When Leonard Nimoy titled his 1975 autobiography I Am Not Spock, some Star Trek fans took it as an insult, thinking Nimoy was trying to distance himself from the role that made him famous. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Rarely does an actor get a chance to play a character as memorable as the starship Enterprise’s Mr. Spock: a superior intellect with a cool demeanor, a casual courage, and a fierce sense of loyalty.
Nimoy appreciated the opportunity when he was cast in the original Star Trek pilot back in 1964, and it was his performance as Spock over the next five years—playing the half-Vulcan scientist with confidence and a deadpan wit—that made Spock such a pop culture icon. Nimoy titled his second autobiography I Am Spock, to clear up any confusion. And right up until his death earlier today, Nimoy signed nearly all of his personal correspondence with “LLAP,” meaning, “live long and prosper,” Spock’s motto.
And yet Nimoy really wasn’t Spock—or at least, he wasn’t just Spock. By the time he put on the pointy ears for the first time at age 33, he’d already been in over 20 television series and a half-dozen movies. Nimoy started acting as a child in Boston, and was working steadily not long after he arrived in Hollywood in the early 1950s. At a time when TV was jammed with Westerns, war dramas, and cop shows, Nimoy was a go-to guest star, prized for his lanky frame, his sharp facial features, and his deep, raspy voice. He made an instant impression, and excelled at playing exotic characters and imposing goons.
After Star Trek, Nimoy continued to make use of his innate alien-ness. His most prominent post-Spock part was as a magician and master of disguise on the spy series Mission: Impossible; and children of the 1970s would come to know Nimoy as the host of the chilling In Search Of… documentaries, where his authoritative narration helped make the supernatural seem plausible. His last major acting job was as a recurring character on Fox’s cult science-fiction series Fringe, where Nimoy played one of a pair of well-meaning mad scientists whose inventions nearly destroy the universe. To the end, he used his acting career to get people thinking about technology, humanity, and responsibility.
Nimoy also developed a reputation over the decades as something of a renaissance man. He recorded a string of charmingly odd albums in the 1960s and 1970s, mixing novelty songs, pop covers, and sops to science-fiction/fantasy fans (like the infamous “The Ballad Of Bilbo Baggins”). He became a respected photographer, and took his keen eye with him when he began dabbling in directing for movies and television.
And late in life especially, Nimoy embraced the persona of the gentle philosopher, using his Twitter feed to spread a message of peace and compassion. Decades after the original series of Star Trek ended, some of the cast members would look back on those years—and on the movies that followed in the 1980s and 1990s—and talk about the personality conflicts that kept some actors from speaking to each other for years. But Nimoy largely stayed above the fray, remaining friendly with nearly everybody, and especially with the show’s notoriously prickly star, William Shatner.
All of this was very much in line with Nimoy’s most popular character. It’s a role he seemed to grow into throughout his life, first on-screen—where Spock became more lovable and believable with each new episode and each new movie—and then in Nimoy’s interactions with peers and fans. Even when Nimoy was diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), he seemed to take it in stride, using his impending death as an occasion to warn against the dangers of smoking and to encourage his fans to be good to each other. If he’d been able to write one last autobiography, Nimoy could’ve called it I Tried My Best To Be Spock. And more often than not, he succeeded.