I Did Not Know Leonard Nimoy

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Photo by Ethan H. WIlson

I didn’t. Never met the man. I once walked onto a stage where he’d just finished speaking, and picked up the mic he’d just put down; but we didn’t exchange any words, except perhaps, “hello.” Maybe we nodded to each other in passing. But I didn’t know Leonard, and he didn’t know me.

Why is that important? Two reasons. One, a lot of people are rushing right now to talk about knowing this man who just ended a long and productive life. I guess it helps them mourn his loss, makes them feel closer to him, despite his death, and provides them with validation. They knew someone famous, and that’s cool. Every fan wants to be able to claim that he’s best buds with his favorite celebrity, right? And what am I, if not a fan? Look at that picture up top. Who but a fan owns that many Mr. Spock figures?

But I don’t need that particular validation. I don’t need to say that I knew Leonard Nimoy, or that he had my number in his cell phone, or that he recognized me when we met (because we didn’t) in order to feel special. I am special. I’m an amazing person. Get that look off your face! Of course I’m an amazing person! Why would I bother to be anything else? I have standards for what makes a person special, and I meet them. Why would I waste time being something short of amazing?

But that leads me to reason two that it’s significant that I didn’t know this man: Leonard is in part responsible for me being the person I am today. I didn’t need to meet him for that to happen, and he didn’t need to know who I was. That’s all part of Leonard living up to his own standards of being an amazing person. You see, Leonard influenced me just by doing his work as an actor and a director. He was a writer, too, and a photographer.

That’s the nature of celebrity, or should be. We don’t have to know the celebrity, touch him, interact with him in any two-way fashion. He doesn’t need to know we exist. He doesn’t need to validate us. He just has to be his definition of an amazing person, and, if living up to that standard causes him to resonate with us in some way, then he’s touched us, and his celebrity has done us a service. That’s what celebrities are–people who have resonated, through their public persona, with a lot of other people they don’t know. The public persona can be completely scripted, as in a fictional character, or it can be the persona a politician or a philanthropist wears. You don’t see all of them. You don’t need to. You see the part they want you to see. Sometimes they create that part themselves. Sometimes that part is created by others.

Either way, they’ve done their work just by showing you that part of themselves. They don’t owe you personal contact, or their personal approval of you as a human being. Oh, it’s nice to get that contact (sometimes), but, as the immortal Humphrey Bogart once observed, “I don’t owe the public anything except a good performance.”

One of Leonard’s public personas was created for him by Gene Roddenberry, and fleshed out by Gene L. Coon, Dorothy Fontana, Theodore Sturgeon and a host of other writers. Spock was the outsider in all of us. The seeker. The silent observer. He was the rational intellect who was still driven by passion, and who sometimes made very big, very illogical decisions (like ditching all his human friends to live in the desert and purge all emotion. Stable people don’t do things like that.) Leonard made me sympathize with Spock from the time I was four or five. I knew how it felt to be an outsider. Through Spock, Leonard made me admire rationality and logic, and want to discipline my mind the way Spock disciplined his. But, by showing me clearly that Spock could be very lonely, he also taught me that I didn’t want to fall out of touch with my emotions.

Leonard also had a public persona outside of Spock, as a truly passionate artist who wanted to stretch his creative wings. He took on all kinds of challenges, directing Star Trek films and Three Men and a Baby, challenging Holocaust deniers by making a film on the subject, becoming, late in life, a photographer. I think it was Leonard who made me want to be a voice actor, when I first heard his reading of Ray Bradbury’s “Usher II.”

And Leonard has a public persona as a nice guy, and a good friend. When executives wanted to cut George Takei and Nichelle Nichols out of Star Trek’s animated episodes, to save money, Leonard threatened to walk off the project. When people publicly bashed his Trek costar, Bill Shatner, Leonard made it clear that he loved Bill, even while he understood the anger of others toward him. When he learned that fans were angry at him over reports that he didn’t want to be a part of the Trek movie franchise, Leonard crashed a New York Trek con, took the stage, and announced, “My heart is broken.” Leonard made a very public show of caring about people, even those he didn’t know.

That kind of behavior means a lot. When you’re little, you think your fictional heroes are real. Then you grow up, and find out that someone else entirely lives behind that face you know so well. It means a lot to discover that that other someone is a creative, moral, nice guy too. It shapes a young person’s behavior to see things like that.

So, Leonard Nimoy? Never met the man. But he’s a part of me forever, and I’m very glad he showed the world what an amazing person he was, over and over again for 83 years.

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