Stern, bereft of emotion, perhaps even a tad diabolical. These were not the words to describe Leonard Nimoy. Nor are they even accurate for Mr. Spock, his most famous character, once you get to know him. But Nimoy's striking visage (aided a bit by some tweaked eyebrows and earlobes) and alien presence made him an instant icon when Star Trek: The Original Series first went on the air.
For many, Spock IS Star Trek, and the Vulcan philosophies of logic and infinite diversity in infinite combinations are a path we try to walk here on Earth. Leonard Nimoy, however, was more than Spock. (Heck, he even wrote a book stating as much.)
As we celebrate what would have been Nimoy's 86th birthday, let's take a few minutes to recall some of his greatest non-Star Trek accomplishments.
You need an advanced degree from the Daystrom Institute to work the Nimoy-Landau vertex. Landau was on the short list to read for the part of Mr. Spock, but Gene Roddenberry knew Nimoy already and gave him the role. Landau instead took the role of Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible. Both shows shot on the Desilu Studios lot and when Landau left (after Trek had been cancelled) Nimoy stepped in as “The Great Paris.”
Now consider this: both Rollin Hand and “The Great Paris” were masters of disguise. And had you ever seen Leonard Nimoy and Martin Landau in the same room together?
Land of the Lost
I'm one of the six people who finds the 2009 comedy version of Land of the Lost to be really funny. You've got Will Ferrell and Danny McBride running around getting chased by dinosaurs and Anna Friel is nothing to sneeze at in her li'l safari outfit.
There's a really loopy inter-dimensional sci-fi plot and, if you have your ears open, there's a voiceover cameo by Nimoy. He plays the part of “Zarn,” a red-scaled creature who delivers a pre-recorded warning. It is an incredibly charming moment, a lightning-fast screed loaded with all sorts of pulpy phrases. I get the impression that Nimoy came into the studio and recorded the damn thing before he had a chance to take off his coat.
That Aleve Commercial
The alumni of Star Trek are no strangers to advertisements. William Shatner had Priceline, Patrick Stewart had Pontiac and in 2006 Nimoy had Aleve.
In one of the best punch line ads I've ever seen, we meet Nimoy backstage somewhere, yelling on his phone. He has to “cancel the date” because the arthritis in his hand is killing him and he “can't do it.” The voice on the other end suggests he takes some Aleve. We then cut to a packed auditorium of Trekkies. Nimoy walks up to the podium, holds out his hand, takes a deep breath and - voila! - the healing properties of Aleve have enabled him to give the Vulcan salute. Dr. McCoy himself couldn't have done better.
A Woman Called Golda
In 1982, the same year as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Nimoy appeared on a major made-for-television film about the life of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
He played Meir's gentle, working-class husband Morris Meyerson (Meir was a Hebraization of this name) opposite Judy Davis (and later Ingrid Bergman, in her final performance.) Audiences saw a completely different side to Nimoy – one who was gallant, charming, handsome. Of course, we who saw the TOS episode “This Side of Paradise” already knew this, but this time no interplanetary spores were needed. As fans may or may not know, Harve Bennett produced both Wrath of Khan and A Woman Called Golda.
Zombies of the Stratosphere
The greatest thing about this Z-grade Republic Pictures serial is that its evocative title ensured Nimoy would bring it up whenever asked about his early career.
Nimoy plays Narab, a Martian henchman to Lane Bradford's evil Marex. Marex, from Mars, mind you, is, and I quote, “perhaps not a human being, by Earthly standards.” Awesome. Somewhere along the way they all decide to put ridiculous buckets on their heads. Should you find this one selling for $1 next time you are at Wal-Mart, I strongly recommend it over the box of Junior Mints. (Though if you have $2, go for both.)
Patron of the Arts
Nimoy wasn't just an actor; he has published numerous books of art photography. He was also a very recognizable benefactor at some fine art institutions.
On Manhattan's Upper West Side, behind the much-revered Symphony Space, is the remodeled Thalia movie theater, now known as the Leonard Nimoy Thalia. It is a haven of repertory films, documentaries and other oddball movies that are too soon overlooked at the multiplex. (An earlier iteration of the Thalia can be seen in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall.)
Across the park on the Upper East Side is the ornate Jewish Museum, a cultural landmark detailing the rich history and art of the Hebraic people. Should you go and check out the permanent collection, be sure to rent the audio guide. The familiar voice of a certain Starfleet First Officer will offer commentary about the centuries-old artifacts.
Imagine a time before podcasts. Long car trips were rough and you never knew when the radio reception would poop out. Luckily, Nimoy and his new partner John de Lancie (yes, Q!) were on the case. They formed a company that produced some of the finest audiocassette recordings of the 1990s.
Chief among them were the two Spock vs. Q “debates” (a must-listen for any Trek fan), but also some quality “theater of the mind” radio plays of public domain sci-fi classics like “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “The Time Machine.” Hardcore Trek fans should check out “The First Men on the Moon” to see if the voice of the Moon Emperor isn't similar to that of a much loved Starfleet Captain. Actually, lots of Star Trek figures from across the franchise participated in the Alien Voices radio plays, which are available again. Click HERE for details.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Someone grab a red magic marker and get ready to mark the calendar – I'm about to say something bold. Philip Kaufman's 1978 version of the classic '50s sci-fi thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the rare cases of the remake being better than the original.
A key reason for this, of course, is Nimoy's inclusion as the quasi-hippie pop-psychologist Dr. David Kibner. Yes, if you've ever wanted to see Mr. Spock in swingin' '70s suits spoutin' off about karma and kundalinis, this is your opportunity. Nimoy always spoke very highly of Body Snatchers, both the experience and the finished film. Warning: I've seen this one recently and it still holds up – meaning don't watch it alone at night!
The first season of Fringe was cool enough already. I mean, isolation tanks, ESP, sexy lab assistants, parallel universes and psychedelic drugs. What other sci-fi trope did it need? Well, when it was time to finally meet the founder of Massive Dynamic (and former lab partner of Walter Bishop) fans got the cameo they'd been waiting for.
It was Nimoy, hiding out in the World Trade Center (don't ask) and warning Olivia Dunham about the coming invasion from “the other side.” Nimoy returned several times in the flesh, and was there in spirit when Anna Torv (brilliantly) played a Bell-inhabited Dunham and again for a post-retirement gig in which Nimoy voiced Bell for a quirky, mostly animated episode.
In Search Of . . .
If you are lucky enough to have hazy memories of the late 1970s and early 1980s, then you know this: Leonard Nimoy isn't just a dude with green blood and pointy ears; he knows everything about EVERYTHING AWESOME.
Once a week on In Search Of. . . he'd throw down about Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, Werewolves, the Missing Link, Killer Bees and Easter Island. The funny thing is that this show would inevitably scare the pants off of me and I'd always turn it off, lest I get seeded for terrible nightmares. Looking at clips of this cheap, faux-documentary show now it all seems so cheesy, but for six terrific seasons we'd hear Nimoy dish about mysterious secrets of this world and beyond.
I know I left off some of your favorites (I'm guessing... The Outer Limits, Get Smart, Vincent, Standby: Lights! Camera! Action!, Never Forget, Columbo, Transformers: Dark of the Moon; on Broadway in Equus; his directing Three Men and a Baby or the film at the Epcot attraction, Body Wars), or his appearance in video for the Bruno Mars hit, "The Lazy Song." Hell, I left off some of MY favorites! But in the spirit of IDIC I'd like to give you an opportunity to note where I went astray. Please fill in the gaps in the comments section below.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic, lapsed filmmaker and the host of Engage: The Official Star Trek Podcast. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan, who lives in New York City, has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.