Famous Veteran: Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy
Military veteran Leonard Nimoy gained fame with his iconic role of Dr. Spock in the 'Star Trek' franchise. (Courtesy photo)

Before "Star Trek" actor Leonard Nimoy became famous for his role as Mr. Spock, he drove a cab in Hollywood.

He had just left the Army, separating as a staff sergeant, and moved to California with his wife. The plan was to pick up his acting career where he left off before the service, but he had to drive a cab for a while. The hours were perfect for someone who needed to attend auditions at odd parts of the day.

One night, Nimoy was at the Beverly Hilton, where he picked up the then-junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, for a ride to the Bel-Air Hotel. He struck up a conversation with Kennedy, asking him how things were back home. Boston was Nimoy's hometown.

Kennedy was particularly interested in the struggling actor's early life in Boston and how his family settled there. Although Nimoy was born in Boston, his Jewish parents escaped the pogroms of Soviet Ukraine before making their way to the United States.

Growing up during the Great Depression, the young Nimoy worked odd jobs to supplement his family's income -- shining shoes, selling newspapers and setting up chairs in theaters, just to name a few. So he was well-versed at surviving while trying to make it in Hollywood.

When Nimoy finally started his stage and screen career, he was already an old hand at that, too. He had first started appearing on stage in neighborhood plays at 8 years old. He was in major plays by age 17 and, on the radio, voice-acting in Bible stories not much later.

He attended drama classes at Boston College (he didn't finish) and finally enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1953. He was sent to Fort McPherson, Georgia, where he served until 1955. The Army allowed him to pursue his performing dreams as a member of the Special Services, the entertainment branch of the military.

Part of Nimoy's time in the military was spent putting on shows for the Army Special Services branch, which he wrote, narrated and emceed. He even found time to direct and play Stanley in the Atlanta Theater Guild's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Nimoy's time in the military must have helped inform some of his roles, including an unaccredited role as an Army telex operator in "Them!" He also played a soldier with PTSD in a film produced by the United States Marine Corps.

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    By the time he picked up Kennedy from the Beverly Hilton, he'd used $600 he earned selling vacuums to enroll in the legendary Pasadena Playhouse, where he refined his acting skills.

    The two men had a long conversation on the way to the Bel-Air Hotel, and when Nimoy told his passenger that he was an actor by day, Kennedy had words of advice.

    "Lots of competition in your business, just like in mine," the senator said. "Just remember there's always room for one more good one."

    During a 2012 Boston University commencement speech, Nimoy relayed the story of his drive with the future president, telling the crowd that those were words to live by.

    "And I did," he said.

    In the years after the memorable cab ride with America's 35th president, he learned there was room for one more good one.

    Nimoy landed a large number of small parts on television. One of his early appearances was in a mid-1960s TV show about the Marine Corps called "The Lieutenant," produced by a young executive named Gene Roddenberry.

      Their connection led to Roddenberry's offering Nimoy the role of Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human science officer of the USS Enterprise, on his new science fiction show, "Star Trek."

      Nimoy flourished in the role and even helped create and establish the alien culture, such as the iconic Vulcan salute and Vulcan neck pinch. He said his inspiration for the Vulcan hand sign was his memory of Jewish priests and how they held their hands while delivering a blessing.

      Success was bittersweet for Nimoy, as he found it difficult to escape typecasting once the "Star Trek" TV series ended. But he found further success in entertainment and eventually came to terms with his relationship with his famous character in the book, "I Am Spock."

      He worked in series such as "Mission: Impossible," "Columbo" and "A Woman Called Golda." He also took part in various stage plays and performed voiceover work for cartoons like "Transformers" and other shows.

      In April 2010, after a key role in the 2009 "Star Trek" film that rebooted the franchise, Nimoy announced his retirement from acting after a 50-year career that spanned film, television, books, voiceover work, photography and even video games.

      He died on the morning of Feb. 27, 2015, at the age of 83. He lived long and prospered.

      -- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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