Spock’s death scene in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is arguably the most iconic scene in any “Star Trek” film. The scene was supposed to be an appropriate sendoff for both the character and the actor.
Before “The Wrath of Khan” even started production, Leonard Nimoy was apparently done with the “Star Trek” franchise. He was ready to move on and explore strange new worlds in Hollywood.
However, he was lured back for “Star Trek II.” After that, he reprised his iconic role in several “Star Trek” movies and two episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Here’s the whole story behind why he changed his mind and how his decision brought Spock back from the dead.
Moving on From Spock?
“My feeling at the end of the third year was, if the show were to continue, I would want to see some drastic changes to move us back into the territory where we belong, which was really fine science fiction with good ideas and scripts. That did happen during the third season, and I couldn’t get my voice properly heard and I felt very frustrated. Under those conditions, I was not anxious for the show to continue. So, maybe it was best to let it finish now and leave it alone and let it be what it should be.”
Later in the interview, Nimoy addressed the conundrum of being so closely associated with an iconic character like Spock. He said that if “Star Trek” had gone on much longer, he might have felt suffocated by the weight of Spock and decided to exit the show. His memoir also suggested that he was done the character.
Signing on for ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’
Both the interview and Nimoy’s memoir came out three years before “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” When discussions for the movie began, Nimoy was clear that he didn’t want to be involved, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
At the time, Nimoy was engaged in a vicious legal battle with Paramount Studios over the use of his image for merchandise without his permission. As he stated in the 1976 interview, he was vehemently opposed to making Spock into a commercial enterprise. So, when Paramount went ahead and did so anyway, Nimoy sued.
The Hollywood Reporter also claimed that Nimoy wasn’t a big fan of Gene Roddenberry, “Star Trek’s” creator. There had been some drama between the two over a different project, and Nimoy wasn’t keen on working with him again.
Paramount knew they couldn’t do the movie without him. So, they went to extraordinary lengths to get Nimoy back. They settled their lawsuit favorably to Nimoy. They promised to keep Roddenberry in line. Eventually, Nimoy was persuaded.
How Nimoy Was Wooed Back for ‘The Wrath of Khan’
In an interview with TrekMovie.com, one of “Star Trek II’s” producers, Robert Sallin, detailed how difficult it was to get Nimoy to sign on for another “Star Trek” movie. Though “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” had been a huge success, Nimoy was even more done with Spock than he had been years before. According to Sallin, Nimoy said, “I don’t want to put the ears on again.”
In an interview with StarTrek.com, another one of the movie’s producers, Harve Bennett, confirmed that Nimoy wanted nothing to do with the film.
“He had publicly put it out there that he’d never do Spock again. And one of my first challenges was to convince Leonard that he should come back, because it wouldn’t be ‘Star Trek’ without him.”
So, the writers and producers had to figure out a way to lure Nimoy back to the franchise. Sallin told TrekMovie.com that one of the screenwriters came up with the idea of killing off Spock. Sallin loved the idea. He thought Nimoy would too because it would give him the chance to “play in the ultimate dying scene.”
Bennett loved the idea too. He described the pitch he made to Nimoy in his interview with StarTrek.com.
“Leonard, if you come back, I’m going to give you the greatest death scene since Janet Leigh in Psycho. One third of the way into the picture, we’re going to kill you. The audience will be shocked. It will be the end of your problems with Spock and we will go on to complete the story.”
According to Sallin and Bennett, Nimoy liked the idea as well. It allowed him to do an emotional, moving death scene, and it provided a clear end to his portrayal of Spock. So, he signed on to the movie.
The character’s death was intended to be permanent. Everyone involved in the “Star Trek” franchise assumed that Spock, and consequently Nimoy, were done after “Star Trek II.” However, something changed for Nimoy during the filming of “The Wrath of Khan,” and his change of heart directly led to Spock’s resurrection.
Setting up The Search for Spock
Though Nimoy had been ready to let go of Spock when he agreed to the character’s death in “Star Trek II,” by the time they were almost done filming he’d started to feel differently. As Bennett told William Shatner for his book “Star Trek Movie Memories,” Nimoy had a wonderful time filming the movie and began to rethink his decision to be done with Spock.
According to Bennett, everyone knew that “The Wrath of Khan” was destined to be a hit. The producers were so sure of this that they were already brainstorming the next movie. Since Nimoy wasn’t sure whether he wanted to return, he worked with Bennett to come up with a way to make Spock’s death ambiguous.
They decided that Spock would mind-meld with Dr. McCoy before his death. Nimoy suggested that he could say the line “Remember,” which he thought was ambiguous enough that it left the door open for Spock to come back. As Nimoy told StarTrek.com in a 2011 interview, “it worked.” They also decided to include an epilogue right before the credits, which showed Spock’s coffin on the Genesis planet.
For “Star Trek Movie Memories” Nimoy told Shatner that, at the time, it wasn’t clear that he would be returning for another movie. Nimoy said that he and Bennett had made the decision to leave opportunities open for the future, but it wasn’t clear what those opportunities would be. Until he got asked to do “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” Nimoy didn’t really think they were going to resurrect Spock.
Shatner has a different perspective on how things played out, or at least he does with the benefit of hindsight. In an interview with USA Today in 2017, Shatner said that he believes Nimoy came up with the ambiguous death scene so he could use it as leverage. Nimoy ended up directing the next film, in which Spock was resurrected. Shatner believes that Nimoy set up a reprisal of Spock to get the studio to allow him to direct “Star Trek III.”
‘Star Trek III’ and Beyond
Whether Nimoy intended Spock’s resurrection to be leverage or not, that’s exactly what ended up happening. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Nimoy told Paramount that he wanted to do more than just bring back Spock. He wanted to explore directing.
The studio wasn’t on board at all, his son Adam Nimoy told The Hollywood Reporter.
“There was a lot of resistance from Paramount. They were not that keen on the idea. They were worried. He was holding out because he wanted to challenge himself.”
Eventually, Nimoy made it clear that he would not come back as Spock unless he was allowed to direct the film. Of course, Paramount gave in because the entire idea for the third movie revolved around Spock’s resurrection.
Nimoy’s directorial debut proved that he had just as much talent behind the camera as he did in front of it. He went on to direct the next “Star Trek” movie, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” With his experience directing in the Trek-verse, Nimoy launched a very successful directorial career which included four more feature-length films.
Nimoy’s complicated relationship with Spock was pivotal in shaping the early “Star Trek” movies. “The Wrath of Khan” was a totally different movie before Nimoy hinted that he might want to play Spock again. “The Search For Spock” could have been a completely different movie in the hands of another director.
His indecision before each of the early films forced the writers and producers to come up with the brilliant stories that ended up luring him back to the franchise every time.