Though bittersweet now, two years after his passing, today we get to celebrate Leonard Nimoy’s birthday. Though I doubt he will ever not be associated with his iconic role as Mr. Spock in the Star Trek franchise—I can think of few actors so inextricably linked with a specific role—, he was a gifted photographer, director, author, poet, and singer, in addition to his career as an actor. But my own admiration for Nimoy isn’t only a result all the things he did, but also who he was. The number of people that I look up to so much that I can comfortably call them heroes can be counted on one hand. Leonard Nimoy was among those few.
He was born in Boston during the Great Depression to Jewish Ukrainian immigrants who fled the brutal pogroms that threatened the lives of Jews in the Russian Empire and USSR. Leonard shined shoes, sold newspapers, and put up seats in the theater to earn extra money for the family. He started acting at a young age in a neighborhood children’s theater. Though his parents encouraged him to learn a trade (interestingly, his father told him to play the accordion, because “actors starve for a living, but there’s always a need for a musician.”) that would earn him a comfortable living, his grandfather encouraged him to pursue his passion: acting. Eventually, he went out to California—continued to work whatever jobs he could to support himself and, later, his young family—while following his grandfather’s advice. Interrupted by an eighteen-month stint in the U.S. Army Reserve, Nimoy picked up a number small parts in a number of B movies and a starring role in one before switching his focus to character acting. His big break, of course, started with the filming of the pilot episode (“The Cage”) of Star Trek in late-1964, early-’65.
Obviously, Mr. Spock, a character as much created by Nimoy as Roddenberry, was my first introduction to Leonard Nimoy. Reruns of The Original Series aired right after our Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid. I’d sit on the floor—full of cereal, trying to ignore the sound of Dad snoring on the couch—staring up at the tv enraptured. I knew even at five and six years old that Captain Kirk was the one we were meant to love, but I didn’t care much for the overacted lothario character. I found all the other members of the bridge crew, and their interactions with one another, so much more interesting. But Spock was my favorite. I had a crush on Spock before I knew what it was to have a crush—and I never grew out of it. He was intelligent, analytical, and—though Spock would argue that he was not capable of x, y, z emotion—there was such an intense emotionality just under the cool Vulcan exterior. Plus, his voice. And that eyebrow. *swoon* Spock is dreamy, y’all. (Even evil Mirror Universe Spock.)
Apart from all the crush-y goodness, I felt a kinship with Spock. For several reasons, I never felt like I really belonged anywhere as a kid—I was always a half-step to the side of everyone else, so I identified with Spock’s position straddling the line of insider and outsider. It was the ardent flames of emotion flickering below the surface that really made me feel less alone. I have always been an exceedingly emotional person—my feelings are often so overwhelming that I feel like I am spinning out of control and, eventually, shut down. I so admired this character that experienced feelings like mine*, but didn’t fall apart.
As I grew up and became more familiar with Leonard Nimoy outside of Star Trek, he went from being a crush to a hero. He wasn’t perfect. He struggled with alcoholism and, as it usually goes, that struggle impacted his family. But these are things he admitted and worked on. And while journeying to a healthier self, he also explored the world—examining spirituality, sexuality, empowerment, divinity, feminism, beauty, grace. Humanity. Those explorations are particularly evident in his poetry and photography. Especially in his photography. Seriously, if you haven’t checked out his photography, bookmark these pages and come back to them when you have time to really spend with the images because they are breathtaking (heads-up: NSFW): Shekhina, Classic Nudes and Dance Series, The Full Body Project.
And he was willing to laugh. At himself. At his friends. At humanity. There is a particular grace in his amusement with the world around him, with his art. The bemused, mischievous twinkle at the edge of his smile…
I have so much respect for him. And love: for years, he has felt like a dear friend that I just hadn’t met yet. There are still days when it hits me that he’s gone and I tear up a little. For someone I never met, he had a profound effect on me and how I view myself and how I think about the world around me. His life enriched mine—and so many others—so much. And today, I celebrate his life and his legacy. Happy Birthday, Old Friend. And thank you. For everything.
*for the sake of correctness: the understanding of Vulcans as having intense, but stringently suppressed, emotions developed well after The Original Series. Until The Next Generation, Vulcans were thought of, generally, as emotionless or limited in their emotional capacity. Spock’s heritage being half-human led to his emotionality being seen largely as an aberration until later in the development of the Star Trek universe. But, seeing as how The Next Generation was contemporaneous with my childhood, I was watching Spock while being inculcated with an understanding of Vulcans as profoundly emotional beings.