Leonard Nimoy's Story

Remembering Leonard Nimoy, last photo of Leonard Nimoy with his daughter Julie Nimoy.

His Life and Legacy

Leonard Nimoy, the American actor best known for his role as Spock on the popular television and film series Star Trek, started smoking cigarettes as a teenager. He thought smoking was “cool,” and believed cigarettes were part of a doctor-recommended healthy lifestyle, as some of the tobacco companies falsely advertised.

After high school, Leonard moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. By that time, he was already a two-pack a day smoker. He and his wife started a family. His daughter Julie remembers that Leonard was never without a cigarette during her childhood. “Dad smoked all the time,” she recalled. “In bed, in the car with the windows rolled up, everywhere.”

Leonard smoked for 37 years. He tried unsuccessfully to quit several times but was deeply addicted to nicotine. It took the birth of Leonard’s first grandson in 1985 to make him quit for good. Julie told Leonard he could not smoke around the baby because the secondhand smoke was too dangerous. Leonard was determined, and drawing on all the lessons learned from his past quit attempts, eventually quit smoking completely.

In 1989, Leonard married Susan Bay. For the next 26 years, they lived an active life. They traveled the world, attended science fiction conventions, and built a close-knit blended family.

Breathing became harder for Leonard as he aged. He had lingering bronchitis, a persistent cough, and would get short of breath when walking or exercising. “As dad got older, his breathing got considerably worse, and he really couldn’t keep up,” Julie said.

Leonard was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2013. His doctor noted Leonard had very little air movement in his lungs. “He was working, even at rest, to breathe,” Leonard’s doctor said.

COPD is a condition that makes it harder and harder to breathe and can cause death. It refers to a group of diseases, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis, which cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. Most cases of COPD are caused by smoking. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Leonard and Susan focused on managing his COPD through medication, oxygen, and physical therapy. Leonard worked hard to stay active, but on regular outings with his nurse, he couldn’t walk more than 50 or 100 feet without gasping for air.

Although Leonard was reluctant to be seen with his oxygen tank or speak publicly about his COPD, Susan encouraged him to use his fame to help others. “If you have the bravery to be out there with oxygen, you’ll encourage other people not to run and hide,” she said.

Eventually Leonard opened up to interviewers about smoking’s toll on his health. He became an active anti-smoking advocate on Twitter. “I quit smoking 30 years ago. Not soon enough. I have COPD. Grandpa says, quit now!! LLAP,” he tweeted, signing off with an abbreviation of Spock’s signature phrase, “Live long and prosper.”

Over time, Leonard became weaker and more oxygen-dependent. His body couldn’t clear infections, and he was hospitalized several times.

In 2015, Leonard passed away from complications arising from COPD.