How Leonard Nimoy Created an Alien Who Embodied the Best of Humanity

Mr. Spock proved logic, loyalty and optimism could coexist

One story often told by Leonard Nimoy, who died today at age 83, was that quite a few fans of his Star Trek character, Mr. Spock, assumed Nimoy himself was a real scientist.

Maybe it was the gravity he brought to what was, occasionally, a silly show. Or maybe it was simply that television was so young when the show premiered in 1966, viewers weren't as skeptical as they are today. 

Nimoy, ever courteous, would patiently listen to experts in every field (except, apparently, TV) explain their theories to him in technical terms and then, very seriously, nod and tell each of them, "Well, it certainly looks like you're headed in the right direction."

The actor died in his home in Bel Air from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to his family.

He starred on Gene Roddenberry's groundbreaking science fiction series in more of its iterations than even William Shatner, who played opposite him as Kirk. Indeed, Spock graced the big screen as recently as 2013 in the second installment of J.J. Abrams' flashy big-screen reboot of the series. Nimoy was the only actor to reprise his role in the new franchise, and the only lead NBC retained from the show's original 1964 pilot, The Cage (which was rewritten and reshot), giving his career an odd kind of symmetry.

He appears to have known he was close to the end of his life. His last post on Twitter (followed earlier today by a formal announcement of his death from his granddaughter) was from Monday: 

LLAP, of course, abbreviates "live long and prosper," the motto accompanying Spock's signature split-finger salute (a gesture that originated with his childhood in Jewish religious services).

The son of Yiddish-speaking Ukrainian immigrants to the Mattapan area of Boston, Nimoy served in the Korean War and booked more than 50 bit parts in low-wattage B-movies before he finally got his break on the series; the actor was to be featured in a scant two shows of the original 16-episode order, but quickly saw his part expanded.

Over nearly five decades, Star Trek became the standard for science-fiction TV, its dovish optimism and vision of a peaceful future a vital corrective to the frightened flag-waving of the Cold War. Roddenberry based the show on the voyages of English explorer and cartographer James Cook and patterned Spock on Cook's scientist companion on his first mission, the botanist Joseph Banks, but its sights were set firmly on the future. In its three seasons, the show became a cultural phenomenon unlike anything else on the air. It made an easy transition to the movies where Nimoy starred in six installments and directed two himself.

Shatner was the lead on the show, but Nimoy was its unlikely heartthrob. "For a while it was hysterical," he told columnist Dick Kleiner in 1982. "It was so wild that I had to be very careful where I went. If I went to a restaurant, I had to plan my entrances and exits so that I wouldn't be mobbed and hurt. Same thing in hotels and airports—any public place."

Late in life, Nimoy embraced the role that had come to typecast him (his 1995 autobiography is called I Am Spock), but for many years he tried to escape the half-Vulcan's long shadow, seeking roles that ran counter to the perception of him as a buttoned-down, emotionless hero (his 1975 autobiography is called I Am Not Spock).

As the years went on and Trekkies stayed loyal both to the original cast and new iterations of the show, Nimoy made his peace and occasionally voiced the character in geeky comedies from a quick hit on The Big Bang Theory to Futurama's episode-length homage, Where No Fan Has Gone Before.

In many ways, Nimoy's career was unique. Spock often advocated for caution, cold reason and education over heroism (hardly a recipe for popularity). He worked steadily on TV into his 80s, most recently in a recurring role on Abrams' sci-fi drama Fringe. And to many, his character's face, with its ridiculous sculpted eyebrows and pointy ears, is affectionate shorthand for an entire genre.

Perhaps it's in poor taste, but the moment from Nimoy's career that feels most appropriate to his death is the death and funeral of the character with which he was so often identified. The scene, from the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is larded with everything that earns the show so much ribbing from its detractors—silly effects, portentous pauses, overserious treatment of its space-faring conceit—and yet it's undeniably moving and optimistic in the face of personal annihilation.

That optimism is Star Trek's considerable contribution to contemporary popular culture, and Nimoy's part in it cannot be overestimated. It's a notion epitomized by an immigrant barber's son's rise to fame and fortune and possibly best expressed by Captain Cook himself.

"Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me," Cook wrote, "but as far as I think it possible for man to go."