The search for Spock
In an excerpt from his memoir, Leonard Nimoy reveals the logic behind ''Star Trek'''s most compelling star
Should I be jealous of Spock?
I joked about that, in a book I wrote in the mid-’70s called I Am Not Spock. I enjoyed writing the book. I wanted to answer a lot of oft-asked questions and also explore the relationship between an actor and the character he breathed life into — especially since that character seemed to take on an existence of his own.
But I made an enormous mistake choosing the title for the book. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my lifetime, but this one was a biggie and right out there in public. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as bad as Roseanne Arnold singing ”The Star-Spangled Banner” off-key, grabbing her crotch, and spitting in a stadium full of baseball fans, but mine did start a firestorm that lasted several years and caused a lot of hard feelings.
When I wrote the book and handed it to the publisher, we discussed the title and agreed Spock should be mentioned. I thought I Am Not Spock might work. Certainly, it would attract the attention of potential readers and arouse their curiosity.
I Am Not Spock was published in 1975, at a time when the Star Trek phenomenon had just taken hold. Having had only marginal success on NBC, where we limped along for three years, the show took on new life in syndication. By the mid-’70s, it was becoming a media event. Colleges avoided scheduling classes during Star Trek hours to avoid predictable absenteeism! Thousands and thousands of new devotees sat in front of their TV sets, memorizing each episode’s dialogue word for word. Soon, throughout the land came a heartfelt cry:
”Give us more Star Trek!”
In the midst of this desperate demand, my timing and choice of title couldn’t have been worse. What came back was a deep, sad moan of public frustration followed by outbursts of anger, even hatred. Unfortunately, press articles followed which served to fuel that anger. After all, it made good copy: ”Actor rejects character who threatens to consume him.”
For some years afterward, the public assumption was that more Star Trek was not forthcoming because I had vowed never to play the Vulcan again because I hated Spock.
One of the reasons I’m writing this is so I can forever put those ugly and unfounded rumors to rest. Here it is in print: I don’t hate the Vulcan. In fact, I’ve always been downright fond of him, and as I mentioned in I Am Not Spock, if someone came up to me and said, ”You can’t be Leonard Nimoy anymore. But you can be anyone else you want,” I wouldn’t hesitate a beat with my answer. I’d want to be Spock. In I Am Not Spock, I wrote about the birth of my two children, Julie and Adam, and how I could pinpoint the precise time and place those wonderful miracles occurred. But coming up with a date, a precise moment, that Spock first sprang into being was far more difficult, even though I was in many ways more ”pres ent” for his birth than those of my children. To say that he was ”born” on Thursday, Sept. 8, 1966, at 8:30 p.m. EST — the date Star Trek first aired — seemed at best arbitrary and artificial.
However, I’ve had 30 years to think about it since then, and I realize now that there was a defining moment, a flash of revelation where I suddenly realized, ”Aha! So this is who the Vulcan is….”
It came during the shooting of the third Star Trek episode ever filmed, ”The Corbomite Maneuver.” It was one of the scenes on the bridge where the crew members were all reacting to an enormous glowing globe on the view screen. (Of course, we actors saw nothing but a blue screen.) We were all supposed to be concerned about this strange new threat, and my line consisted of that single fateful word, ”Fascinating….”
I just didn’t have a handle on how to say it. Until, that is, [director] Joe Sargent wisely said, ”Look, don’t act uptight about what you see on the screen. Instead, when you deliver your line, be cool and curious, like a scientist.”
The moment Sargent said it, something inside me clicked; he had just illuminated what it was that made this character unique and different from all the others on the bridge. I composed myself, drew a breath, and calmly said, ”Fascinating….”
What came out wasn’t Leonard Nimoy’s voice, but Spock’s. And even though the Vulcan veneer would later slip from time to time (for example, when Spock smiles at Harry Mudd’s glamorous entourage in ”Mudd’s Women”), I began seriously to understand where Spock was coming from. The Vulcan was among us.
I think it’s time that the world knew the hidden, ugly truth about what was really happening on the Star Trek set: Bill Shatner’s ”five-year mission” was to crack me up on the set.
My former costar was an inveterate prankster. In certain instances, his practical joking became an outright obsession. I’ll never understand why, but my bicycle became an object of his fixation.
It started fairly innocently — with Bill simply hiding the bike on the set one day, then returning it with a chuckle when I fumed and demanded it so I could pedal to the commissary for lunch. But from there it escalated. On different days, my poor bike wound up chained to a fire hydrant, then in Bill’s trailer, beneath the watchful eye of one of his most ferocious Dobermans.
In frustration, I took the ultimate step, I locked the damned bike in my Buick and parked the car right next to the soundstage.
Bill, of course, had the Buick towed.
Bill’s Captain Kirk was a swashbuckling Errol Flynn type of hero; he played the role with a great deal of energy and élan and wasn’t afraid to take chances. That élan has cost him at times; people have made fun of his exuberance because it made it easy to do a caricature of Kirk. His attack on a line of dialogue, his unique way of pausing before blurting out a final word or phrase, were readily captured by imitators. But that energy was vital for the show, and made it possible for me to finally find a niche for my role.
Once Spock’s popularity took off with the fans, all the gossip columns and tabloid magazines insisted that Bill Shatner and I detested each other and weren’t on speaking terms.
Was there hatred? No. Sibling rivalry? Yes. We were like a pair of very competitive brothers, and there were times when I complained to Gene [Roddenberry] about Bill, and times when Bill complained to Gene about me. Many times, Gene was effective in his role as daddy, solving the conflicts between two squabbling kids. And there were times when he wasn’t.
A major area of conflict was Bill’s concern that Spock was getting ahead of Kirk in terms of problem-solving. Of course, the Vulcan’s primary function as a science officer was to do research and provide data — but Bill worried that Kirk would seem unintelligent by contrast. And so lines of dialogue that had logically been Spock’s soon became Kirk’s.
I addressed the situation in a memo to Roddenberry dated Feb. 21, 1968, which says, in part: ”It would be as if Shakespeare had written ‘To be or not to be’ to be played by two characters instead of one….”
Roddenberry tried to smooth that one over, but the conflict kept recurring. One of the wisest things I think Gene ever did was to consult Isaac Asimov on the friction between Shatner and myself, and the problematic popularity of Spock. Asimov advised him to make Kirk and Spock loyal, inseparable friends, so that when the audience thought of one, they’d automatically think of the other.
The advice worked with the viewers — and maybe even with Bill and me, because we certainly came to appreciate our friendship more as time went on.
Even if it was really mean of him to keep stealing my bike.
When did I know that Star Trek was over for Leonard Nimoy?
At the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the crew has been called home to retire, and pass the torch on to a ”new generation.” And that brings me to what I feel was the most important scene for Spock (and for me) in the film: the scene where Spock–defeated and depressed after his realization that his protege, Valeris, is a traitor — is lying quietly in his quarters, clearly indulging in a very human moment of melancholy. Kirk enters and makes an effort to cheer his friend and to rally him to action.
In reply, the Vulcan calls to Kirk and says softly, ”Is it possible that we two, you and I, have grown so old and inflexible that we have outlived our usefulness?”
It was a very poignant question for me as well as for Spock. For not only was the Vulcan on the verge of retirement, and meditating on that fact, at long last, the Enterprise crew’s missions were over — but I was well aware that this was most likely the last Star Trek film for both of us. And as I turned toward Bill and uttered those words, any sense of ”mask” slipped away. I honestly felt myself merge with the character, Spock…and at the moment that the Vulcan spoke to his captain, Leonard Nimoy asked the question of Bill Shatner. I recall looking at him and wondering: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Bill? That this is really the end of our ‘mission’ together…?”
In my own mind, that will always be the moment of emotional closure for Star Trek VI — and, indeed, all the stories involving the original Enterprise crew. For me and Spock, the original Star Trek ended at that very moment.
My plate is very full now, even without Star Trek. If invited, would I ever go back?
Well, as far as I’m concerned, Spock is still under deep cover in Romulan space, working toward the reunification of the passionate, warlike Romulans with their cool, logic-loving Vulcan brothers (as explained in ”Unification,” the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which I guest-starred). Knowing Spock’s stubbornness–or as he’d probably prefer to put it, his persistence–some very interesting events are bound to result. And, if the right opportunity came along, he and I wouldn’t mind picking up that story thread….
Do I miss Spock?
No, because he’s a part of me. Not a day passes that I don’t hear that cool, rational voice commenting on some irrational aspect of the human condition.
I can only hope that, once in a while, when people look at Spock’s visage, they might sometimes think of me. But it doesn’t matter; because, as far as I’m concerned, we two are twins, joined at the hip.
Star Trek (TV Show - 1973)