by MATTHEW GAULT
Leonard Nimoy—the famed actor synonymous with Star Trek’s iconic Mr. Spock—died on Feb. 27. He leaves behind two children, a storied career and one of the most recognizable characters in pop culture.
He’s also a reminder of a different era in America—the years after World War II when the military was more connected to the public, and when it wasn’t so strange for an actor to be a soldier at the same time.
In the early ’50s, Nimoy was just another hungry actor with parents who worried he’d never have a real job. So he did what a lot of young men with a dream and little money did at the time—he joined the Army and let them pay for it.
Nimoy knew at a young age that he wanted to act, and he was on stage by age seven. As a teenager, he had small bit parts on TV and on stage. His parents wanted him to go to college, so he did, and he took drama classes while attending Boston University.
College didn’t agree with Nimoy, so he left. He needed a steady paycheck and a place to hone his craft. The Army offered him both, and in 1953, the budding actor enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Nimoy was part of the Special Services Division. The Pentagon created the group in 1940 to serve as the military’s entertainment branch. Actors, musicians and writers joined and served their country by entertaining their fellow soldiers.
Nimoy was in proud company. Clint Eastwood, Dick Van Dyke and Sammy Davis Jr. are all veterans of the Special Services Division.
Nimoy served 18 months at Fort Ord in California and Fort Benning and Fort McPherson in Georgia. The Army encouraged his talent, and Nimoy wrote, directed and acted in shows for the division.
A fire destroyed his service records in 1973, so much of the information about that period of Nimoy’s life is lost. We do have a funny picture of the young soldier, holding up a mop while he grins for the camera, and footage from one of his earliest film roles.
The U.S. Marine Corps commissioned Combat Psychiatry—The Division Psychiatrist in 1954. Nimoy portrays a young soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nimoy is on screen for less than a minute, and he only delivers a few lines. He’s far more emotional than the role that would make him famous … but it’s him. Rarely do fans get to see the raw and rough opening days of a young actor’s career.
Thanks to the Army, Star Trek fans get to see the man who would become Spock.
The actor left the service in 1955 as a technician 3rd class—the equivalent of a sergeant. His military service followed him, and he played a lot of soldiers in films and TV both while he was in the Reserve and after.
He fights giant, nuclear-powered ants as an Army sergeant in 1954’s Them!, saves his fellow soldiers from a rogue grenade in the TV show West Point and coordinates the search for missing hikers as a control tower sergeant in Steve Canyon.
But it was his turn as a slimy Hollywood producer in 1964’s The Lieutenant that led to a meeting that changed the world.
The Lieutenant aired on NBC on Saturday nights. It centered around the lives of U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton in the early ’60s. The show didn’t do well, and NBC canceled it after one season.
It was a young Gene Roddenberry’s first show, and he was hard at work developing Star Trek while NBC aired the The Lieutenant’s two dozen episodes. Roddenberry had already conceived of Spock and courted several actors, including Adam West. They all turned him down.
Then NBC cast Nimoy as a guest star on The Lieutenant. In the episode, Hollywood comes to Camp Pendleton to make a movie, and the camp’s brass assigns the main character as the film’s technical adviser. Nimoy plays the slick, Hollywood producer who the lieutenant worries is exploiting soldiers.
Roddenberry took one look at Nimoy’s angular features and confident air and knew he’d make a perfect alien. In just a few years, the former Army actor was the Vulcan science officer aboard the starship USS Enterprise.
The role defined Nimoy’s career and haunted him for the rest of his life. At various times, the actor disavowed the character, but the two always reconciled.
Spock was a character who reminded the odd and the strange that we could be more than just the sum of our two halves, that our struggles and friendships define us—and infinite diversity in infinite combinations is a strength, not a weakness.
The military gave Nimoy the opportunity to earn a living while he pursued his art and helped define the early part his career. Although the Army could never have anticipated it, the branch helped bring Spock to millions of fans.