Leonard Nimoy, the beloved actor best known for playing Mr. Spock on Star Trek, was a man of many talents. Along with being an actor, he was a director, writer, photographer, and singer. But while many fans can quote his most famous line from Star Trek, not everyone knows about the severe health issue that ultimately ended his life in 2015.
Now, his daughter Julie Nimoy is sharing stories of her late father and trying to raise awareness of the lung disease Leonard faced until he passed away at 83 years old.
When Julie was 11, Leonard landed the pivotal role on Star Trek. “All of a sudden, he became very well-known,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “and that completely changed our lives forever.” Although she says that growing up with a famous dad was “tricky,” “he and my mom, they really tried hard to keep our family life very grounded.”
However, Julie recalls that a cigarette was Leonard’s constant companion. “He probably started [smoking] around 17 years old,” she says. “As long as I could remember, as a young child, he always had a cigarette in his hand. He smoked everywhere we went and smoked two packs a day.”
The actor quit for good around 1985 or 1986, recalls Julie. But when Leonard was in his 50s, Julie started to notice that her father was having some breathing issues. “If we’d go on a long walk, he was slowing down,” she says. “He’d have to stop and take breaths.”
Leonard was misdiagnosed by his doctor, who chalked up his trouble breathing to allergies or a cold, according to Julie. But it was something much more serious: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — an umbrella term used to describe a group of progressive lung diseases, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and non-reversible asthma, that block airflow and make it hard for people to breathe.
It took years for him to get a proper diagnosis, but Leonard was finally diagnosed with severe COPD in 2013. “My dad didn’t know what COPD was,” Julie says. “Nobody had heard of it. The symptoms do sneak up on you. It’s progressive, but it’s a slow progression.”
She says it started with Leonard getting sick more often with bronchitis, followed by a “rumbly” cough, and noticing that her dad was clearing his throat a lot. “And that really affected his work because he did a lot of voice-overs,” she says. “It got to the point where he was clearing his throat so much that he just couldn’t sustain maybe a paragraph without clearing his throat.”
Julie shares that she and her father were very close. During the last years of Leonard’s life, he stayed focused on his family and tried to “play it down” how sick he really was so they wouldn’t worry about him. But when he became very ill, particularly around Thanksgiving 2014, Julie says Leonard had to start using his portable oxygen tank and taking it with him “everywhere.” “He couldn’t walk from the kitchen to the living room without using his oxygen,” she says.
Leonard had felt “embarrassed” about having to use an oxygen tank and was not public about it, but when paparazzi caught him in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank at JFK airport in 2014, the photos went viral. Still, Julie saw the silver lining in all of this. “That’s when it was time for him to start creating awareness about this disease,” she says. “It was really great because now he could go out in public and not feel embarrassed that he had to use his oxygen.”
From then on and up until his death, Leonard became an anti-smoking advocate. It became “his mission” to get as many people as he could who followed him on Twitter — and he had more than a million followers — to stop smoking. He’d regularly post smoking cessation messages, encouraging fans by saying, “Don’t smoke,” “Try to quit,” and “I’ll be your honorary grandfather if you quit.”
Don't smoke. I did. Wish I never had. LLAP— Leonard Nimoy (@TheRealNimoy) January 11, 2015
Julie and her husband David Knight have continued to carry the torch, dedicating themselves to raising awareness about COPD, including teaming up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create videos about Leonard’s lung disease and featuring his wife, Susan.
David and Julie also released a film in 2017, Remembering Leonard Nimoy. “It’s all about the beginning of my dad’s life, taking him all the way through his career, family, his illness...until the end,” she says.
Like her father, Julie continues to encourage people not to start smoking and if they do smoke, to try to quit. “I think something he’d want to say to his fans is, ‘If you want to live long and prosper, don’t start smoking cigarettes,’” she says.
Above all, Julie says, “Try to enjoy life with your loved one as much as you can. It’s the quality — that’s the more important.”
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