Obituaries

Leonard Nimoy, 83; was TV’s iconic Mr. Spock

Leonard Nimoy gave a lecture to more than 1,000 people at Boston University in May 2011.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/File

Leonard Nimoy gave a lecture to more than 1,000 people at Boston University in May 2011.

Leonard Nimoy, a son of Boston who created one of the most enduring and beloved characters in modern pop culture, the half-human, half-alien “Star Trek” first officer Spock, died Friday in his home in the Bel Air section of Hollywood. He was 83 and the cause of death was end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to his widow, Susan Bay Nimoy.

Mr. Nimoy was many things in life. He rose from poverty in the long-vanished West End neighborhood of Boston to become an actor, film director, pop singer, poet, and art photographer; he devoted much of the last three decades to the latter pursuit. But it was as Spock that he burst upon the scene, and it is as Spock that he will forever be remembered. The character has entered the common cultural consciousness, where he stands next to figures such as Sherlock Holmes, Chaplin’s Tramp, and Mickey Mouse; he seems never to have not been there.

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Yet when Gene Roddenberry’s science-fiction TV series premiered in 1966, the show flew in below the cultural radar; critics gave it mixed reviews, and Variety opined that it “won’t work.” “Star Trek” attracted a rabid fan base, though — the first stirrings of what we now celebrate as “nerd culture” — and Mr. Nimoy’s Spock was a large part of the reason.

Mr. Nimoy had been Roddenberry’s only choice for the role; in a 1995 interview, the actor said he had based the character’s minimalist style on actor Harry Belafonte.

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Lanky, ramrod straight (Mr. Nimoy himself tended to slouch when out of character), and coolly logical no matter what interspatial melodrama the crew of the Starship Enterprise encountered, Spock became a breakout character early on. The week after the premiere, 35 letters came in to the producers praising the character. The second week, the tally doubled. Within a few months, the pro-Spock mail was up to 2,700 letters per week.

Soon, Mr. Nimoy was beaming down to planets alongside star William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk. Hipsters started wearing buttons that said “I grok Spock” while imitating the character’s split-fingered Vulcan salute and all-purpose sign-off: “Live long and prosper.”

A 1967 Boston Globe article called it “Spockmania,” and Mr. Nimoy, then 35 and married with two children, professed to amazement. “A total shock. I didn’t expect it at all,” he told the Globe, while allowing that he found his character “a pretty groovy guy. . . . He’s very compassionate, intelligent, curious, logical.”

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Indeed, Spock was an alluringly cool figure in a hot cultural era. He was a superior being who kept his head when Kirk and Scotty and Bones were losing theirs, yet his human half, with its pesky emotions, made for fascinating flaws. When Spock cried in one early episode, or, later on, professed his love for a woman while under the influence of alien spores, the effect was both charming and alarming, like watching your favorite professor get tipsy.

“I loved him like a brother,” Shatner tweeted Friday. “We will all miss his humor, his talent, and his capacity to love.”

Mr. Nimoy’s long-term response to his fame was mixed. As a working actor who had grown up in poverty and struggled for years to put food on the table, he was ecstatic to be an overnight star. He was nominated for an Emmy each season “Star Trek” was on the air, and, in keeping with the times, both he and Shatner recorded albums of pop songs, all of which are marvelously dreadful period artifacts; Mr. Nimoy made five, the first of which was “Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space” (1967).

“Star Trek” was canceled due to low ratings after three years — a write-in campaign had kept it going for the final season — yet the show proved unstoppable in reruns, where it influenced a generation of viewers and filmmakers while becoming, with 1977’s “Star Wars,” the ur-franchise of today’s science-fiction/fantasy entertainment culture. Mr. Nimoy acted in other TV shows (he had a two-year run replacing Martin Landau on “Mission: Impossible”) but found it hard to shake his “Trek” character. He confessed in 2001 to having struggled with alcohol while making the series. In 1975, he published an autobiography titled, “I Am Not Spock.”

Yet he ultimately came around to the mythology that had spawned his character and that refused to die. Mr. Nimoy appeared in the first “Star Trek” motion picture in 1979, and directed the third and fourth installments, 1984’s “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” and 1986’s “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” the latter with an ecological theme that was close to Mr. Nimoy’s own heart. That led to a brief directing career (“Three Men and a Baby” in 1987, “The Good Mother” in 1988), a rapprochement with “Star Trek” fans, a deeply touching return as an older Spock to Zachary Quinto’s junior version in the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, and one more autobiography in 1995. This one was called “I Am Spock.”

Leonard Nimoy was born March 26, 1931, to Max and Dora Nimoy, Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who had settled in Boston’s West End, where Max set up shop as a barber. The family was poor and hard-working; young Leonard hawked newspapers on a corner of Boylston and Arlington streets from an early age. In a 1995 Globe interview, he remembered “selling papers on Dec. 7, 1941, screaming ‘Japs Attack Pearl Harbor.’ That was the headline on the old Boston Record. People were going crazy, and I didn’t know why.” The dimes from his sales went into a college fund cookie jar at home.

But Mr. Nimoy was also drawn to the stage, to the consternation of his family. As early as 8, he was performing in plays at the Elizabeth Peabody settlement house in the West End. At 17, he played a role in Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing” that hardened his resolve and made him realize, according to a 1988 New York Times interview, that “I’ve got to do this for the rest of my life.”

After an Army stint, Mr. Nimoy wound up at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, which led to a low-burning film career that included small roles in such early programmers as “Zombies of the Stratosphere” and “Francis Goes to West Point” (both 1952).

In 1954, he married Sandi Zober, with whom he had a son, Adam, and a daughter, Julie. They survive him, as does Mr. Nimoy’s second wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, whom he married in 1989; a brother, Melvin; a stepson, Aaron Bay Schuck; six grandchildren from his first marriage; and a great-grandchild.

In the decades after “Star Trek,” Mr. Nimoy gradually stepped back from acting. He hosted the paranormal series “In Search Of . . . ” in the late 1970s, and was nominated for an Emmy for the 1982 TV movie “A Woman Called Golda.” He memorably played a villainous psychiatrist in the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” In 1979, he was Vincent Van Gogh in the one-man stage show “Vincent.”

There were also several books of poetry, starting with 1973’s “You & I,” and a lot of voice work — that’s Mr. Nimoy booming out at the beginning of the Mugar Omni Theater shows at Boston’s Museum of Science.

In 1996, he founded an audio project called Alien Voices with actor John de Lancie to produce radio play versions of classic science fiction books, some of which featured cameo appearances by “Star Trek” colleagues.

Mr. Nimoy and his second wife became avid art collectors and patrons, and an abiding passion for photography was renewed. The actor got his first camera at the age of 12, a Kodak Autographic, and with the financial comfort of his later years, he turned to photography nearly full time. There were gallery shows and published books of Mr. Nimoy’s sometimes controversial conceptual photography projects: A 2007 series on plus-sized female nudes, the 2002 “Shekhina Project,” in which he sought to study “the feminine aspect of God” by photographing women, some nude, wearing Jewish ritual garments reserved for men. (The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle replaced him as its fund-raiser.)

Mr. Nimoy kept in touch with his roots. He returned regularly to Boston for charitable and other occasions, and he often mourned the destruction in the 1950s of the West End of his youth to make way for high-rise apartment towers and the Massachusetts General Hospital complex. “A real tragedy what happened to that neighborhood,” he told the Globe in 1995.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in a statement Friday, said “we have not only lost a talented actor, but a proud product of Boston’s neighborhoods and English High School.”

Raised speaking Yiddish as a second language, Mr. Nimoy wove Judaism through his life and career in surprising ways. There was the “Shekhina Project,” of course, but there was also Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute, designed by the actor and, as he told The New York Times in 2007, representing the Hebrew letter “shin,” “the first letter in the word ‘Shaddai,’ which means God.”

Mr. Nimoy was flashed that salute wherever he went in life. He spoke of receiving it from Timothy Leary and from President Obama; he got it from truck drivers while crossing the street. It endures whenever Jim Parsons’s Sheldon — a sci-fi fanboy with “Star Trek” encoded in his DNA — flashes the Spock salute on CBS’s hit show “The Big Bang Theory.”

Wherever and from whomever he saw it, Mr. Nimoy understood the grateful message being sent his way: Live long and prosper. He did and he did.

Related coverage:

Leonard Nimoy joined the Boston Pops last year

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com.
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