On Sunday, the Observer newspaper printed an article on Jessie Burton, the author of the bestselling historical novel, The Miniaturist. After what she described as a ‘second-class career’ in acting she returned to her first love, writing, and produced a book that was published in 34 countries, sold over a million copies and resulted in a breakdown as she tried to deal with her own success. ‘Success can be as fracturing to your sense of self as failure: it just traumatises in a less qualified way,’ she says in the article.
The idea of success as a curse is an interesting one, especially to those of us toiling in the foothills of creativity. Wouldn’t we love to see our novel rising up the New York Times bestseller list, our paintings hanging in the Gagosian Gallery? Indeed we would, but what if that success tugged us away from all that we held dear, broke up the support systems that kept us afloat during the lean years, hammered a wedge between us and other people?
Someone who found success to be a very mixed blessing was the late Leonard Nimoy. After years as a moderately successful actor in 1960s TV shows, Nimoy was handed the role of Spock in a new space drama, Star Trek. Initially not particularly successful in the US, the series gathered momentum outside of the country (it was essential viewing when I was a boy in England) and really took off when it was syndicated.
From then on Nimoy, with his striking looks and richly beautiful voice, was Spock. Foolishly, as he admitted later, he wrote an autobiography called I Am Not Spock to try and distance himself from the character that had brought him fame and fortune. The world’s Trekkies reacted badly, threatening to ‘break him’ just as they had ‘made him’. (Personally, there are two groups I’d never pick fights with: Trekkies and fans of Star Wars.)
Some years later, Nimoy made his peace with the character and published a second autobiography, I Am Spock. By then, of course, Nimoy had also become a respected director, a photographer and a published poet, perhaps thereby loosening Spock’s grip on him somewhat.
I’ve drawn cartoon Spocks several times, mainly for my daughter’s birthday cards, but hadn’t really tried Nimoy in mufti until a few weeks ago, when I attempted the above portrait of the actor in his later years based on a photograph in William Shatner’s lacklustre memoir, Leonard.
I also met him once, very briefly. I was walking briskly through BookExpo – the publishing industry’s annual exhibition in the US – when I turned a corner and found myself standing in front of him as he waited for a publicist to take him off to sign copies of his latest book of poetry. He seemed about nine feet tall and craggier than ever and I could think of nothing to say. I think I managed, “Good afternoon!”, received a gracious response, and then scurried off to my meeting.