As a kid, I knew that Mr. Spock was a fictional character. I understood that he was portrayed by an actor named Leonard Nimoy, and that Leonard Nimoy was a regular human being with normal ears and normal eyebrows who smiled and laughed and occasionally even got angry, things that Mr. Spock never did.
I never knew Leonard Nimoy. I never even saw him in person. But Mr. Spock was my friend.
I didn’t have a lot of playmates as a kid. And although I spent plenty of time playing with Transformers, Go-Bots, and Star Wars action figures, my favorite thing to do was play Star Trek. The backyard became an alien planet that I, as Captain Kirk, was exploring with an imaginary Mr. Spock. Mr. Spock was almost omnipresent during those years. He was the Hobbes to my Calvin. When my parents dragged me to some social occasion so they could stand around and talk about boring adult stuff with other grownups, I’d pretend that Mr. Spock and I were undercover at some Federation diplomatic function, watching out for Klingons. If my day at school was especially boring or difficult, I’d imagine that my elementary school was a Klingon prison that Spock and I had been thrown into, and during recess we’d make escape plans. (Rescue usually came promptly at 2:30 in the form of a green 1982 Pontiac driven by my mother) Mr. Spock was the ideal companion. He was smart and loyal and his Vulcan Nerve Pinch would’ve been perfect for dispatching bullies if only it (and he) were real. Plus, as his Vulcan characteristics and intellect made him different from those around him, he was not the kind of person who would make fun of you for liking stuff that most people thought was weird.
Eventually I was too old to run around the backyard pretending to be Captain Kirk, and my imaginary Vulcan companion faded away. But Mr. Spock had more to teach me. When I was little, I didn’t understand what his insistence on logic was all about. But as I grew older I began to get it. I understood the value of having my deeply-held personal beliefs rest on a foundation of rationality and logic. I appreciated the value of knowledge, of continuous learning, and of prioritizing the truth you know with your head over the truth you feel with your gut. (To borrow an expression from Stephen Colbert)
What does all this have to do with Leonard Nimoy? After all, Spock is only a character. His most profound sayings (“If there are self-made purgatories, we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s.” “You may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”) were written by someone else. Leonard Nimoy wasn’t Mr. Spock.
Only he was.
No one else could have breathed life into the character the way he did. I firmly believe that if Martin Landau or Lawrence Montaigne had been cast instead, Star Trek would have been canceled after one season and today it would be only a footnote. But more than that, Nimoy understood the importance of Spock. Sure, for a while it may have been an encumbrance to him, but over time he came to embrace the role of unofficial ambassador of this entertainment franchise that means so much to so many. On the other hand, when William Shatner shouted for Star Trek fans to “Get a life!” in his famous SNL sketch, he may have been exaggerating but he wasn’t exactly kidding. You could never imagine Nimoy doing something like that. When he spoke about Star Trek and its fans he was always very thoughtful with no hint of condescension.
There’s been a tremendous outpouring of grief in the wake of Mr. Nimoy’s passing, and I must admit that I feel it to a certain extent. It’s completely illogical; like I said I never met the man or even saw him in person. But I think what made him so special was that on some level he actually was what he appeared to be. I’ve never heard a “bad Nimoy” story where a fan met him under normal circumstances (i.e. not by invading his privacy or bothering him when he clearly wanted to be left alone) and he was a jerk to them. Indeed, there are many, many stories of his kindness and fairness, in both professional and personal situations. For example, the years after Star Trek’s cancellation were lean times for most of the cast, and so he refused to reprise the role of Spock for the animated Star Trek unless George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were brought onboard as well (originally they were going to be excluded to save money). And during the run of the Original Series, Nimoy learned that Nichelle Nichols wasn’t being paid as much as her male castmates and he used his influence to correct the situation.
In the end, Leonard Nimoy may not have been Spock, but he also wasn’t just another superficial, self-involved actor. There was a genuineness about him, and that, I believe, is why he’s mourned by so many.