My early years in Hollywood were heavily influenced by Marlon Brando. The uniform was T-shirt and jeans.
—Leonard Nimoy, from I am Not Spock
It’s funny how our initial perceptions of someone can skew everything that comes after. Like almost everyone else, I first saw Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, but at first I didn’t really appreciate what he was doing. Back then, no matter what fictional universe I encountered, I always gravitated towards the underdog or the alternative character—I liked Batman more than Superman, Han Solo more than Luke Skywalker. But Star Trek gave me problems. Captain Kirk was the highest-ranking character—the “boss” of the show—so normally I would’ve connected with Mr. Spock. But by the time I started watching it, Spock was everyone else’s favorite. He was the signature character, the icon, and in the hands of many of the novelists and comic book writers, it seemed like Spock was always the focal point—always the one who came up with the solution to save the day.
All of which ultimately turned me off Spock. Of course today that seems almost laughably ironic, given that if there were ever an alternative, outsider hero in the history of pop culture, it most assuredly was Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. But this weekend, as all of our thoughts have turned to Leonard Nimoy, I’ve been thinking about Nimoy’s career as an actor, and the ways in which my initial misunderstanding of Spock also led me to misunderstand Nimoy.
In particular, when I read his first autobiography, I am Not Spock, I was struck by the passage quoted at the beginning of this column. Because I perceived Spock as the “goody-goody” character that I was supposed to like, I came to see Leonard Nimoy in a similar light as well—as an establishment actor—the kind you might cast for a historical epic or a costume drama. Somehow, the idea of Leonard Nimoy wearing a T-Shirt and jeans—an American method actor like Brando, James Dean, or Paul Newman—just seemed unthinkable. He was too square for that, wasn’t he?
Like the rest of the world that could only see him as the logical Mr. Spock, I had typecast him, but in my case I had done so in a way that was doubly wrong. Not only had I misread Spock, but I had misread Nimoy as well.
Typecasting has always been a danger for actors. In Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, James Tyrone, a character based on O’Neill’s own father, complains that his “success” in one play ruined his once-promising acting career. But neither O’Neill nor his father could’ve imagined the kind of typecasting that comes from playing a popular character on a weekly television show—especially a quirky character in a science fiction show. Despite the breadth of his talent and interests, Nimoy became, arguably, the most typecast actor of the 20th century.
So when he passed away this weekend, I knew I wanted to scrap everything I was planning for today’s column and to go in search of the hungry actor who got his start in the ‘50s, wearing jeans and a T-shirt and chasing after Marlon Brando. That’s the Leonard Nimoy I’ve never really known.
I spent Friday night and Saturday morning binge-watching three of Nimoy’s most important early movies. His first major role was as a boxer in the low-budget film, Kid Monk Baroni. Not a “great” movie by any standard—the story is cliché and overwritten—it’s nevertheless quite watchable and Nimoy makes a strong impression. The story focuses on a young Italian American, Paul Baroni, nicknamed “Monk” because of his broken nose and disfigured face. Nimoy plays Monk as a tough guy, the leader of a street gang who comes under the tutelage of a local priest who teaches him how to box. The story is standard, kitchen-sink melodrama, but as a character, Monk is perfect for a young method actor. Even though Monk is a brute in the ring, he also has a sensitive side, singing in the church choir and developing a secret passion for Gregorian chants that stays with him long after he has to leave the choir.
The role of the sensitive boxer is perhaps the quintessential method actor role. Clifford Odets wrote the archetypal version of the character in Golden Boy, a 1937 play about a boxer who was also a talented violinist, and John Garfield, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster all played variations in the late ‘40s. Moreover, two years after Nimoy’s turn as Baroni, Brando would win an Oscar for On the Waterfront, and two years after that, Paul Newman would fill in for James Dean in Somebody Up There Likes Me. For mid-20th century American actors striving to follow the teachings of Stanislavski, the sensitive boxer might as well have been Hamlet.
Kid Monk Baroni isn’t in the same weight class as those other films, but it really establishes the kind of actor Nimoy saw himself as in 1952. He seems quite natural adopting the accent of the streets—he calls the priest “Faddah”—and he’s particularly good at tapping into the character’s violence and anger. But what makes the film particularly interesting is the fact that Baroni, like Spock, is wrestling with dual identities. What’s more, because of his face, he’s essentially typecast as a “dirty” fighter and has to hide his interest in music from his manager. When he has plastic surgery to repair his face, he tries to become a more defensive fighter, but he’s unsuccessful and the syndicate backing him demands that he go back to being the brutal, “dirty” fighter they originally agreed to back. Much like a typecast actor, Baroni can’t break free from expectations.
Kid Monk Baroni didn’t make Nimoy a star, so like many actors of his generation, Nimoy spent most of the ‘50s guest starring on television shows where he was often miscast in Westerns. But in 1963 he won a key role in a major film, an adaptation of Jean Genet’s most popular play, The Balcony, and the role offers another reminder of what an ambitious, edgy, and dangerous actor Nimoy was becoming. Genet was one of the most important playwrights in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd, and The Balcony made for an unusual feature film. The story focuses on a brothel that offers power fantasies to the surviving men in a war-torn city. Nimoy only appears in the final ten minutes, but his character is important and his appearance is highly anticipated by the other characters in the film. He plays Roger, the leader of “the opposition,” and he serves as a foil to the Chief of Police played by Peter Falk. Reality in the play is relative and situational, so details often seem sketchy, but what is clear is that Nimoy’s Roger is a revolutionary, a rebel, and is considered dangerous.
While most of the actors play their roles with a self-awareness of the absurdity and even hint occasionally at farce, Nimoy appears brooding, sullen, and reflective for most of his scenes, like he’d just walked out of an Ibsen play. He brings a real sense of gravitas to the film—especially considering that he was one of the least known actors in the cast.
But of the three films I screened this weekend, the real surprise was the last one. Shortly after shooting the first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” Nimoy co-produced and starred in a small art film, Deathwatch, that contains his most ambitious performance and provides a perfect example of the kind of actor he was trained to be. The film is an adaptation of yet another Jean Genet play, but tonally it’s quite different from The Balcony. Set in a prison, the story focuses on three cellmates—Greeneyes, a physically imposing, tattooed murderer played by Michael Forest, who would later appear as Apollo in the Star Trek episode, “Who Mourns for Adonais,” Maurice, a gay inmate played by future director, Paul Mazursky, and Jules, a jewel thief played by Nimoy.
Greeneyes and Maurice are familiar figures in prison dramas—Greeneyes is the second most powerful inmate in the prison, a local legend scheduled for execution, and Maurice, as played by Mazursky, is more of a cultural stereotype. The sketchiest character—deliberately so—is Nimoy’s Jules, and though it isn’t clear initially, his gradual sense of self-discovery is the primary focus of the movie. Brooding, intelligent, and introspective, Jules is a small-timer who secretly longs for the cell-block street cred of Greeneyes.
The film was directed by Nimoy’s friend and fellow method actor, Vic Morrow. The same team had staged the play on the West Coast, and despite the poor production values, the movie becomes increasingly compelling as the power struggle between the three inmates clarifies and as the story begins revealing more insights into Nimoy’s character.
Considering these three Nimoy characters—the boxer, the revolutionary, and the prisoner—Spock seems like a natural extension of his career. In the Genet plays, he was becoming quite good at playing subtext, and in all three films he played characters who were wrestling with fractured or dual identities. And perhaps even more importantly, in all three roles, he communicates a sense of tension—full of pent-up violence and always coiled, threatening to spring at any moment.
These characteristics would be the hallmarks of Nimoy’s Spock—particularly during the original series. What made his performance stand out wasn’t the ears and the eyebrows, nor was it the scientific techno-jargon he rattled off, but rather that smoldering sense of danger burning just below the cool exterior. He didn’t just play the subtext—his character was subtext. Like Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg principle, the most dramatic element of Nimoy’s Spock was always just below the surface, rendering even the most perfunctory or banal moment on screen … fascinating.
 Also of note: Jack Larson, television’s Jimmy Olsen, plays a significant role as Baroni’s friend and trainer.