I wrestled with myself over the title of yesterday’s post. It was, after all, an odd way to pay tribute — honoring a real man by honoring a fictional creation.
So I guess it would be useful to talk about this contradiction, which I also touched on last week. I myself have had some experience with the strange nonlinearity between the reality of one’s creative work and the happenstance of how one’s work is received in the world.
Yesterday I quoted Don McLean, and that was a deliberate choice. You could say he is one of the prime examples of this phenomenon. The man is a great and prolific songwriter, yet he is primarily known for a single song he wrote well over forty years ago.
I think it’s mainly a question of timing. Every once in a while a person with particular talents happens to be standing precisely in the flow of where the culture is moving. That person may produce lots of other wonderful creations, but he or she ends up being associated with one creation in particular.
In the case of Leonard Nimoy, there is no question that he was a top notch and highly versatile actor, as well as a very talented (if somewhat reluctant) film director. Taken as a whole, his body of work showed remarkable diversity and consistent excellence.
Yet if he had not been standing in that particular spot in the cultural conversation, at the precise moment when a bolt of lightning was ready to strike through the center of that conversation, things would have turned out very differently. Yes, he would likely have been greatly respected for his work, but he wouldn’t have become an icon.
And that’s a strange burden to bear. It must be unnerving for Don McLean to get up on that concert stage knowing that a large percentage of the audience are hoping for him to play one particular song from decades ago. Or for Michael Nesmith, another great singer/songwriter, to realize that an entire generation sees him in an iconic role he walked away from nearly a lifetime ago.
Are these burdens or blessings? To Leonard Nimoy, was it more important to assert, over the many decades that followed his most famous role, that “I am Not Spock”, or that “I am Spock”? Both statements were equally true.
I think the important thing is that he always responded to his circumstance with grace and good humor, and that he continued to do great work to the very end of his life. And that, my friends, is the nearest anyone ever really gets to true greatness.