Leonard Nimoy, who has died aged 83, was an obscure character actor in films and on television before achieving celebrity as the logical, emotionless alien Mr Spock in the 1960s television series Star Trek.
Nimoy redefined the character from the minor one envisaged at the show’s conception into the most memorable. When Paramount studios made the mistake of allowing Spock to be killed off at the end of its second feature film spin-off, Star Trek II, public demonstrations demanded his return. Paramount’s stock fell on Wall Street until the third film in the canon, The Search for Spock, was completed and the character was “regenerated”. Six further films followed.
First shown in Britain in 1969, the year of the first Moon landing, the series flopped in the United States, but it was picked up by the BBC and shown only after the entire run had ended in America. Even then it was originally scheduled in the Saturday teatime slot then normally occupied by Doctor Who, only moving to peak time when the hippies of the early 1970s tuned in and turned on to what became cult viewing.
Moreover, seven years of syndicated American re-runs so transformed the show’s fortunes that when Nimoy visited the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, he was astounded when Nasa astronauts asked for his autograph before he could ask for theirs.
Nimoy himself was the opposite of the unfeeling, imperturbable Spock. Humorous and emotional, he wrote romantic poetry, and published several volumes of verse, including Will I Think of You? (1974), We Are All Children Searching for Love (1977) and Warmed by Love (1983). He was also an enthusiastic participant in 1960s “love-ins”, gatherings where hippies came to relax and, more often than not, make love. “It wasn’t quite group sex,” he recalled, “but there was a lot of embracing.”
Nimoy’s personal professional inclinations were towards the musical extravaganza, and when Star Trek ended in 1969 he played musical roles on stage such as King Arthur in Camelot (1973), Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (1974) and Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1976).
Later Nimoy embarked on a second, more successful and certainly more lucrative career, as a film director. He had directed several television programmes in the 1970s, but his first major film success was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). He followed this with the huge hit Three Men and a Baby (1987), which grossed over $350 million to overtake Fatal Attraction and become the top box office hit of the year. After that Nimoy broke away from comedy and directed the tear-jerking drama The Good Mother (1989).
Leonard Simon Nimoy was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 26 1931, the son of a Jewish barber from the Ukraine, where the Russian word “nimoy” or “nemoi” means “mute”. His father was opposed to an acting career; he wanted his son to be a lawyer. But Leonard was determined to act. His boyhood film heroes included the British stars Boris Karloff (as Frankenstein’s monster) and Charles Laughton (as Quasimodo), and in 1950 he made his acting debut with a Yiddish theatre company.
His first mainstream theatrical role was as Stanley Kowolski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1955) and in 1959 he appeared as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
During the early 1960s Nimoy made his television debut playing a villain in the Western Rawhide. He went on to appear as a “heavy” in many other television series of that era, among them Wagon Train, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Dr Kildare, Bonanza and Get Smart.
Stardom came in 1966 when he appeared in Star Trek. Originally the role of Science Officer Spock was a background one, an exotic half-Earthling, half-Vulcan crew member aboard the US Starship Enterprise during its 23rd century galactic odyssey of exploration “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.
The second-in-command was played by a woman, referred to as Number One. After the screening of the pilot episode, NBC Television insisted on replacing her and were just as anxious to be rid of Spock’s pointy ears. (In Star Trek’s early days, Spock’s ears and flyaway eyebrows were considered so controversial that they were airbrushed out of publicity stills. Nimoy himself was none too keen on the ears either, and the producer, Gene Roddenberry, promised to drop them if he remained unconvinced by Episode 13.)
Roddenberry capitulated over the woman Number One, but promoted Spock to replace her as second-in-command, a position he maintained, pointy ears and all, for all 79 episodes screened over three years.
As the series progressed Spock became as important and popular as Capt James Kirk (William Shatner). Audiences grew accustomed to his yellowish-green skin, two hearts and green blood, his strange signature Vulcan salute, paralysing neck-pinch, and his “Live long and prosper” blessing. While some viewers struggled to warm to a character who showed almost no emotion, Nimoy’s deadpan delivery and ironic use of the raised eyebrow turned him into what he described as “everybody’s favourite alien”.
When Star Trek ended in 1969 Nimoy was glad to be free of the Vulcan. “I owe a lot to Spock,” he said later, “he gave me my big break, but I don’t want to be playing an emotionless character for ever.” In 1970 Nimoy joined the cast of television’s Mission: Impossible, playing Paris, the master of disguises, often appearing in four or five different costumes during each episode.
Desperate to avoid typecasting, Nimoy published an autobiography, I Am Not Spock, in 1975, before launching into a series of hit musicals. During this period Nimoy appeared in several forgettable films, including The Missing are Deadly (1974), about a teenager who steals infected rats from her father’s laboratory. He also appeared in the 1978 remake of the science-fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
When offered the Spock part in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Nimoy was unenthusiastic. “Those ears were so painful to wear,” William Shatner recalled, “they were glued to the back of his head and he’s got the scars to prove it.” There was also the matter of half a million dollars which Nimoy claimed Paramount owed him in royalties for toys, posters and other Spock memorabilia — not to mention the use of his image in a British poster campaign for Heineken lager, which he found out about by accident on a visit to London. He refused to sign up for the film role until the studio paid up. It did.
Following the death of Spock in Star Trek II, Nimoy was disinclined to return for further appearances as Spock. Eventually he did agree, but on condition that he be allowed to direct the third film. Critics claimed that Star Trek III was “subdued”, but “in keeping with the tone of the original series”.
His second attempt at directing was more assured. In Star Trek IV, Nimoy led the crew of the Enterprise on what one reviewer called “a sharp turn towards comedy”. Contrary to the received Hollywood wisdom that sequels do less well than the original, Star Trek IV was a bigger hit than the first in the series.
Nimoy followed his first major directing success with a second. After Three Men and a Baby in 1988, he turned away from comedy to direct Diane Keaton in the emotional melodrama The Good Mother, about a divorced woman whose lover is accused of molesting her child.
“Six years after having completed the role, I am still affected by the character of Spock,” Nimoy noted in his 1975 autobiography. “Of course, the role changed my career. Or rather, gave me one… It also affected me very deeply and personally, socially, psychologically, emotionally. To this day I sense Vulcan speech patterns, Vulcan social attitudes, and even Vulcan patterns of logic and emotional suppression in my behaviour.”
Nimoy published a second volume of memoirs, I Am Spock, in 1995, but it was 2001 before he revealed that while making the original Star Trek television series, he had become an alcoholic and received treatment in a rehabilitation unit. In 1989 he was acrimoniously divorced from Sandi Zober, his wife of 32 years. His ex-wife demanded a multi-million-dollar settlement but Nimoy claimed that he had made his millions on Star Trek IV, released after their separation. Sandi Zober died in 2011.
Leonard Nimoy married secondly, in 1990, Susan Bay, a film executive 20 years his junior, who survives him with the son and daughter of his first marriage.
Leonard Nimoy, born March 26 1931, died February 27 2015