The success of Star Trek surprised everyone, not least its stars. Leonard Nimoy, the actor who died Friday at the age of 83, probably didn't expect that the half-alien character of Mr. Spock would so thoroughly define his image. But almost a half century after he first donned pointy Vulcan ears in 1966, Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock have become virtually synonymous in the public imagination.
Star Trek, the show that made Nimoy famous, was unusual. Aired by NBC from 1966 to 1969, it suffered from chronically low ratings, yet it attracted some of the most devoted fans in show business.
"We were very low in the ratings, but we were breaking every fan mail record in the history of NBC," Star Trek star DeForest Kelley, who played Leonard McCoy, said in a 1976 interview. When NBC threatened to cancel the show after its second season, the fans organized a letter-writing campaign that got the show a one-year reprieve. Nevertheless, the show got cancelled after its third season, in 1969.
However, the show later went on to became an huge hit in syndication. Its growing legion of fans began organizing conventions and asking Nimoy and other stars to headline them.
In the age of the internet, it has become commonplace for science-fiction franchises to develop passionate fan communities, but this was less common back in the 1960s. There were fewer TV shows on the air, and without the internet it was a lot harder for fans to find each other and share their passion for a show. The fact that fans were able to assemble a vast network of Star Trek lovers in that era is a testament to just how much they loved the show.
Life after Star Trek
But in the 1970s, Nimoy was ambivalent about his growing fame. He snagged a role in the TV show Mission: Impossible shortly after Star Trek went off the air, and he appeared in some other made-for-TV movies in the 1970s. However, none of his other roles would come close to Spock's popularity with the public.
In 1975, Nimoy sought to create a bit of distance between himself and his most famous character with an autobiography called I Am Not Spock. The book upset many fans, who saw it as a slap in the face. But Nimoy said later that he wasn't hostile to Star Trek or its growing legion of fans. He was simply trying to make it clear that he had an identity distinct from his most memorable character.
But carving out an identity separate from Spock wasn't easy. "I was so heavily typecast and so heavily identified with the Spock character, it was difficult to draw attention to the other work that I wanted to do," he said in 2008. He initially resented how this narrowed his options, but he eventually became at peace with it.
"Yes it does preclude you from being offered certain kinds of work, but at the same time it gives you an identity. And that identity in the acting business can be very useful. I have never been out of work since Star Trek went on the air. I have never needed to look for a job," Nimoy added.
One way Nimoy coped with his limited options as an actor was by exploring other creative roles. He convinced Paramount to let him direct the third and fourth Star Trek movies in 1984 and 1986, respectively. He then parlayed those films' success into a gig directing the popular 1988 comedy 3 Men and a Baby and four other films in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Also, the adulation of Star Trek fans had its upsides. Nimoy could make a steady income headlining conventions, and he got a string of Star Trek acting opportunities, first in Star Trek movies and then as a guest star in the show's first spin-off, The Next Generation. Even after the original Star Trek franchise was rebooted in 2009 with new actors playing the original series' characters, the writers used a time-travel gimmick to give Nimoy a role. In 2013 he appeared in a funny Audi commercial with the man who replaced him as Spock, Zachary Quinto:
By 1995, Nimoy was sufficiently at peace with his Star Trek fame that he wrote another autobiography. This one was called I Am Spock. Late in his life he became a prolific user of Twitter, racking up more than a million followers. He would end most tweets with "LLAP" — a reference to a Vulcan greeting Spock uttered frequently on the show: "live long and prosper."
A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP— Leonard Nimoy (@TheRealNimoy) February 23, 2015