MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Leonard Nimoy requested that Spock be killed off if Nimoy were to play Spock again in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Norm Macdonald has an old joke about the time he met a guy at a bar and they ended up drinking so much that when the comedian woke up the next day, he was in a rehab facility. As it turns out, the guy he was drinking with was an alcoholic who presumed that Macdonald was one as well, so he checked them both in to rehab. As Macdonald jokes, he tried to explain to the people at the facility that he was not an alcoholic, but as it turns out, that's apparently what alcoholics say as well. That’s the situation Leonard Nimoy has been dealing with for more than 30 years in regard to the long-standing legend that he requested Spock be killed off in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He's been denying it for decades, but people figure he would deny it even if it were true, so his denials haven’t carried much weight. So let's try to settle it as best as we can. Did Leonard Nimoy request for Spock to be killed off if Nimoy were to return to play the character in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?
Simply put, no. Less simply put, well, that's this whole column, right?
Amusingly enough, Nimoy's autobiography I Am Not Spock has often been used as an example to show that Nimoy wasn’t interested in playing the character in any more Star Trek films. However, I Am Not Spock came out in 1975, four years before Nimoy did, indeed, portray the character again in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so clearly the book was no definitive departure point. Instead, it was merely a case of wishing to differentiate the actor with the role, not necessarily to separate the actor from the role. You can still like a role while also being a bit irked at how everyone assumes that you are the character. (That's basically the complaint of every soap opera villain/villainess ever: They love their roles, they just don't like people in supermarkets thinking that they're evil because they can't separate the actor from the part.)
However, it’s fair to say Nimoy made it clear to interested parties that the first Star Trek movie was to be his last hurrah with Spock. In fact, it was so definitive that when Paramount Television Executive Producer Harve Bennett sat down to write a treatment for the second Star Trek film in November 1980, he did not even consider including Spock in the script. It was just a given that Nimoy wasn’t going to do the sequel. So in Bennett's early take of the film, there was no Spock presence. The other main beats of the film were there (Kirk discovering he had a son, Khan being the bad guy, "getting old" as a general theme) but no Spock. While Bennett had a treatment in place, though, he needed someone to formulate his ideas into a script. So he brought in longtime television writer Jack B. Sowards in December 1980. There was a writers’ strike coming in April 1981, so Sowards needed to write the film quickly. As soon as Bennett and Sowards began conferencing with each other, however, Sowards made it clear he knew of a way that they could get Nimoy to come back: Offer to kill off Spock. Sowards' theory was that no actor would want to turn down a great death scene, and if Nimoy really didn’t want to portray Spock any longer, what better way of assuring that then to have the character killed off?
As part of the plan, as it were, the original offer to Nimoy was that Spock would be killed off early in the film, as a shock death (similar to that of Janet Leigh in Psycho or Drew Barrymore in Scream). However, as development continued, Sowards kept pushing the death further and further back in the plot (always getting Nimoy's approval first). Sowards' friend, Robert J. Elisberg, wrote about it a few months back:
And in the next draft, it was moved a little further still. And then moved back some more. All the while, Leonard Nimoy was always shown the script, really liked the death scene, but was now especially enjoying the new Spock material, and what Jack was doing with the character. What Jack had intended to do all along.
And then, finally, Jack Sowards had pushed the death scene all the way to the end of the movie.
As Elisberg notes, the result was that Nimoy was now interested enough that he ended up deciding to sign on for more Star Trek films (the fact that Nimoy was allowed to direct the third Star Trek film was likely a strong incentive). So by the time The Wrath of Khan ended, they were already planning on Spock's return in the next film.
Over the years, there has been a bit of confusion over Sowards' role in Spock’s death, as some Bennett interviews make it sound as if Bennett came up with the idea (like this one):
When I first took the Star Trek assignment, one of the problems was that Leonard Nimoy had already written his book I Am Not Spock. He had publicly put it out there that he’d never do Spock again. And one of my first challenges was to convince Leonard that he should come back, because it wouldn't be Star Trek without him. I finally convinced him with a very simple, actor-proof argument. I said, “Leonard, if you come back, I’m going to give you the greatest death scene since Janet Leigh in Psycho. One third of the way into the picture, we’re going to kill you. The audience will be shocked. It will be the end of your problems with Spock and we will go on to complete the story.”
It’s interesting to see Bennett repeat the I Am Not Spock myth, but more importantly, while he says it was his challenge to convince Nimoy, he doesn't actually claim he came up with the idea to kill him, just that he was the one who presented it to Nimoy. A bit confusing? Sure, but I don't think Bennett is actively trying to claim ownership. In any event, it’s clear there was no Spock death until Sowards came aboard in December 1980 (in the end, the film's director, Nicholas Meyer, added a decent amount to the screenplay as well, all uncredited).
The legend is ...
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!