Leonard Nimoy gave up smoking two packs of cigarettes a day more than 30 years ago, but he still smothered to death this week from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). He won three Emmy awards for starring in “Star Trek” ((1966-1969) as Spock, a 23rd-century space voyager from the planet Vulcan. He was known for his pointed ears and constant use of the word “fascinating”. Nimoy was also an actor in many other film and TV roles, a director of films, a mediocre singer, a published poet and an accomplished photographer.
Growing Up in Boston’s Jewish Community
Nimoy’s childhood was very similar to mine because we both grew up in the poorest sections of Boston; he was born in the North End and I was born in Roxbury. We were children of orthodox Jewish immigrant peasants who had come to the United States to avoid starving in Russia. Both of our families suffered incredible poverty during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Our parents spoke Yiddish at home, but never a word of Russian because they were afraid of being called communists. We both worked hard at very young ages — he sold newspapers and I sold ice cream. Both of us were told almost from birth to be doctors or lawyers so we could make lots of money. His parents told him not to be an actor because then he would always be as poor as they were. His father was a barber and mine collected dimes from immigrants for their weekly payments on $500 life insurance policies. When Leonard Nimoy died, he was worth more than 50 million dollars.
He was a Lousy Student Who Became a Star
Nimoy began acting at age eight in a local neighborhood theater. He was never a good student, flunked chemistry in high school and dropped out of Boston College after a few months, even though he had won an acting scholarship there. He took acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse and bounced around Hollywood for several years, playing bit parts in movies and plays. He hit it big when he landed the part of Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series. “For the first time I had a job that lasted longer than two weeks and a dressing room with my name painted on the door and not chalked on.” Star Trek was broadcast from 1966 to 1969, and then went into endless syndication and spawned a series of highly successful movies.
After he became world famous as Spock, the inter-planetary traveler, he was invited to speak at Caltech, one of the leading scientific universities in the world. He was introduced to many brilliant researchers who were doing breakthrough research on the origins of the universe. He said that they asked him what he thought about the universe and space travel. “I would nod very quietly and very sagely say, ‘You’re on the right track.'”
Spock’s Vulcan Salute
Nimoy created the Vulcan salute, which first appeared on Star Trek in 1967. He would hold up his hand in the shape if a V, with the second and third fingers held together but separated from the fourth and fifth fingers, and say: “Live long and prosper.” He created the sign from memories of his childhood when the cantor and men in his Jewish congregation would stand and chant prayers with their arms raised and their fingers held the same way, as a symbol for the Hebrew letter “shin”, which looks like a V and is first letter in words such as Shaddai (a name for God), Shalom (hello, goodbye, peace) and Shekhinah (the name of a prayer to bless the congregation).
In 1954, Nimoy married actress Sandra Zober. He divorced her 33 years later when she was 56. She was so devastated that she refused to get out of bed for several weeks. She joined a support group for women divorced frоm Hollywood stars, called Life Aftеr Divorce Iѕ Eventually Sane (LADIES). The group changed its name to “The Hollywood Dumpettes”. She never stopped wanting to get him back and continued to live in their marriage home until her death at age 83 in 2011. In 1989, Nimoy married actress Susan Bay and stayed with her for the rest of his life.
Lifelong Friendship with William Shatner
He became friends with William Shatner, who played his commanding officer in Star Trek. They were born four days apart in 1931 to orthodox Jewish parents, he in Boston and Shatner in Montreal. They both found that working on Star Trek was different from anything either of them had done in their lifetimes. One morning, Shatner was told that he had to be ready for an early morning filming in the desert, so he told the wardrobe girl, “Give me my uniform and I’ll put it on at the house and just wear it to the set.” At 4 AM he was racing across the desert because he didn’t see any other cars on the road. However, another car came up behind him with flashing red lights and a siren. Shatner got out of his car dressed in his uniform. The police officer looked him up and down, frowned and asked, “So where are you going so fast at this time in the morning?” Shatner answered, “To my spaceship.” The policeman gasped and said, “OK, go ahead, and live long and prosper.”
Shatner wrote in his autobiography, “I’ve often heard it said that acting is not a competitive sport – but never by actors. The truth is, every good actor has an ego. Leonard’s character began receiving most of the attention. Spock (Nimoy) fan clubs were formed. I was supposed to be the star but Leonard was getting more attention than I was. It bothered me. Leonard and I argued early on.”
At first Shatner didn’t like Nimoy because Nimoy kept away from him and other members of the cast. Nimoy claimed he kept away from them to maintain the character’s integrity because Spock was different from the other characters since he was born on a different planet. The real reason that Nimoy kept away from the other actors was because he was an alcoholic. Nimoy wrote in his autobiography, “I was in bad shape. I would go home every day and drink. On weekends I would tell myself, ‘I’ll have a beer at ten o’clock’. By two o’clock I was drinking hard liquor and by five o’clock I’d passed out.”
Over time, Nimoy and Shatner became best friends. When Shatner’s third wife had problems with alcohol, Nimoy, by then a recovering alcoholic, tried to help by taking her to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but she did not want to stop drinking. On August 11, 1999, Shatner found his wife dead in their swimming pool with her blood full of the tranquilizer, Valium, and a level of alcohol more than three times the legally intoxicating limit.
He Warned Others that Smoking Caused His COPD
In February 2014, pictures appeared in the news of 82-year-old Nimoy wearing an oxygen mask, being pushed in a wheelchair through an airport. A week later he wrote on Twitter, “I quit smoking 30 years ago. Not soon enough. I have COPD. Smokers, please understand. If you quit after you’re diagnosed with lung damage, it’s too late. Quit now. I’m doing OK. Just can’t walk. LLAP (Live Long and Prosper).”
He spent the next year in and out of hospitals for chest pain and shortness of breath. On February 19, 2015, he was taken to UCLA Medical Center for chest pain. On February 27 he smothered to death at his home, at the age of 83.
What is COPD?
You need oxygen to stay alive. Oxygen goes into your lungs through your bronchial tubes and passes through air sac membranes called alveoli into your bloodstream. COPD means that your bronchial tubes are thickened and scarred so you have difficulty bringing oxygen into your lungs, and your alveoli are damaged so that oxygen cannot pass readily into, and carbon dioxide cannot pass out from, your bloodstream.
COPD affects 32 million people and is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. Smoking is the most common cause. You get COPD from breathing in smoke, fumes from fuel for cooking or heating, air pollution, workplace exposure to dust, smoke or fumes, and so forth. It is also caused by certain conditions that interfere with bringing oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of your lungs, such as Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, cystic fibrosis, uncontrolled asthma or any chronic lung infection.
Symptoms of COPD
• Chronic cough
• Shortness of breath, especially when you are doing activities that you used to be able to do
• Heavy phlegm (mucus) production
• Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound) in the chest when you breathe
• Feeling like you can’t take a deep breath
• Tightness in the chest
First-Hand Tobacco Smoke
• The most significant risk factor for COPD is long-term cigarette smoking. The more years you smoke and the more packs you smoke, the greater the risk. Pipe smokers, cigar smokers, marijuana smokers and all other smokers are at high risk for COPD.
• All smokers who have a chronic airway disease, such as asthma, will eventually develop permanent lung damage called COPD.
People exposed to large amounts of second-hand smoke also are at risk. Living or working with a smoker increases risk for COPD as well as for heart attacks and certain cancers.
Living in a house that was previously lived in by smokers or just being around people who are smokers is harmful (Environment International, October 2014;71:139–147). Third-hand smoke damages DNA in human cells (Mutagenesis, 2013 Jul;28(4):381-91). Third-hand smoke contains more than 250 known toxins including nicotine, nitrosamines, lead, cyanide, benzo[a]pyrene, 1,3-butadiene, benzene, formaldehyde, cadmium, arsenic, and other chemicals left on indoor surfaces by tobacco smoke (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2010;107(15):6576–6581). Smoke residue sticks on hair, skin, clothes, furniture, drapes, walls, bedding, carpets, dust, and cars years after a smoker has left the premises (Environ Health Perspect, 2011 Feb; 119(2): A70–A74).
If you live in a home that was inhabited previously by a smoker, realize that you cannot rid your home of toxic chemicals just by cleaning, airing out rooms, opening windows or using fans or air conditioners. You should:
• Repaint walls with two to three coats of paint. If walls are not thoroughly washed first, nicotine stains can seep through even multiple layers of paint.
• Remove old carpeting and padding.
• Wash floors before replacing carpeting.
• Replace curtains, blinds and window coverings.
• Clean out ventilation ducts and replace all filters.
Leonard Simon Nimoy
March 26, 1931 – February 27, 2015