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Leonard Nimoy: A long and prosperous life remembered

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Everett Collection

He has been, and always shall be, our friend.

If you know the work of Leonard Nimoy, you know that paraphrased line from what is probably his greatest scene: Spock, in the finale of 1982’s Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is dying from radiation poisoning after sacrificing himself to save his crewmates aboard the starship Enterprise. He says this to his old friend, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), then presses his hand against the glass in the Vulcan salute. “Live long,” he gasps in his final words. “And prosper.”

One of my personal favorites is little remembered: a 1991 TNT movie called Never Forget, which starred Nimoy opposite Blythe Danner and Dabney Coleman in the true story of Auschwitz survivor Mel Mermelstein, who launched a landmark lawsuit against a Holocaust-denying organization in the 1980s. For a teenager who knew Nimoy only as Spock, his subtle, agonizing performance as a Hungarian Jew facing down those who would call the darkest moment of both his life —and the 20th Century—a lie was startlingly powerful. Just when you thought you knew Nimoy, he would surprise you.

Who can forget the TV show In Search Of …? It ran from 1977 to 1982 with Nimoy serving as host, a documentary series that sought to uncover the truth about Bigfoot, UFOs, and other myths and wonders. Nimoy himself wrote an episode about Vincent Van Gogh. Following his research into the painter for a play, Nimoy found documents that suggested the notoriously volatile artist suffered from epilepsy rather than mental illness.

Kids of the ‘80s knew him both as Spock and the voice of Galvatron, the sinister robot in 1987’s animated Transformers: The Movie, who blasts (both metaphorically and literally) the “bad comedy” of traitorous fellow villain Starscream. A generation later, Nimoy came out of retirement to voice the lunar-stranded robotic warrior Sentinel Prime in 2011’s live-action Transformers: The Dark of the Moon. “I’m back—back after, what is it, 25 years or something?” Nimoy told me in April 2011.

He had also recently come back as Spock, reprising the role of the character for J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the franchise, handing the role off to a new generation of actors, including Zachary Quinto who took over the role that Nimoy had originated.

Star Trek, the TV series, debuted on NBC in 1966 and lasted—astoundingly—only three years. It was canceled in 1969 after having its budget slashed and its timeslot moved for its final season. But the show became a smash in syndication, eventually growing so strong that it launched a cartoon series that ran from 1973-75 and led Paramount to commission a feature film in 1979. That film, directed by Robert Wise (The Haunting, West Side Story), massively expanded the audience of die-hard “Trekkies” (some of whom prefer the term “Trekkers,” which stands as evidence of both their passion and their divisiveness).

Nimoy was so popular as Spock that the role threatened to typecast him and swamp the rest of his career. In 1975, six years after the show’s cancellation, the actor tried to push back against that tide with his first autobiography: I Am Not Spock.

Over the years, as the movies gave him a powerful second act as a performer, Nimoy’s position on the Vulcan began to soften. He appreciated the fans and their love for the old shows and new movies, and found himself becoming a fan of sorts for his own creation. He claimed he had always felt that way, and was sorry the previous book made people think otherwise. That led to a second autobiography in 1995, which changed the first one’s title by only one word: I Am Spock.

Spoofing himself became almost a side-career, whether it was those silly Priceline.com commercials with his old Trek pal William Shatner, or a pretentious send-up on the 1993 episode of The Simpsons “Marge vs. The Monorail.”

Nimoy was a fan of both fantasy and sci-fi, and that extended far beyond Star Trek. He starred in a 1998 TV version of Aldous Huxley’s cautionary dystopia Brave New World, voiced the shadow-dwelling guide Moundshroud in a 1993 animated version of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, and co-starred in 1978’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In 2001, he donated $1 million to renovate Los Angeles’ historic Griffith Observatory, a gift back to science from a career rooted in science fiction. Today, the observatory —which stands in the hills above Hollywood, not far from that famous sign—is home to the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater.

In his later years, having worked for so long, doing so many different things, Nimoy said that he had noticed a shift among his fans. “I don’t know how many generation I’ve spanned now, but it’s very satisfying,” he told me in 2011, with a deep, rumbling laugh. “Many years ago, people used to say to me, ‘My kids are crazy about you!’ Now, I have kids saying, ‘My grandparents are crazy about you!’”

That’s what happens when you live long, and… well, you know.

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