Leonard Nimoy, and the many dimensions of Spock

The actor played the same character for 50 years — and never stopped revealing his depth

(Image credit: (Bettmann/CORBIS))

Most truly iconic characters are recast as Hollywood requires. We've had six James Bonds. We've had five Batmans. We have three Sherlock Holmeses simultaneously right now. But Leonard Nimoy, who died today at 83, is Spock — one of the truly iconic characters in science-fiction history.

Though Zachary Quinto was cast as a younger Spock in 2009's Star Trek reboot, Nimoy was just too great in the role to be cut loose. His older Spock, introduced to the younger James Kirk and Spock through a time-warping narrative, was designated "Spock Prime" — a nod to his ownership of the role — in both the reboot and its sequel.

Though Nimoy was virtually inseparable from Spock, a character he originated a full 50 years ago, he did plenty of other terrific work over the course of his career. He starred as "The Great Paris," a mysterious magician and master of disguises, in two seasons of Mission: Impossible. He hosted In Search Of…, a paranormal investigation show that terrified a generation of children. He was mesmerizing in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He played the sinister William Bell on Fox's underrated Fringe. Beyond his career as an actor, he wrote poetry, took photographs, and recorded music. He directed Three Men and a Baby, the top-grossing film of 1987.

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All of those roles should be appreciated and celebrated — but if the vast majority of people only knew Nimoy as Spock, it's only because he was so brilliant in the role.

What could easily get lost in the appreciations of Nimoy's performance as Spock is the astonishing range he brought to a single character in more than 50 years of performances. As Spock in the original Star Trek series, Nimoy was often the funniest member of the cast, applying logical filters that amused and frustrated his human shipmates in equal measure:

But as funny as Spock could be, his unlikely friendship with William Shatner's caddish, impulsive Captain James T. Kirk made up the emotional backbone of the franchise. Though it was reversed in a subsequent movie just two years later, Nimoy's death scene in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Captain Kirk's eulogy, is the most emotionally wrenching collection of scenes in Star Trek history — or, for that matter, in any science fiction franchise. In the context of Wrath of Khan, it never fails to leave a lump in my throat. In the context of Nimoy's actual death, I'm not ready to watch it yet:

Despite being more or less typecast as Spock for decades, Nimoy retained a healthy perspective and a sense of humor about the character. (As The New York Times' obituary notes, he titled his two autobiographies I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock — a split that might sound illogical to Spock, but was utterly true in both cases.) Nimoy sent up his persona in a string of hilarious parodies, including an appearance in "Marge vs. The Monorail," a strong contender for the all-time best episode of The Simpsons:

Nimoy's appearance as Spock Prime in Star Trek was a final act of generosity — a love letter to longtime Star Trek fans, and an implicit passing of the torch to the cast of the new film. At this stage in his career, it would have been easy for Nimoy to phone it in — the mere appearance of the aged original Spock carries plenty of emotional resonance. But his Spock Prime is a fully realized continuation of Spock's story, carrying the full burden of a planet he failed to save:

Given the strength of Nimoy's performance, is it any surprise that J.J. Abrams couldn't resist bringing him back for an otherwise unnecessary cameo in 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness?

Unfortunately, Nimoy's appearance in the last Star Trek movie is the last time we'll get to see him play Spock. Leonard Nimoy was a true original — a man who could find infinite dimensions while playing the same character over 50 years. That kind of range is rare in an actor; that kind of range is virtually unheard of in a character. He will be missed.

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Scott Meslow

Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com. He has written about film and television at publications including The Atlantic, POLITICO Magazine, and Vulture.