in childhood; until his death, he owned a camera that he had rebuilt at the age of thirteen. His photography studies at UCLA occurred after Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, when Leonard seriously considered changing careers. His work has been exhibited at the R Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Leonard also composed several volumes of poetry, some published along with his photographs. A later poetic volume entitled A Lifetime Of Love: Poems On The Passages Of Life was published in 2002. Leonard adapted and starred in the one-man play Vincent (1981), based on the life of one of his heroes, Vincent Van Gogh. During and following Star Trek, Leonard also released five LPs of musical vocal recordings on Dot Records. On his first LP Mr Spock's Music From Outer Space, and some of the songs on his second, Two Sides Of Leonard Nimoy, science fiction-themed songs were featured and Nimoy sang (or talked) in the character of Spock. On his final three LPs - The Way I Feel, The World Of Leonard Nimoy and The Touch Of Leonard Nimoy - he recorded some of his own compositions and covers of folk and pop songs like Pete Seegar's 'If I Had A Hammer', John Fogerty's 'Proud Mary', Elvis's 'I Just Can't Help Believing', Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now' and Johnny Cash's 'I Walk the Line'. Not forgetting the immortally dreadful 'The Ballad Of Bilbo Baggins'. Once heard, never forgotten! For all that, his musically career still pisses all over that of his friend Shatner. Leonard was married twice. Firstly, in 1954 to the actress Sandra Zober, whom he divorced in 1987. On New Year's Day 1989, he married Susan Bay, the cousin of director Michael Bay.
     He is survived by his wife, his older brother, Melvin, his two children, Adam and Julie, his stepson, Aaron, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He lived long and he prospered. Goodbye, Leonard. You were, and always will be, our friend.
His work here is done.

And, of course, we can't leave without today's Keith Telly Topping's 33 of the Day. Which is, of course, this. Well, what the hell else did you expect?

No comments: