Depending on which volume title of his autobiography you choose to agree with, Leonard Nimoy either was or was not Spock. He was of course Spock, and over the years Nimoy grew into coming to terms with his most famous character and what that Vulcan meant to him and others. It’s also true that he was so much more, and other than the Enterprise’s first officer, Nimoy had an amazingly varied career; from acting to writing, directing, acclaimed stage appearances, photography and music. For his acting career and appearances in film and TV Leonard also understood the value of continuing work. In this, and despite his level of fame, Nimoy is comparable to actors of the next generation like Bruce Campbell — the ‘working class’ actor who knew if they didn’t work they didn’t eat. It’s a work ethic built in his earliest appearances and something that follows him through the years of greatest success. And so, let’s take a short tour around some of Nimoy’s best and most fun non-Trek credits and discover just how much more than Spock there is to enjoy.
Pre-Star Trek Film and Television Work
Like any other actor of his time, Nimoy worked a round of auditions and bit-parts or episode guest slots as well as pursuing film fame like his early idol Marlon Brando. In amongst all this Nimoy served in the Army Reserve and worked jobs like cab driver to pay bills. An early role for Nimoy he had hoped would propel him to possible stardom and better opportunities can be found in the 1952 film noir Kid Monk Baroni, directed by Harold D. Schuster. It did not prove a success in theatres but ultimately did lead to regular work for Nimoy over the next decade before he landed his most famous role.
Nimoy would get many roles across film and (mainly) television. As a recognisable face you can spot him in the likes of 1954’s classic Them! and classics of television such as Perry Mason, Dragnet, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Untouchables, Gunsmoke and many more, sometimes more than once (as different characters). Notably he appeared in a 1964 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with a fellow guest star by the name of William Shatner called ‘The Project Strigas Affair’.
Although Star Trek is now a cultural behemoth that has inspired all number of spin-offs, homages and rip-offs, we should remember the original series only just managed to squeeze to a third season that many people found was becoming increasingly absurd before it was cancelled. Like his fellow cast-mates Nimoy had no reason to expect it would not get forgotten and possibly at best hoped for a second life in reruns — there was no DVD release or social media to keep its profile high back then. The slow but steady fan appreciation that would ultimately lead to conventions, the animated series and eventually Trek on the big screen didn’t happen immediately and so it was back to work for Nimoy. Immediately after the end of Star Trek, Nimoy joined the still-hugely popular Mission: Impossible as a replacement for the departing Martin Landau. The show is well-remembered these days for that theme tune and as a basis for Tom Cruise’s increasingly mission-lite series of films. But the original Mission: Impossible is also colourful and convoluted Cold War-era spy fun, mixed with the inevitably increasing paranoia of those times. Nimoy would stay for two seasons as ex-magician and make-up whizz Paris before departing as well.
In 1972 Nimoy signed up for an ITC pilot film for the proposed series Baffled!. At the time, Leonard was doing regular parts in films, television movies and shows like Night Gallery. But Baffled! is worth highlighting as a perhaps lesser-known lead part for him and one which allows Nimoy to dispense with all Spock-like mannerisms. In the film, Nimoy plays race car driver Tom Kovack. Kovack inexplicably begins to experience psychic visions, and unfortunately for him this leads to a crash on the course. Kovack survives and entertainingly goes on to casually discuss his experience on a talk-show, like it just happens to everyone. This is spotted by paranormal ‘expert’ Michelle (Susan Hampshire) who encourages Tom to believe that the woman and girl he saw menaced in his vision can be helped and that he is the man to do it. Tom and Michelle head off to a country house in England now being used as a fancy hotel. Here they find former movie star Andrea and her daughter Jennifer are indeed being menaced by something supernatural and as Tom gets involved, he becomes a target too. Can he unravel the mystery and save everyone, himself included? Yes, of course he can, and he can do it in full ITC-on-the-cheap early ‘70s style. By this time, ITC was spending less on its filmed shows and pilots and it shows in Baffled! It’s cheaper but certainly cheerful and although it doesn’t always make sense and never really makes full use of some of its more out-there ideas, it’s fun enough. Not least for the opportunity it gives Nimoy to smile, be charming and have fun in the part.
As well as his former Trek co-star Shatner, Nimoy would also show up as an adversary to Peter Falk’s Columbo. In the high quality season two episode ‘A Stitch in Crime’ Nimoy played surgeon Dr. Barry Mayfield, who plots to kill his colleague Dr. Hiedemann when he disagrees with Mayfield over research the two are working on. It’s no surprise to discover that Columbo eventually gets his man but like many episodes of this classic series, it’s the journey to it that is the compelling and enjoyable part. Again, Nimoy is having fun playing against type as an arrogant surgeon and his guest role is also noted as one of the few times the wily lieutenant loses his temper (maybe…) with a suspect. The joy here is in Nimoy as boo-hiss villain and it’s a great performance that once again shows there was much to enjoy when Nimoy played straight-up humans, even the bad ones.
In Search of…
For full ‘70s weirdness and peak Nimoy, one need search no further than his…uh…In Search of…(1977-1982) documentary series. A show about that particularly ‘70s fascination, mysterious phenomena, according to the opening disclaimer it presented “…information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.” This is very much the case as Nimoy introduces and narrates episodes on everything from alien visitors, Bigfoot, Dracula, ESP, reincarnation, Shark Worshippers (oh, check it out please…!), haunted castles, cloning, the Amityville horror, ghosts, monsters, time travel and so, so much more. By providing that initial qualifier the series allows itself full freedom to pitch in with whatever possibly-based-in-fact or definitely-cuckoo idea that week’s contributors wanted to put forward. If you compare to the Arthur C. Clarke series of shows on similar topics, it’s like this: Clarke’s show is curious but always scientifically rigorous in approach. In Search of… is pretty much like that friend you have that when a topic is mentioned starts with “Dude, I got a theory on that…” and then launches into some bizarre but wonderful riff that whilst undeniably entertaining is almost definitely utter bollocks. But that’s what makes this show such an important part of Nimoy’s non-Trek in front of the camera oeuvre — it’s huge fun, done with a straight and earnest approach, not always new-age 70’s bobbins and you should check it out right now.