You have to hand it to the folks at MeTV; just a little more than 24 hours after the passing of Leonard Nimoy on Friday, they switched up their Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night schedule, substituting the planned Star Trek episode, “This Side of Paradise,” for what’s probably the best-loved Spock-centric story, “Amok Time.” And on Sunday, both Me and SyFy offered mini-marathons of shows and movies featuring the Boston-born actor/filmmaker, from his brief turn as a soldier in a WWII-set episode of The Twilight Zone, to a 1964 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. installment guest-starring a pre-Enterprise Nimoy and William Shatner, to Spock’s two-part 1991 appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Over the weekend the media (print, broadcast and cyber-) was packed with emotional tributes to the sci-fi icon, the vast majority of which focused on his Emmy-nominated portrayal of the emotion-eschewing half-human, half-Vulcan Starfleet officer. Many of those salutes also seemed to feature an intro featuring something along the lines of “He lived long and prospered”). Well, here at MovieFanFare we thought we’d remember Nimoy with a chronicle of 10 key moments from his 60-plus-year movie and TV career, without a mention of Spock. Well, maybe a mention or two:
1. Kid Monk Baroni (1951) — While his film debut was as a mill worker named Chief (!) in the 1951 based-on-a-game-show anthology Queen for a Day (where his name was misspelled “Nemoy” in the closing credits), Leonard’s first starring role came a year later. In 1952 he played a young New York City street hood whose unflattering looks earn him the nickname “Monk,” and who is schooled by a local priest in the “sweet science” of boxing, in the “B” prizefighting drama Kid Monk Baroni. It’s not a bad little film, given its low-budget limitations and somewhat hokey storyline of plastic surgery turning Nimoy from a nice guy to a jerk. Two other early sports-related turns–uncredited, of course–came in the comedies Rhubarb (1951) as a baseball player and Francis Goes to West Point (1952) as a college football player.
2. Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) — As any good Star Trek fan worth his or her salt knows, Mr. Spock wasn’t Nimoy’s first crack at playing an extraterrestrial. In this Republic serial, one of the studio’s last, a heavily made-up Leonard was a malevolent Martian named Narab who, along with his fellow aliens and a traitorous human scientist, plots to use hydrogen bombs to swap Mars and Earth’s orbits around the sun and save the dying Red Planet. Yes, in astronomy as in real estate, the key to success is “location, location, location.” Luckily, a hero with the Commando Cody flying suit is there to stop the Martians and their explosive (sorry) plot.
The ’50s would also find him in small roles in other sci-fi fare. You can see him as an Army sergeant checking teletypes for reports of “flying saucers” in the 1954 giant ant extravaganza Them!, and in 1958’s The Brain Eaters Nimoy (whose name was once again written as “Nemoy” in the title sequence) is barely recognizable as a robed, bearded scientist whose brain has been taken over–not eaten, thank goodness–by blobby, eye-stalked alien creatures intent on dominating humanity. By the way, is it just me or does Brain Eaters Leonard look like the wizard Shazam from Captain Marvel comic books?
3. The Balcony (1963) — Unfortunately now currently available on DVD or Blu-ray, this once-controversial adaptation of Jean Genet’s psycho-sexual Off-Braodway drama is set in a revolution-ravaged country…specifically, a brothel in that country’s capital, where the madam (Shelley Winters) caters to a clientele intent on playing out their sordid fantasies of power and authority. Peter Falk plays one of Winters’ favorite customer, the local chief of police, while Nimoy is cast as a rebel leader. And yes, the above still is an actual scene from the movie.
4. The Outer Limits (1963-65) — Shortly before landing the role of Mr. Spock, Nimoy guest starred in two episodes of this short-lived ABC anthology series. A minor role in Season One’s “Production and Decay of Strange Particles” was followed the next season by Leonard as a newspaperman reporting on the trial of Adam Link, a mechanical man accused of killing its (his?) creator, in “I, Robot” (based, not on the Issac Asimov book of the same name, but a short story by Earl and Otto Binder).
5. Star Trek (1966-69) — Well, I said up top that this article would be “90% Spock-free,” but there were two little items that I didn’t want to overlook. The first came during this past weekend’s MeTV airing of “Amok Time,” when Spock asks his almost-wife T’Pring (Arlene Martel) why she forced him to combat Kirk for her hand, and she replies that she wanted to be with fellow Vulcan Stonn (Lawrence Montaigne). Spock looks at his would-be rival and, in a wonderful Vulcan version of “the dozens,” stoically says, “I see no logic in preferring Stonn over me.” Burn!
The other moment I always liked came near the end of Saturday’s replaced episode, “This Side of Paradise.” Spock, freed from the mind-controlling spores that allowed him to express his emotions and hang from a tree while canoodling with colonist Leila Kalomi (Jill Ireland), has to “break up” with her. A tearful Leila, who had carried a torch for him for years, says “You never told me if you had another name, Mr. Spock.” He looks at her, wipes a tear from her cheek and, with a hint of a smile on his face, replies, “You couldn’t pronounce it.”
6. Mission: Impossible (1969-70) — After NBC pulled the plug–two years early–on the Enterprise’s five-year mission, Leonard hit the ground running by jumping over to CBS and joining Mr. Phelps’ (Peter Graves) Impossible Missions Force for two seasons as ex-magician Paris the Great, a master of make-up and disguise (as seen in the trio of photos above). And so it was that Nimoy filled the role in the spy series previously played by Martin Landau’s Rollin Hand…which was kind of ironic, since Landau had at one point been considered by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for the role of Spock.
6. Catlow (1971) — The 1970s were a busy time for Nimoy, who appeared in several made-for-TV movies; guest starred on such series as Night Gallery and Columbo; joined most of his shipmates and lent his voice to 1973’s Star Trek: The Animated Series; hosted the syndicated documentary series In Search Of…; and even performed on stage as Vincent Van Gogh and Sherlock Holmes. Big-screen film turns, however, were few and far between. One role that did come along was in this MGM western based on a Louis L’Amour novel. Yul Brynner’s title outlaw is after a fortune in gold hidden away in the Mexican hills. First, however, Catlow has to deal with his old friend (Richard Crenna), now a marshal sworn to bring him to justice, as well as the sneering gunman (Leonard) hired to eliminate him before he reaches his prize.
7. Baffled! (1973) — Leonard was actually better served in this telefilm, the pilot to a planned series that wasn’t picked up (the movie was released theatrically in the U.K.). Baffled! (can’t forget the exclamation point!) finds Nimoy played Tom Novak, a Formula One diver who is stricken by bizarre visions in the middle of a race that lead to a near-fatal crash. After he recovers, Novak is contacted by British book seller and occult expert Michele Brent (Susan Hampshire), who believes his visions–centered around a sinister English mansion–are premonitions of a crime about to happen. If the nature of the mystery they encounter and its denouement seems a little more Scooby-Doo than X-Files, Baffled! at least offered Nimoy a change-of-pace role, and the pairing of him and Hampshire as psychic investigators certainly had as much potential as The Sixth Sense or other ’70s small-screen efforts.
8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) — Gee, imagine that: Leonard Nimoy defending humanity from emotionless aliens! Director Philip Kaufman’s re-imagining of the 1956 sci-fi gem replaces that film’s Cold War analogy and anti-communist (or anti-McCarthyite, depending upon who you talk to) tone with a nod to post-Watergate conspiracy fears and such ’70s “liberate your mind” trends as T.M. and Est. “People are evolving. We’re becoming less human,” Nimoy’s Dr. David Kibner, a glib psychiatrist and self-help book author, says even before the “pod people” take over San Francisco (the moving of the action from an idyllic Mayberry-like California town to the “depraved home of hippie burnouts” likewise helped set Kaufman’s picture apart from its predecessor). Kibner exists at first as a sort a “voice of reason” to his increasingly paranoid friend Matthew Bennett (Donald Sutherland) and their fellow fugitives (Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum). Even so, his eventual shift from normal human to “pod person” is done with underplayed subtlety by Nimoy, who obviously had three years’ worth of experience to draw upon.
9. Never Forget (1991) — The son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants, Nimoy’s powerful performance in this TV-made movie based on a true story indicates how strongly he believed in the project. Leonard plays Mel Mermelstein, a Hungarian-born Auschwitz survivor who lost his family in the Nazi death camps. In the 1980s Mermelstein made international headlines when he took a Holocuast-denying organization to court over its claim that the horrors he witnessed never happened and its offer of $50,000 to anyone who could present proof otherwise. More of a legal drama that a Holocaust history, Never Forget has a fine cast that includes Blythe Danner as Mermelstein’s wife and Dabney Coleman as the attorney who takes up his case against the so-called “historical revisionist group.” But it’s Nimoy’s moving portrayal of a seemingly ordinary man who overcame the unimaginable and vowed to make certain that the world would always remember that makes it worth watching.
10. The Simpsons (1990-?) — “Do you even know who I am?” “I think I do. Weren’t you one of the Little Rascals?” Leonard was a guest voice in two classic Simpsons episodes. While he was good as the host of 1997’s “The Springfield Files,” it’s the fourth season’s “Marge vs. the Monorail” that gets the nod from me, if only for the above exchange between Nimoy (as himself) and Springfield mayor “Diamond Joe” Quimby at the inaugural run of the town’s ill-fated monorail line. As Leonard himself says when he saves a hysterical Krusty the Clown from jumping off the out-of-control train, “No, the world needs laughter.”
Thanks for everything, Leonard. Your contributions to the world of science fiction and fantasy will live on, and it’s comforting to know that, a thousand years from now, you’ll be living “a life of quiet dignity” greeting visitors at the New New York City Head Museum (courtesy of Futurama).