My newest Agony Booth article looks at Leonard Nimoy's best work when he wasn't donning the famous Spock ears.
It’s been nearly two years since Nimoy’s passing, and due in no small part to the current political climate, his contribution to the optimism that Star Trek provided remains both relevant and timeless. But as Nimoy himself illustrated throughout his professional life, there was so much more to him than his unique portrayal of a super-intelligent extraterrestrial who did his best to minimize emotion. The magical irony of that, however, is that millions were able to identify with the alien nature the character of Spock presented.
This all led me to consider Nimoy’s best work when he did not don the famous pointy ears, which I now present in no particular order.
Mission: Impossible (1969-1971)
Soon after Star Trek’s cancellation in 1969, Nimoy became a regular on another NBC series, Mission: Impossible, during its fourth and fifth seasons. He portrayed Andrew “The Great” Paris, who was an actor, magician, and master of disguise. While this character didn’t become as richly defined as Spock, it was still fun seeing Nimoy interact with other greats such as Peter Graves, Lesley Ann Warren, and Greg Morris.
A Woman Called Golda (1982)
This TV movie starred Ingrid Bergman in her final role as Golda Meir, who spent her life fighting for the rights of Jews everywhere and became Prime Minister of Israel, a post she served from 1969 to 1974. Bergman won a posthumous Emmy Award for her performance, and Nimoy earned an Emmy nomination playing her husband Morris Meyerson (he previously earned Emmy nominations for each of Star Trek‘s three seasons).
In Search of… (1977-1982)
Another present I received this past Christmas was the DVD box set of this wonderful series, which was hosted by Nimoy. This series looked at unexplained phenomena, ranging from Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ESP, the Amityville Horror, killer bees, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and even the assassinations of both Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. Producer Alan Landsburg created this half-hour series following a trilogy of hour-long documentaries (In Search of Ancient Astronauts, In Search of Ancient Mysteries, and The Outer Space Connection) which were narrated by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. Nimoy was selected to host the series after Serling died in 1975, and he proved to be the icing on this delicious cake, as the show was wonderfully informative. Watch any episode and you can see the interest Nimoy expresses in the topic that each segment is tackling. Nimoy’s dedication to the series was rewarded when Landsburg allowed him to write the show’s segment on artist Vincent Van Gogh. The artist’s brother Theo was also portrayed by Nimoy on-stage in Vincent, based on letters the two brothers wrote to each other.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
I actually prefer the 1956 original (which itself was based on Jack Finney’s book The Body Snatchers), but Philip Kaufman’s take is still a remake that’s worth watching. Nimoy is quite spooky in the flick as a psychiatrist who falls victim to the title creatures. The fine cast also includes Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Donald Sutherland in the lead role played by Kevin McCarthy in the original. McCarthy himself has a memorable cameo as a victim of the invaders. Don Siegel, who directed the original, also appears as a taxi driver.
As a writer/director: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)/Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Yes, Nimoy played Spock in all three of these films, but I’m specifically focusing on what he did behind the camera.
Nimoy reportedly agreed to play Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in order to settle a lawsuit he had with both Paramount and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. But that film’s financial success led to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Nimoy agreed to play Spock again when producer Harve Bennett (who was a producer on Golda) promised him a great death scene. Thinking there wouldn’t be any more Star Trek films, Nimoy believed this would bring things full circle for the character. The film ended with Spock heroically sacrificing himself to save his crewmates, and this heroic act is one of the reasons the film became embraced as a classic. Not surprisingly, this success gave the green light for further Star Trek films, and Nimoy was approached to participate. He agreed to do Star Trek III on the condition that he could direct the movie.
Yes, it was obvious by that point that Spock would return, but what makes Search for Spock terrific is everything surrounding that inevitable ending. Kirk and the others willingly toss their careers away once they realize there’s a way to get their pal back. In addition, their encounter with Klingons led by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) leads to the death of Kirk’s son David (Merritt Butrick) and the destruction of their beloved ship. Hence, like Wrath of Khan, the film ends on a bittersweet note, as while they’ve accomplished their mission, our heroes are forced to hide out on Vulcan as their careers are in the toilet (but they still have each other!). Nimoy himself said that the picture was about friendship and loyalty, and this is what makes it a worthy follow-up to Wrath of Khan.
The success of this film, which was Nimoy’s directorial debut (although he had directed some television prior to that, including an episode of Shatner’s T.J. Hooker series), allowed him to direct the next film in the series, The Voyage Home. Our heroes attempt to go home to face the music for their crimes in the previous movie, but their trip is deferred when they learn a massive probe is tearing Earth apart. This leads to Kirk’s decision to travel to back in time to contemporary Earth in order to get those famous whales that can save the future. This film is more lighthearted compared to the previous movies, but that tone is utilized perfectly in service of the plot, unlike both Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Insurrection, which overdid the comedy (and were unfunny as a result).
After the failure of Final Frontier, Nimoy was offered the chance to direct The Undiscovered Country. He declined, but agreed to write the script with returning director Nicholas Meyer (who directed Wrath of Khan). In this film, the release of which occurred not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Federation and the Klingon Empire take the first steps towards peace, while Captain Kirk must also deal with his own prejudices regarding Klingons, whom he blames for the death of his son. In addition, this film coincided with Star Trek’s silver anniversary, and proved to be a wonderful curtain call for the original series cast. At the same time, Nimoy’s simultaneous appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Unification” two-parter was a nice way of promoting the movie.
Nimoy’s contribution to Star Trek in this manner was also his attempt to prove that while he certainly sought out other acting roles, he did not hate Spock. This confusion came to a head with his first autobiography, titled I Am Not Spock. This in turn led to his second, which he titled I Am Spock.
As a director: Three Men and a Baby (1987)
Nimoy directed a total of six feature films, and the most successful of these was this comedy, released one year after The Voyage Home. A remake of the French film Trois Hommes et un Couffin (Three Men and a Cradle), it centers on three bachelor buddies (Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, and Ted Danson) who one day find an infant girl left on their doorstep. Their world quickly changes, and while one of the bachelors confirms that he’s the father, all three eventually become enamored with the new addition to their lives. Personally, I could’ve done without the drug dealer subplot, but the film itself is funny, with our three protagonists attempting to live some kind of a life after having this great responsibility placed upon them. Three Men and a Baby went on to become the biggest moneymaker of 1987. Happily, Nimoy didn’t waste his time directing the inevitable and pointless sequel Three Men and a Little Lady.
With this directorial success, it’s no wonder that Nimoy’s son Adam would go on to become a director himself. The younger Nimoy would even direct two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Rascals” and “Timescape”), as well as a documentary honoring his father, For the Love of Spock.
Of the many heartfelt tributes following his passing, Nimoy’s friend and Star Trek colleague George Takei probably stated it best on social media that Nimoy truly lived long and prospered. The works mentioned above, along with Nimoy’s other work, which including photography and music (Nimoy had five musical albums to his name, the first of which was released in 1967 and called Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space), is proof of how true Takei’s statement is. It should also serve as inspiration to all of us that we too can live long and prosper as Nimoy did, regardless of who’s in the White House.