Losing Leonard Nimoy

Talk about a way to ruin a Friday and the ensuing weekend.  The loss of “Star Trek” giant Leonard Nimoy took many by surprise despite Nimoy’s steadily failing health.  Even though Nimoy quit smoking thirty years ago, he still attributed the decline in health that led to his death to smoking.

Much of the discussion in the wake of Nimoy’s death has been on his role as Spock in the “Star Trek” franchise.  However, it has been interesting to take the opportunity to read about Nimoy’s non-“Star Trek” work.

“Mission: Impossible” was Nimoy’s attempt to remind people that he was more than just Spock and that came immediately after “Trek” went off the air in the late-1960s/early-1970s.  He then narrated the smash hit show “In Search Of…” in the late 1970s.  Nimoy also worked his way into film direction after leveraging some of his “Star Trek” clout in the 1980s.  The strangest tidbit regarding that phase of his career was a reminder that Nimoy directed the 1987 film “Three Men and a Baby” and how that film was the #1 grossing film of 1987.  That was nuts to consider.

Of course, Nimoy was never entirely successful in getting away from that iconic Spock role.  It was probably not until the 1990s that he really embraced Spock as his signature achievement on screen.  Although Nimoy never shunned Spock, he did want to be known for a wider range of work than just one character.  Such aspirations aside, Nimoy was smart enough to know that having Spock as a part of his career was a gift that most people never receive since very few entertainers are lucky to have one truly signature thing that defines them.

Perhaps Nimoy’s most complicated public relationship involved William Shatner.  I’d say that the best way to look at Shatner/Nimoy was as a Lennon/McCartney situation.  The George Harrison of the “Star Trek” group was DeForest Kelley, who passed away in 1999.  That trio was the heart of the show and the best moments were the character interactions between those three… they’re what make “Trek” special.

If one were to watch some old episodes of “Star Trek,” they would need to do so while being mindful that some episodes could be real stinkers due to the series featuring a wide range of quality from brilliant to awful.  In any case though that core character relationship between Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley would tend to be what one would want to focus on.  Nimoy and Kelley’s characters were constantly bickering and at odds with one another.  Shatner then played a sort of wise Andy Griffith-like mediator between what were essentially his two main deputies while himself being the main action hero/womanizer on the show.

Off-camera, Shatner ALWAYS seemed to be envious of any attention that Nimoy received in relation to “Star Trek.”  Even though they were obviously friendly and even appeared jointly at conventions through to the later years of Nimoy’s life, Shatner would still do inexplicably selfish things toward Nimoy.

A semi-recent example of that behavior popped up when it was rumored that the 2009 JJ Abrams-led “Star Trek” film was to feature a cameo by both men… in the end only Nimoy appeared on screen in that film.  Shatner had apparently demanded that Nimoy not appear with him.  In contrast, when Nimoy was approached for the role, he asked for Shatner to appear with him.  That anecdote really summed up each man in a frustrating sort of way.  Most likely, Nimoy appeared solo due to his relationship with Abrams on “Fringe” in the 2000s as opposed to trying to slight Shatner.

Because of how closely-tied the careers of Nimoy and Shatner were, it was almost poetic that Shatner even managed to make headlines for having to be absent from Nimoy’s funeral.  Shatner’s exact explanation was as follows: “I feel really awful. Here I am doing charity work and one of my dearest friends is being buried.”

The two of them couldn’t have scripted it any better…

In fact, I can’t beat up on Shatner over that situation.  He and Nimoy were friends in the way that one might have a friend who periodically did embarrassing/selfish things.  At the same time though, there were qualities about the person that made it worthwhile to be their friend.  Fans of “Star Trek” have treated Shatner as a villain while simultaneously still having an odd reverence for him since the 1960s.  Pundits have pointed out that critics were going to find something to rip on Shatner about even if he’d shown up at the funeral.  He would have likely been in the spotlight with everyone focusing on anything that he did or said.

In that way, Shatner’s behavior could probably be explained as simple immaturity.  It was crazy to think that he was 83 years old at the time of Nimoy’s passing and certainly more than capable of continuing with such antics, but some people never grow up.

Besides checking out Nimoy’s books “I Am Not Spock“ and the later “I Am Spock,” those curious about Nimoy’s life would also get a kick out of Shatner’s oddly honest behind-the-scenes “Star Trek Memories” and “Star Trek Movie Memories” books that he put out in the 1990s.  The first book covered the production of the 1960s series and the second covered the film series in the late-1970s thru the early 1990s.  This period was a key time in the odd relationship between the two men, as Nimoy directed two “Trek” films and had a monster hit in 1986 with the very-audience-friendly “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”  That particular film involved a time travel story back to 1980s San Francisco and was a great fish-out-of-water tale for that era.

Those who are looking for the essence of Nimoy and “Star Trek” would do well to check out the pinnacle of Trek and Nimoy’s career with “Star Trek II:  Wrath of Khan.”  I can’t overstate just how great that film was, since also has Ricardo Montalban’s signature performance as Khan.  One other amazing aspect of that film was how it chose to deal with the aging nature of the cast head-on by making that Shatner’s story arc.  As much as it was Nimoy’s finest moment, it was also surely Shatner’s single best performance and it did things to his Kirk character in terms of revelations and moving the person into a hard place that one rarely sees in episodic or franchise films.

One tip though… “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was a sequel to the original “Star Trek” television episode “Space Seed” and it would be worth at least reading a synopsis of how that episode ended before watching the film.  Khan really did have a legitimate beef with many people in the film and that’s why the film was so well-regarded…

Nimoy’s death was a wake-up call that we’re going to start to more-frequently lose treasures from entertainment past in the coming years.  It still seems surreal though to lose people like Nimoy since we still have the material that they produced, even now more easily available at our fingertips to order or view online than at any point in the past.  We can still keep them in our lives by spending what would really be nominal amounts of money on their work.

As poignant as Nimoy’s work in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” might have been, he managed to top even that work with his final public statements.  Nimoy’s final message to fans five days prior to his death was brilliant and surely had to be something that would resonate with any human (or Vulcan):  “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.  Live long and prosper.”

D.S. Christensen
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