Life Before Spock: The Early Sci-Fi Roles of Leonard Nimoy – By Philip Smolen

Like most kids in the 1960s, I loved NBC’s “Star Trek” (1966-69). It was such a wonderful breath of fresh sci-fi air to me. For the first time in my life, I was seeing an adult show with adult characters that took you to an amazing world each and every week. “Star Trek” wasn’t like that dopey Irwin Allen show “Lost in Space”, that was impossible to watch. “Star Trek” was exciting, stimulating and intelligent (at least until the third season).

By far my favorite character was Mr. Spock, played to perfection by the late Leonard Nimoy (1931-2105). I identified very strongly with him because he was the outsider on the Enterprise. No one knew him or understood him (which was the way I felt). Secretly, his human side longed to be accepted (as I did), but just like Mr. Spock, I kept these feelings bottled up inside me. Leonard Nimoy’s incredible performances as the Enterprise’s science officer kept me thrilled and entertained for many years.

 It was shortly after I started to watch “Star Trek” that I began to notice Mr. Nimoy in other movies and TV shows. It was always a great treat to suddenly recognize that distinctive face and voice and suddenly shout “Hey, look who it is. It’s Mr. Spock!” And I was also amazed to notice that Mr. Nimoy actually appeared in a few sci-fi movies and TV shows before he began his “Star Trek” career. To my 10-year-old mind, it was as if these early roles were grooming him for his breakout performances as Mr. Spock. So let’s celebrate the passing of a genuine sci-fi icon with a quick look at some of the early sci-fi movie performances of Leonard Nimoy. While none of these characters are as enduring as Mr. Spock, they are still entertaining and these roles were teething rings for the up and coming actor.

1. ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE (1952) Republic Pictures – Director: Fred C. Brannon

A few months back, the evil Martian Marex (Lane Bradford) landed on Earth. He now watches as a spaceship helmed by his henchmen Elah (Robert Garabedian) and Narab (Leonard Nimoy) lands in a nearby area. The menacing trio then seeks out an Earth scientist (Stanley Waxman) and blackmails him into making an atomic bomb for them. Once they possess the super weapon, they plan to use it to knock the Earth out into space so the planet Mars can slide in and take possession of our orbit. That way the Red planet will soon become the green planet, while our own Earth becomes a frozen popsicle! It’s up to Larry Martin (Judd Holdren) of the Interplanetary Patrol to stop the fiends. He teams up with Sue (Aline Towne) and Bob Wilson (Wilson Wood) and together with his incredible flying suit, the trio pull out all the stops to save our planet from the malevolent Martian menace.

Although serials were all the rage back in the 1930s, by 1952 the flame of popularity had gone out for this venerable type of movie. “Zombies of the Stratosphere” was one of the final attempts by Republic Pictures to re-capture their glory days. They revived the famous rocket suit from their “Commander Cody” serials and tried to spin a new 12 chapter sci-fi story around it (while still reusing a lot of old footage). The main problem is that they never bothered to update the style of the serials, so even for audiences in 1952, the movie looked old and dated. It’s really funny to watch Marex and his buddies climb out of an old Buck Rogers type of rocket ship and then get in an old Ford sedan and head on down the road! It’s even funnier to see them talk and act like typical Earth criminals and shoot revolvers. But even worse, the film is so dull, that you don’t really care what happens to the Earth by the end. The film is just one long chase after another. Larry almost buys the farm, then Bob nearly does and then Sue almost get killed.

I always felt bad for Leonard Nimoy whenever I watched this. He’s constantly climbing into the pool in the Martian’s hideout so he can enter the secret lair where all the experiments are done. Most of his screen time is spent climbing down the ladder and climbing up the ladder and doing Marex’s bidding. Nimoy has very few lines and Narab doesn’t have much characterization. But this was only Nimoy’s fifth acting credit (and his first time portraying an alien!) and at least the film presented him with a very physical role that he handled smoothly. Six years later Republic condensed “Zombies of the Stratosphere” to 70 minutes and rereleased it as “Satan’s Satellites.” Even then, the public stayed away. They knew a stinker when they saw it.

QUOTABLE MOVIE LINE – NARAB:  “First you must disarm the bomb. In the back of the cave, through the water tunnel. It’ll blow up soon and destroy the whole world.”

2. THEM (1954) Warner Brothers – Director: Gordon Douglas

After 60 years it seems almost pointless to talk about the plot of “Them”, since just about every sci-fi fan knows it. But here is a quick refresher. New Mexico police officer Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) are investigating the strange disappearance of several people in the New Mexican desert only to find out that mutated giant ants are responsible. With the help of two concerned scientists (Edmund Gwen and Joan Weldon), they manage to find and destroy the New Mexico colony but not before two queens escape. One queen’s colony is quickly found on a cargo ship and destroyed, but its several months before the second colony is found. Unfortunately, the creatures have created a nest in the sewers of Los Angeles. The army is called in and an all out battle between the bugs and the army takes place.

Until the release of “Mimic” in 1997, I considered “Them” to be the best giant monster movie (GMM) ever. Even now “Them” still surprises and satisfies. It’s a shame that after “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) and “Them”, Warner Brothers only distributed one more GMM. But it’s reported that studio chief Jack Warner was furious that “Them” was green lighted and slashed its budget three days before filming began (it was supposed to be in color and 3D).

The best part of “Them” is the screenplay by Ted Sherdeman (who initially was going to produce). He creates real characters and situations and slowly takes us along as the true nature of the mystery slowly unfolds. He also supplies some socko set pieces (including the famous exploring the nest scene and the climax set in the sewers of LA). Gordon Douglas directs with a steady hand, but one of the great aspects of “Them” is that it remains one of the best acted GMMs. All of the leads sparkle and Edmund Gwen gives an iconic performance as Dr. Medford. Even the supporting actors are excellent. Leonard Nimoy has only one scene, but it’s very memorable. He plays an army sergeant who is collating strange phenomena reports for Dr. Medford. He tries to make time with a pretty female soldier and waxes poetic about people from Texas.  It’s a great part and Nimoy plays it perfectly. Even though his role was small, Nimoy’s acting helped propel “Them” into a classic GMM movie.

QUOTABLE MOVIE LINE: “Those Texans. The biggest stories are told, Texans will tell ‘em. That oughta fit in with the kind of stuff they’re looking for upstairs.”

3. THE BRAIN EATERS (1958) American International – Director: Bruno Ve Sota

Just outside a small Illinois town, a strange metallic cone appears and begins disgorging small furry parasites who quickly attach themselves to many of the local townspeople. Once attached, the parasites begin to control their victims. Researcher Dr. Paul Kettering becomes concerned and alerts the national authorities. Before long, it’s determined that the strange cone is not the only problem facing the government. There is a much larger cone somewhere nearby and Dr. Kettering and his team have to find it before the nation is taken over by the mind control parasites. Eventually the larger cone is found and Dr. Kettering goes in. He finds an old man (Leonard Nimoy) who informs him that the parasites are the next rulers of the planet. They are the next logical higher life form. The man also inform Kettering that the parasites come from the center of the earth! Kettering quickly devises a plan to electrocute the bugs, but just as he’s ready to fry them his girlfriend (Joanna Lee) is transformed into one of the possessed and she’s taken shelter inside the cone. Now Kettering must choose between annihilating the subterranean parasites and killing the woman he loves.

In the world of sc-fi trash, “The Brain Eaters” is legendary. The movie barely runs an hour and it’s completely lifeless and excruciatingly tedious. The parasites are represented by simple wind-up toys that producer Ed Nelson purchased and added  pipe cleaners and fur to. Most of the actors are bad and even Leonard Nimoy (here billed as Leonard Nemoy) can’t bring any life to the proceedings. Legend has it that Nimoy was good friends with Nelson and appeared in the film as a favor to him. But what’s even worse about the “The Brain Eaters” is that it’s a shameless rip-off of Robert Heinlein’s classic sci-fi novel “The Puppet Masters” (1951). The author sued Roger Corman (the executive producer) as well as American International over this film and won. However, it’s a great shame that after his victory, Heinlein didn’t force Corman to destroy all of the prints of “The Brain Eaters.” That would have prevented millions of sci-fi fans from watching this unmitigated disaster.

QUOTABLE MOVIE LINE: “We are in complete harmony. We are inseparable. There is no conflict of purpose here as there is among mankind. We will not engage in combat nor violence of any kind. Why should we? When we can scatter quietly like seeds in the wind.”

As the 1950s melted into the 1960s, Mr. Nimoy’s acting career continued its upward spiral. He appeared in numerous TV shows including “The Twilight Zone” (1959-1965) and “The Outer Limits” (1963-1965). And right after that he found the character that would bring him worldwide fame. But it was partially here in these sci-fi films that Mr. Nimoy honed his craft and left his mark. And now 60 years later, I’m sure that somewhere in the world, someone is watching one of these sci-fi flicks right now, pointing to the screen and saying “Hey, look who it is. It’s Mr. Spock!”

Selected References

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.