The Sunday Magazine: Farewell to David Letterman

I am the person late-night television talk shows were invented for. For most of my adult life I have ended my day by watching one of the late-night shows. It is my way of putting my mind into neutral prior to going to sleep. This habit began in graduate school for me. After working in the lab for 16-18 hours I desperately needed something to help me shut down. Back in 1982 that dose of necessary laughter came courtesy of a show called “Late Night with David Letterman”. For the last thirty-three years Dave has been a near constant in my daily life. In a few days that will all come to an end when he broadcasts his final show on May 20, 2015.

David-Letterman

David Letterman

As I’ve watched the final shows I have been reminded of how many people got their start through being on Dave’s stage. Many of the biggest stars of the last thirty years have warmly reminded Dave of his importance to them. What is great about Dave is you can tell it makes him uncomfortable to hear the praise. He deflects and diminishes his role as talent scout but it exists. The emotion of the people who have shown up as the show winds down is testament to that. It is that reluctance to take credit for his influence which is what has always made Dave so appealing to me as a viewer. I always felt like he considered his whole career a mistake which someone would eventually become aware of and take it all away.

In the early days that attitude would allow him to go for unusual laughs when he was doing Late Night with David Letterman at 12:30 AM. He knew the audience awake at that time might want something different and he delivered that. For me I can pinpoint the exact moment Dave became important to me. It was December 19, 1984.

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I was working hard to finish my degree and I wanted to head home for the Holidays with a key reaction done leaving me only the final steps. Instead because of my impatience I pushed too far, too fast, and lost weeks of work. Happy Freaking Holidays! I was mad at myself, mad at the world, mad at everything. I sat down sullenly on top of my bean-bag chair and switched on Dave. What I was greeted with was instead of the traditional Late Night opening a logo which said this was “Christmas with the Lettermans”. Over the course of the episode everything about the typical Christmas television special was destroyed via comedy.

We met Dave’s fake family including his wife, their three kids, and Dave’s older brother Darryl. The only girl in the family is the “princess” who gets everything she asks for. The youngest son in a running gag, per family tradition, has to go procure the family Christmas tree. In the middle of the cold December night in New York City. It doesn’t go well. There were two guests as well, Pat Boone and Brother Theodore. Pat Boone came on to promote his own Christmas special airing in a couple of days. For much of the time he was being interviewed it was difficult to figure out if Mr. Boone was in on the joke. It wasn’t until later when he sets Dave up by asking him what Christmas means to him that you knew he was in on it. Dave gets up and has an internal reverie with himself. The kind that usually leads to the star of the show discovering the true meaning of the holiday. Not here. Dave’s stream of consciousness leaves him standing under the office mistletoe hoping for someone to walk by. Dave’s bandleader Paul Shaffer has to remind him his “family” is back in the studio, in the dark. It was this that turned my mood around. I was standing under my own mistletoe hoping for some action while forgetting what was left behind in the dark. While laughing I was also getting much needed therapy.

Dave has been my guy from the beginning. I disliked Jay Leno because, rightly or wrongly, I felt he stole The Tonight Show from Dave. I think we are in a golden era of late night television with the two Jimmys, Conan, Seth, and James all providing that final bit of distraction before closing your eyes. For the next few nights I’m going to enjoy the man who made those guys' shows possible. Thanks Dave, I’m really going to miss you.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Once Upon a Time in America

Back in 1984 I had started my first job and like many I was very excited to buy this new technological advance the VCR. For me it opened up an opportunity to see some movies I had not seen. What was also cool about that time was the stores that rented videos were often run by people who were also passionate about movies. I had one of those kind of stores I used in those early days of home video. When I would walk in after work the owner, Stephane, would happily show me what he thought was worth checking out from the new releases. This day he held up a title I recognized, “Once Upon a Time in America” by director Sergio Leone. I started waving my hand saying I had seen it in the theatre and it sucked. He smiled and said you haven’t seen this version. As I focused on the box I saw the words “extended cut”. Stephane told me that this was the real version of the movie and it was amazing. I trusted him so I took it home expecting to be ejecting it in a few minutes. Instead I was introduced to one of my all-time favorite movies and one I would place on a personal top 10 of best movies ever. How did it go from “sucked” to Top 10? That’s a story of moviemaking back in the 1980’s.

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Sergio Leone is best known as the director of the so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” shot in Italy using the Mediterranean countryside as a stand-in for the American West. The movies starred Clint Eastwood and together form a version of the Western where our hero was as far removed from the upright honor of any Western character played by John Wayne as could be. What these movies did portray was a sort of rogue’s honor. These deeply flawed heroes had their own, verging on nihilistic, code that they adhered to. After his last release in 1971 he seemingly had stopped making movies. Then I had read he was doing a movie about Prohibition-era gangsters starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. I was there opening weekend. I walked out of the theatre wondering if Mr. Leone was losing his mind as the movie made no sense. Characters showed up out of nowhere. Others did things without seeming motivation. I just knew what I had hoped would be awesome, sucked.

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Robert De Niro

Once Upon a Time in America premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. Once the lights came up it received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the festival goers. That version was 229 minutes long. The American distributor The Ladd Company was concerned that the length of the movie would limit its box office potential. Because they had the right to edit the film for American release they removed 90 minutes reducing the running length down to 139 minutes. Imagine any movie you like having a third of it removed by, in essence, accountants. Of course that version sucked.

By the time I was putting in the first of two cassettes in my VCR at home I had the 229-minute version. I had a cinematic marvel which drew me in and has never let go. The longer version takes you through the childhood of petty criminals Max (James Woods) and Noodles (Robert De Niro). The entire first act is played by child actors and shows how this rogue’s honor is formed. As Prohibition arrives these now young men, and played by Mr. Woods and Mr. De Niro, build an empire based on their speakeasy. They gain more and more influence and power but can never really attain the things they want most. When Prohibition ends, their empire starts to crumble and this time they are not quick enough to adapt. A tragedy happens causing Noodles to flee the country. He returns as an old man in 1968 because he received a letter which seemed to know more about him than anyone should. He returns to his old neighborhood to figure out what happened.

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James Woods

This is a movie dense with visual motifs foreshadowing much of the movie’s plot. Many of the scenes which have the most impact are when these amoral men try to become what they perceive as civilized only to revert to their amorality. Mr. Leone was unflinching in the way he portrayed some of these scenes they are difficult to watch and brutal. Because the characters are portrayed so vividly you feel the attempt to reach out for something more only to fail. In the final act Noodles explains to the man who brought him back the code he lived his life by and why he wouldn’t do what was being asked of him. Even at the end the rogue’s honor code was the only way he could live his life.

I’ve been purposefully vague about the plot because there are a lot of wonderfully crafted plot turns which should be experienced upon viewing.

I would say the performances by Mr. Woods and Mr. De Niro rank among the very best of their career. In the longer version there is nothing out of place. Last year for the 30th Anniversary of the release of the film an additional 22-minutes were added and this was supposedly the version Mr. Leone had wanted to release. If you like great moviemaking “Once Upon a Time in America” should be in your video queue.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Summer Rum Cocktails

Now that I am actually spending some time on the back deck here in Poodlesville I am starting to realize I rotate my cocktail mixing cart the same way I do my perfumes. I realized this as I was shaking up my first Daiquiri of the year as I started bringing all the different bottles of rum I have to the front of the line. As I was doing that I was realizing I was already mentally reaching through my mental cocktail recipe book for the drinks I was looking forward to making. If you want some suggestions here are three summer rum cocktails for you to give a try.

I think a daiquiri might have been the first cocktail I ever tasted as a child. I don’t know if that is why I like it so much. I do know it is almost a ritual for me to drink a daiquiri on the first really warm day of the year usually while cooking something on the grill. A daiquri is one of the simplest drinks to make combining rum, fresh lime juice and simple syrup. I came across a variation which has become my current favorite called The Hemingway Martini.

The Hemingway Martini

2 parts rum (use a really good white rum)

1 part fresh grapefruit juice

1 part lime juice

0.5 part Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

0.5 part Simple Syrup

Combine all the ingredients in a shaker and serve straight up garnished with a grapefruit slice.

planter's punch

Planter’s Punch is one of the oldest cocktails known. It is also one of those cocktails which has been trampled to death over the years. It is the basis for all of those fruity rum punches you drink on tropical island vacations. What is sad is that the original version of the recipe which came from the very not tropical Planter’s Hotel in Saint Louis, Missouri is really good; especially if you make the effort to use fresh fruit juice. It still packs a kick but you don’t feel like there is sugar crystallizing on your teeth.

The Original Planter’s Punch

3 parts dark rum (I prefer Mt. Gay but any good one will do)

1 part Fresh squeezed orange juice

1 part fresh squeezed lime juice

1 part fresh pineapple juice

4 parts club soda.

Combine everything but the club soda in a shaker and shake over ice. Strain into a glass over ice. And add an equal volume of club soda. Garnish with a teaspoon of grenadine and a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters. Stir with a spoon.

As the summer goes on we get tremendous thunderstorms which pass through and if I need a cocktail to match Mother Nature’s furious grandeur I make a Dark and Stormy. This is another tropical inspired drink which has been made poorly by the addition of too many extraneous ingredients. It should only have two; rum and ginger beer. If you try that you will make sure to instruct any bartender about to add fruit juice to it to stop.

Dark and Stormy

2 parts dark rum (Gosling’s Black Seal is the original ingredient)

3 parts ginger beer

In a glass with ice add both ingredients and stir. Garnish with a slice of lime if you must have fruit but I won’t do it.

I hope you join me for cocktail hour on your deck or patio with one of these rum drinks.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: J.J. Abrams

I think you would have had to work really hard over the last few days to have missed seeing the new trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I think every geek in the world is hoping for something great with the continuation of the Star Wars saga begun in 1977 by George Lucas. I think that the reason most of us carry that hopeful outlook is because of one person, J.J. Abrams.

Alias

Mr. Abrams first jumped onto my radar with his television series “Alias” from 2001-2006. It was a loopy spy show with a crazy mythology around an inventor’s incredible artifacts which held amazing powers. There were times it was too complicated for its own good but it was always fun. For those of you who watch all of the new dramas which call themselves “twisty”; Alias was doing that well before those shows were ever a concept.

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J.J. Abrams

Mr. Abrams would transition to the silver screen, directing 2006’s Mission: Impossible III. This seemed a natural progression from small screen spy shenanigan to big screen ones. It was one of the better movies in that franchise but it was what Mr. Abrams did next which really began his upward trajectory.

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In 2009 he would take what is one of the two tentpole sci-fi franchises and attempt to reboot it. When it was announced he was named as the director of the new Star Trek movie I was very skeptical. On one hand Star Trek has been ridden into the ground and lumbered under the accumulated years of mythology. There wasn’t much left to screw up. On the other hand I read Mr. Abrams’ unproduced screenplay he wrote in 2002 for Superman. On another property which also suffered from a restrictive historical mythology he completely lost what it was that makes Superman the superhero he is. I worried if that approach was used he would drive the final nail in the Star Trek coffin.

What happened was he found a way to celebrate everything that made Star Trek so much fun while at the same time wiping the slate clean and allowing this cast and this story to essentially start over. It was reverential and revolutionary in respect to the source material and it was incredible. My life as a geek began in front of a television screen watching Star Trek and Mr. Abrams gave it back to me. He had been able to fully exercise his creativity within a universe which seemed impossible to work in. He would direct the sequel Star Trek Into Darkness and then he announced his next project.

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If Star Trek is one sci-fi tentpole then Star Wars is the other. After Disney had acquired George Lucas’ Lucasfilm they announced there were going to be more Star Wars movies starting in 2015 with Episode VII. Then they announced Mr. Abrams would be writing and directing. This time there was no skepticism there was just relief that they were putting this in the hands of someone who I think gets it.

We are a few months away from the December release but this week the first full-length trailer was released. It starts with a voice over of Luke Skywalker and ends with Han Solo and Chewie. In between we get glimpses of our new trio of heroes and their new nemeses. If there is any chance of this being great Mr. Abrams might be the only person I would trust this to.

Come December as a scroll of words with the heading Episode VII The Force Awakens begins to move up the screen we will all know if Mr. Abrams has succeeded in bringing home the geek Daily Double. I am betting he will.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Jimmy Fallon and The Roots with Classroom Instruments

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Getting a different perspective on something you think you know well, something you think you know really well, is invaluable. Over the last three years there has been a recurring bit on American late night television which has taken the biggest pop hits, right at the point they have become intolerable, and given them a fresh new makeover.

In June of 2012 you could not escape hearing Carly Rae Jepsen’s hit song “Call Me Maybe”. Besides being on every device which played music there were multiple sports teams publishing YouTube videos lip synching to it. Just at the point I was ready to call “No mas!” I was tuning into Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He introduced us to the “music room” backstage and inside was Jimmy Fallon, Carly Rae Jepsen and The Roots. For the next 3 minutes and thirty seconds they did a version of “Call Me Maybe” using classroom instruments. Instruments we played while in primary school like recorders, triangles, kazoos, ukulele, toy xylophone, and melodica provided the music for Ms. Jepsen to sing what I think is the definitive final version of the song. How do I know that? You hardly saw another amateur lip synching video show up after this was seen.

Happily this wasn’t just a one-time event. Robin Thicke did “Blurred Lines” and the classroom instruments made it way less provocative. Meghan Trainor did “All About That Bass”. The Muppets joined in on the “Sesame Street Theme”.

The pinnacle moment was when Idina Menzel did “Let It Go”. Just as with “Call Me Maybe” “Let It Go” had reached critical mass and the gang in the “music room” turned it on its head.

Despite what is undeniably a simple concept this could not be accomplished without the incredibly talented musicians who make up The Roots. They have been Mr. Fallon’s house band from the beginning. If there is anything that makes these videos and versions so enjoyable it is the palpable sense of fun radiating off of everyone on screen. Watching these guys play these instruments with these huge smiles shows how much fun music can be. I’ve also heard it said that great singers can sing the phone book and be compelling. I am pretty sure I could challenge The Roots to make music with sticks and stones and they would create a joyful sound.

The current state of late night television in America is as good as it gets and if you need a reason to stay up late Jimmy Fallon and The Roots provide one of the happiest reasons to lose some sleep.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: 40 Years a Geek

I was doing some spring cleaning and I ran across an old memory box from my high school days. Inside I found a ticket to a Star Trek and comic convention in the Miami Springs holiday Inn dated March 15, 1975. As far as I can remember this was my first convention. I came to the realization that it is probably that date which was my coming out party as a geek and I was thinking how much things have changed over the past 40 years.

I was attracted to that convention because George Takei, who played Mr. Sulu, was the special guest. I would say there were maybe 250 people there all crammed into a hotel ballroom watching Star Trek episodes on an old reel-to-reel projector. For me just to know that there were 249 other people who felt the same as me was very powerful. In those days if you liked something that was a bit outside of the mainstream you were pretty much going it on your own. I remember walking away from that experience knowing I was not on my own. Also from that very first convention I became part of the South Florida geek community. That is something that has been very strong for people who consider themselves geeks. Forty years ago it was a necessity. Now there are specialized groups within the umbrella designation of geek. Just as back then there is nothing as important as not feeling alone.

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What the Internet looked like in 1990

Certainly the Internet has been a big help for this for the last twenty-five years. Even from my early days of joining this online service called Prodigy I sought out others. It was so very cool to have special forums where I could chat with others who were just as invested in whatever subject I was interested in. As the Internet developed so did the community. It went from knowing there were 250 in your local area to knowing there were 250,000 all over the world. I not only didn’t feel alone, I felt like part of a vast worldwide community.

The growth of that community has no better barometer than the attendance at the biggest geek convention on the planet San Diego Comic-Con. In 1975 attendance was approximately 2, 500. Last year’s attendance was estimated at over 130,000. One other major thing that has changed is the demographics. Back in 1975 I am pretty sure there were only four or five women in the ballroom at the Holiday Inn. I remember standing on the mezzanine of this year’s New York Comic-Con and seeing so many women of all ages it made me smile.

Over forty years, geek has gone from being a sort of pejorative to now just being a mostly benign noun. What makes me happiest is to see how inclusive it has become. Even though we may never stop debating which is better, Star Trek or Star Wars, I love that there are more in the discussion.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Glee

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In May of 2009 I spent most of a week humming Journey’s song “Don’t Stop Believin’”. Now it could have been I was just listening to the 80’s station but it was because of a television show. I had watched the first episode of a series called Glee. Glee told the story of a group of lovable geeks who wanted to sing in the glee club. In those days of 2009-2010 the show was a white-hot phenomenon introducing the nation to the real-life show choirs and a cappella groups which existed in high school and college. I wasn’t just the music, though.

In the early seasons it was about finding friends in high school when you’re a quirky outsider. Our heroes regularly got “slushied” with one, or many, thrown in their face. It dealt with very serious issues like teen suicide, teen pregnancy, or bullying; among many. Glee grabbed a hold of its bully pulpit and was unafraid to show its audience the consequences of actions.

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For three seasons the show had a clear mission as the glee club called New Directions kept competing until they finally would win the big prize. The final three seasons were more problematic as the kids graduated and their stories in the real world never gained the same amount of emotional traction. Part of the issue was one group of characters went to New York City to chase their dreams and another group stayed behind in Ohio. Glee had a very hard time balancing the stories and it became doubly hard when actor Cory Monteith died of a drug overdose in July 2013. Whatever the grand story arc that had been planned by creators and writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk had to be changed. When Glee returned after that it felt like it had lost its way. I felt it never really got its groove back.

Glee came to an end this past Friday night and I sat down for the finale which was a mix of looking back to the beginning and flash-forwarding five years to see our geeks become great. When they reunited everyone who had played on the show for one last performance in the auditorium to OneRepublic’s “I Lived” it brought a final tear to my eyes.

Glee was never meant to be realistic it was a big fantasy of the way I would wish the world to be where the geeks can carry the day. For a while they had a large part of this country embracing that outsider part of their character all while humming “Don’t Stop Believin’”. After everything that’s a pretty good legacy to leave behind.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Contact

When I am flipping channels late at night I almost always hear Bruce Springsteen’s “57 Channels and Nothing’s On”. My problem is I eventually reach the movie channels and there always seems to be something on. More often than not it is after 11PM on a work night and I end up staying awake too late. One of my recent re-discoveries was the 1997 film “Contact” based on the book by astronomer Carl Sagan and directed by Robert Zemeckis.

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Contact tells the story of humanity’s first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. What sets Contact apart is that it is not a story of alien invasion but a meditation on the co-existence of spirituality and science. I saw the movie when it came out in the theatre and I remember sensing the disappointment of my fellow moviegoers that there had been no explosions or bug-eyed aliens. Mr. Zemeckis wanted something less sensational and more emotional. Jodie Foster plays Ellie Arroway who is the scientist who discovers the signal. She is the voice of science who doesn’t believe in God because she hasn’t seen evidence He exists. I had forgotten Matthew McConaughey plays the voice of the spiritual, lay preacher Palmer Joss. He is the spokesman of faith over empirical evidence. The themes are approached from many vectors throughout the movie and I think Mr. Sagan’s story and Mr Zemeckis’ direction allow the movie to explore all sides of this.

An example of how they do this is a conversation between Ellie and Palmer about halfway through the movie. Ellie uses the principle known as Occam’s Razor which says the simplest explanation is most often the right one and she has seen no proof of God. Palmer responds with a question for Ellie, “Did you love your father?” when she answers yes he tells her to prove it. It is such an elegant way to describe matters of logic and faith.

Contact was the first movie Mr. Zemeckis did after winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 1994 for Forest Gump. Like that movie he used real footage of the current President, Bill Clinton, and inserted the actors into the video. It gave Contact a real feel of faux-authenticity that surprisingly held up when I watched it recently.

As a scientist who also has faith Contact is one of those rare movies which treats both sides with respect and allows one to think. So if you’re hearing Bruce Springsteen in your head and you see Contact showing on your channel guide press select. I promise you in this case something’s on.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: For the Love of Money by The O’Jays

It is a curious thing when a song begins to stand for something diametrically opposed to the lyrics. There are many examples of this but it is always this time of year that makes me shake my head over the misuse of the 1973 hit by The O’Jays, “For the Love of Money”.

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If you have watched television at all over the past month and don’t fast forward through the commercials you have heard the iconic bass line and the opening lyrics, “money, money, money, money….money” advertising income tax specialists H&R Block. If you’re a fan of the reality television show The Celebrity Apprentice the same combination provides the theme song to the series. In both of these cases the song is used to promote the actual love of money, as in greed, as a desirable thing. The sad thing is if they paid attention to more than the first sixty seconds of the song they would hear a song which speaks about the love of money as a bad thing. After talking about stealing from your brother or your mother, lying or beating some on up, or prostitution. The song concludes with the lyrics, “don’t let, don’t let, don’t let money rule you”. How a song preaching against the love of money has become the theme song for greed is fascinating to me. That people who extol the accumulation of wealth like Donald Trump use it makes me wonder what the song writers think about how their song has been used. I was unable to find a quote from any of them on the subject. It will remain a mystery.

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Anthony Jackson

When I looked up the song writing credits I found something which did make me smile because it seems the lyric writers walked the walk. As I already mentioned that bass line which runs throughout the song is maybe the most recognizable bass line in rock music. Bass player Anthony Jackson was fooling around with new equipment in the studio and running his bass line through a device called a phaser. A phaser takes a guitar line and transforms it. Mr. Jackson was already using a wah-wah pedal when the engineer took the bass line and put it through the phaser. Right there was when the bass line was born. What is special about it is Mr. Jackson was given co-songwriting credit with Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff who wrote the lyrics. Even they recognized the bass line was as important as any word being sung. It is not a common practice in the music business. What I think it shows is Mr. Gamble and Mr. Huff lived up to the lyrics they were singing over Mr. Jackson’s bass line. By allowing him songwriting credit he gets a residual check every time the song is played. So while H&R Block and Donald Trump might not “get it” at least Mr. Jackson is reaping the rewards of their ignorance. For the love of money, indeed.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Leonard Nimoy

When I give career day talks about my job as a chemist I always lead with a picture of Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock from “Star Trek”. The idea to become a scientist was sparked by the man who played the Science Officer on the USS Enterprise as they would “boldly go where no man has gone before”. As kids we would climb into the branches of the big gumbo limbo tree and pretend it was the bridge of the Enterprise. I always wanted to play Mr. Spock and only very rarely was I not pretending to be analyzing the alien threat. In the late 1960’s as the US was nearing the first man on the moon Star Trek made us believe those were more than small steps for man but that they were huge steps for mankind. The entire cast of Star Trek were ambassadors to generations of kids who dreamed of the final frontier.

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Like many of those kids it would lead me to a career in science although much more earthbound as a chemist. Whenever I speak about it with people of a similar age I often find the story to be similar. Mr. Nimoy struggled with being so identified with a character that held so much importance to a group of fans. He would go so far as to write a book in 1975 called “I Am Not Spock”. It would take him twenty years to reverse that with a book entitled “I Am Spock”. I met Mr. Nimoy twice and both times mentioned to him that his character was the inspiration for my career in science. He gave me a large smile both times we had this conversation which were closer to the “I Am Spock” years then when he was trying to shed the image.

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I only realized how much I considered him my mentor when I watched his final scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I was sobbing loudly as I watched him impart a lesson that logic and friendship can co-exist. Of course in the movies Mr. Spock would cheat death many times but Mr. Nimoy will not be so fortunate. He will live on in every one of us who was inspired by his portrayal of Mr. Spock for almost fifty years. Which is its own form of immortality.  

Mark Behnke