One of the most resonant voices in science fiction was silenced for 90 seconds.
Leonard Nimoy sat down at the Emerald City ComiCon dais in Seattle on Saturday, leaned toward his microphone, and said, “I wanted to share something with you …” But no one could hear him. The mic was dead.
ComiCon staff struggled to run the single working mic over to Nimoy’s place, while the man who brought Mr. Spock to life waited patiently with a few notes in front of him. At one point, while the wire-wrangling was underway, the 79-year-old actor, writer, director and photographer raised his finger to his lips and said, “Shhhhh …”
From there, Nimoy — who’s had little to do professionally with comic books, although his likeness as Spock has graced many of them — had the crowd in the palm of his hand. His only prepared remarks were drawn from his 1983 volume of poetry, “Warmed By Love,” in a memoir passage that cited William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” as a touchstone that kept him afloat as a young, struggling actor. (“I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.”) The rest were questions from the audience, 1,500 people strong — in the largest event room ever booked for the Seattle con, according to organizers — and almost every answer from the star drew a fond round of applause.
Most of the fans were there to bask in his presence, and those who asked questions always prefaced them with praise. “You’ve done everything — movies, theater, music, poetry, TV … what do you say no to?” his first questioner asked
“Well, there were some things that I should have said no to,” Nimoy admitted. “I’ve been adventurous and inquisitive and curious and restless. I keep moving, I keep moving. I find stuff that stimulates me, and I have to do it. There are times when I’m overburdened, I have too much on my plate, and I have to say I can’t d this or I can’t do that, I can’t deal with this right now, but I’m a grateful person. I’ve had great opportunities.”
The role of Spock, originated on the “Star Trek” TV series in 1966, was one of those great opportunities. But under questioning from fans, Nimoy said that the blessing has sometimes been mixed.
“It’s been complicated. When ‘Star Trek’ went on the air in 1966, I had no idea what to expect except that I was very excited to have a steady job with an interesting character — a really interesting character.” From the show’s end in 1968, Nimoy went on to two seasons on “Mission: Impossible,” and thought the SF show had run its course.
“We did a couple of years of reruns, and I thought it would go away. And then suddenly it became this amazing rejuvenation, in reruns and syndication all over the place. It just kept coming on stronger and stronger, and I had no idea how to deal with that, because there was no ‘Star Trek’ being produced … I thought that after a couple of seasons it would go away, and it did not, it just kept coming on.”
In the years just after the show, Nimoy became a published poet with some decent sales to his credit. His publisher asked for a “Star Trek”-related memoir, which became 1975’s “I Am Not Spock.” The book spelled out the ways in which Nimoy differed from his popular character, but also the qualities Nimoy loved and admired in the Vulcan science officer. Some fans focused only on the former, Nimoy told the crowd, and saw it as a disavowal of their hero. “People misunderstood,” he said, “and it created some difficulties.”
Nimoy sought to be further understood through his photography. “Actors don’t make objects,” he said. “An actor’s work just goes out there, sort of. But as a photographer I could make a print, and give it to you, and you could hang it on your wall or show it to your family or friends. That became a magical, satisfying experience for me.”
His latest such work, “Secret Selves,” goes on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in July. He won acclaim with his book and cycle “The Full Body Project,” featuring nude photographs of full-figured women. He characterized that project as both an artistically satisfying work and something of a political statement.
“Beauty is culture-driven,” Nimoy said, his voice steadily rising. “We are being told, in a way, what the standard of beauty is. It is not necessarily true, it’s not necessarily fair, it’s not necessarily honest. It’s a selling job, in a sense. The fashion industry, the cosmetics industry, have a tremendous interest in selling people on the idea that ‘This is the way you should look, and if you don’t look this way, we have a product to sell you which will help you to look this way.’ The people who model clothes in the fashion industry weigh 25 percent less than the average woman. So why are they the ones showing us how to wear those clothes? It’s just a strange phenomenon.”
An early stage role as a young Jewish man in “Awake and Sing” — a part that mirrored Nimoy’s own life, growing up in Boston — enlightened him to the potential for acting to illuminate the human condition. “To find Spock, that role, in ‘Star Trek,’ which does exactly that — which entertains and enlightens — and to play a character where people come to me day after day, year after year telling me how grateful they are for that character and what that character has represented to them, and how that character has helped them through tough times in their lives, and how that character has shown how you can live a dignified life as the outsider, as the other person — I’m blessed. I have no dream about any other character or any other type of life for myself. I couldn’t be happier.”
At Emerald City, fans did indeed share what Spock had meant to them. A former sailor recalled countering his homesickness in far ports with viewings of “Star Trek.” An Iraq War veteran talked about how he projected himself into the character of Spock while recovering from a combat head injury. A woman thanked Nimoy for, indirectly, helping her battle cancer.
Nimoy by now has grown comfortable with that duality — being thanked for something he did, but also did not do. Once, he said, a mother encountered him in public and tried to introduce him to her doubtful Trekkie son.
“She says, ‘This is Mr. Spock,'” he recalled. “And he wasn’t gonna buy it. And he was right — Mr. Spock was not standing there. What she really meant to say was, ‘This is the actor who plays Mr. Spock.’ But that’s not what she said.”