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Virginia Postrel, writing in Bloomberg View, notes that “When ‘Star Trek’ debuted in 1966, showing a beautiful black woman and a dashing Asian man as bridge officers was an idealistic political statement. Turning someone who looked like Leonard Nimoy into a sex symbol, however, was entirely unintentional:”
Before he played Spock, Nimoy, who died today at 83, played a surprising number of parts as Indians and Mexicans in the Old West. With his long, thin face, prominent nose and deep smile lines, he looked like The Other.
That’s why he fit the part of Spock. “All I wanted at first was pointed ears and a faintly satanic appearance,” said series creator Gene Roddenberry in “The Making of Star Trek,” published in 1968.
Spock’s “alien features” — as Roddenberry called them in the book — weren’t limited to prostheses. Nimoy was handsome, but not in a way that Hollywood in 1966 recognized. He didn’t look like a leading man. He looked like what he was: the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. And if you looked like that, you were a character actor, not a star.
But Nimoy became a star. He was a Method actor and in creating Spock, he gave what could have been a gimmicky, two-dimensional character hidden depths. Those hidden depths in turn gave him sex appeal. Within the show’s plots, Captain Kirk was the lady killer. But Spock was the one who made female viewers swoon.
15 years ago in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his look at the big screen “New Hollywood” of the pre-Star Wars early to mid-1970s, Peter Biskind wrote:
The young directors employed a new group of actors—Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Harvey Keitel, and Elliott Gould—who banished the vanilla features of the Tabs and the Troys, and instead brought to the screen a gritty new realism and ethnicity. And the women—Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Jill Clayburgh, Ellen Burstyn, Dyan Cannon, Diane Keaton—were a far cry from the pert, snub-nosed Doris Days of the ’50s. Most of these new faces were schooled in the Method by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, or trained by the other celebrated New York teachers: Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, or Uta Hagen. In fact, a lot of the energy that animated the New Hollywood came from New York; the ’70s was the decade when New York swallowed Hollywood, when Hollywood was Gothamized.
As Postrel concludes her article, “If actors like Jeff Goldblum and Adrien Brody aren’t stuck playing villains, it’s partly because Nimoy proved that looks like theirs could be not satanic but sexy.” As with so many aspects of the original Star Trek, it was nice of Nimoy and Roddenberry to once again go where no man had gone before.