Friday, March 6, 2015

The Undiscovered Country

I’ve been mulling over the passing of actor Leonard Nimoy over the past couple of days, and while his death wasn’t quite a shock, as he was 83 and had not looked well for quite a while, his death does represent, like Robin Williams’, another seismic shift, and foretells us to expect another wave of icons passing from the 60s and 70s era. I’m not looking forward to it. But all icons are mortal after all and this should cause us to re-examine how to make our lives fuller. His final Tweet couldn’t have been more poetic:

“A life is like a garden, perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. Live Long and Prosper."

Mr. Spock made him, and he made Mr. Spock. Other actors have played Vulcans since The Next Generation debuted, but there’s something that feels generic with other portrayals when you compare Nimoy’s skill at playing the role. There was that evident gravitas of course, but it was Nimoy’s humanity and sensitivity that made Spock so special and something that people could identify with. Spock was an outsider to a degree within his own people, half-human, half-Vulcan, he lived in a world that frowned on emotions – but I want to make this clear: Vulcan’s didn’t eliminate emotions, they conditioned themselves to suppress them. The common lore is that in fact Vulcans can have, in fact, extreme emotions, but have suppressed them for the sake of seeking logic. For most of us morals, that’s easier said than done. Spock’s real triumph was to assimilate his emotions along with his reason. But it was Nimoy’s understanding of the character that helped us to see that arc in time.

But Nimoy held a depth as a person and an actor that could only be understood when you have seen his range. It's uncanny.

Born on March 26, 1931 to Max and Dora Nimoy, Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Iziaslav, Russia (which is now known as the Ukraine), he lived in the west end of Boston, Massachusetts. He began his acting interests as a child; his first major role came at 17 in an amateur production of Clifford Odet’s Awake and Sing. He took drama classes at Boston College in 1953, but didn’t complete them. He then served as a sergeant in the US Army from 1953 through 1955. His first title film role was Kid Monk Baroni, in 1952, about a street punk turned professional boxer. He appeared in the film Them! , and The Brain Eaters in late 1958, along with Zombies of the Stratosphere in 1952. He appeared in The Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy” in 1961. He was cast as Luke Reid in 1959s ABC series Colt 45, then appeared in a series of television Westerns, Wagon Train, Bonanza, The Rebel, Rawhide, and co-starred with DeForest Kelley on The Virginian in a 1963 episode.  He also appeared in crime dramas such as The Untouchables and Perry Mason. Leonard Nimoy first worked with William Shatner in a 1964 episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Nimoy chose to work on the Star Trek pilot over the soap opera Peyton Place. Most of Spock’s most iconic traits came from Leonard Nimoy; the Vulcan hand sign came from childhood memories of the way Jewish Priests (Kohanim) would hold their hands during blessings.  The Vulcan mind meld and Vulcan neck pinch were Nimoy inventions that helped the writers get out of plot point problems in various episodes, and those Jewish blessings also lead to the phrase “Live Long and Prosper.”

Following the end of Star Trek in 1969, he appeared in Mission: Impossible as a replacement for Martin Landau, playing the character of Paris. He appeared with Yul Brynner and Richard Crenna in the Western feature Catlow in 1971. He hosted the series In Search of… starting in 1977, a documentary series about the unexplained and paranormal that impacted countless fans of my age range during its run. He appeared in 1978 as a major character in Philip Kaufman’s unsettling Invasion of The Body Snatchers as a psychiatrist. He was awarded an Emmy nomination for A Woman Called Golda in 1982. Of course, he also appeared in the Star Trek animated series from 1973-1974.

But Leonard Nimoy also reached acclaim for a series of theatrical appearances, essaying the title role of Vincent in 1981. The range of the productions he had been involved with include Fiddler On The Roof, The Man in The Glass Booth, Oliver!, Full Circle, Camelot, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The King and I, Caligula, Twelfth Night, Sherlock Holmes, Equus, and My Fair Lady. But his range also included photography and academia; he studied photography at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1970s, got an MA in education from Antioch College, an honorary degree from Antioch University in Ohio, and honorary doctorate of humane letters from Boston University. His work in photography has been exhibited at the R. Michelson galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. But lastly, one cannot forget his role as a director. He made his directing debut on a Night Gallery episode from the final season, “Death on a Barge.” After directing an episode of T.J. Hooker, Nimoy, of course, helmed Star Trek III and IV, and followed that with the massive comedy hit Three Men and a Baby, and The Good Mother. We even would have to consider his musical abilities as well; a group of pop / rock, folk albums for Dot records, which some have regarded as high camp, while others considered them legitimate efforts.

Like Sean Connery’s inimitable James Bond, Leonard Nimoy tried to work against being typecast in the role of Spock. His efforts to branch out as a legitimate artist led to periods of ambivalence about the role, which eventually led to a kind of existential crisis in the 70s about the impact of the character on the actor. This struggle was first broached in his autobiography written in 1975, I Am Not Spock. By the time his second autobiography was penned in 1995, I Am Spock, some of this ambivalence had been resolved.

Some of this ambivalence was reflected in Spock’s reemergence in the 1979 feature Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Spock has been away from Starfleet for years, and only reappears out of necessity and due to a psychic connection to the V’Ger entity, sensing a living machine that operates on pure logic. But while mirroring Spock, this entity is seeking the big questions: Is there more to existence; why are we here. By the end of the film Spock is taking first steps towards fully integrating his emotions with his logical nature. This arc would continue with the rest of the original cast features. The Spock in Star Trek II seems a little older and wiser. After dying and being revived from the genesis wave, Spock develops greater insight about himself and his friends, and this maturity reaches a conclusion in Star Trek VI, where he has learned to channel his emotions to where it’s appropriate, the betrayal by Valeris to the crew and Starfleet.

I admired Spock for his ability to integrate his emotions with his ability to examine every possible situation from multiple perspectives to arrive at the best decision. Some tend to get it wrong; this aspiration isn’t to live life like some robot, but to be able step away from an issue and look at it objectively. Indeed, Spock cared very deeply for his friends, even if he didn’t show it. He also maintained a very strong ethic toward doing the right thing, for justice, and for protecting the defenseless, even when it meant that someone would have to die. When I first heard of Leonard Nimoy’s passing, Spock’s eulogy from Star Trek II came to mind:

"We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted, in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most... human."

This has taken on a new meaning for myself, the inkling of an idea. With the passing on of an important figure, that such death can leave open the path for the birth of the next generation, the birth of new ideas, the cyclical nature of our mortality, and the hope that another figure with the same depth will arise, but it is incumbent for each of us to rise to that occasion, or to cultivate and nurture a child who might be able live up to the promise.  But it is a cyclical process, and a slow going one, for evolution often is a slow going process. In Star Trek VI Spock tells the new Vulcan cadet, Lt. Valeris, “You must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should.”

While I mourn his passing, I have to be philosophical about this. As Kirk was heard musing in Star Trek II: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” From Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

Leonard Nimoy lived a life that was indeed prosperous, and he lived a full one. His example will be one that others will follow for generations. He is on to a better rest.

Death is the Undiscovered Country; there’s no reason to fear it if you’ve lived a full life.

Special thanks to XScribe for editorial assistance.

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