Actor broke racial barriers as Lt. Uhura on ‘Star Trek’
Nichelle Nichols, who broke ground for Black women acting on television as the beautiful, no-nonsense communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original “Star Trek” TV series, has died, relatives said Sunday. She was 89.
Her son Kyle Johnson said Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration,” Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page Sunday. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Her role in the 1966-69 series as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifelong position of honor with the series’ rabid fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies. It also earned her accolades for breaking stereotypes that had limited Black women to acting roles as servants and included an interracial onscreen kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.
“I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89,” George Takei wrote on Twitter.
“For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spinoffs starting in 1979 with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and frequented “Star Trek” fan conventions.
She also served for many years as a NASA recruiter, helping bring minorities and women into the astronaut corps.
The original “Star Trek” premiered on NBC on Sept. 8, 1966. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the far-off future — the 23rd century — human diversity would be fully accepted.
“I think many people took it into their hearts ... that what was being said on TV at that time was a reason to celebrate,” Nichols said in 1992 when a “Star Trek” exhibit was on view at the Smithsonian Institution.
She often recalled how Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the show and praised her role. She met him at a civil rights gathering in 1967, at a time when she had decided not to return for the show’s second season.
“When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and I was leaving the show, he became very serious and said, ‘You cannot do that,’ ” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview.
“‘You’ve changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you’ve changed the minds of people,’ ” she said the civil rights leader told her.
“That foresight Dr. King had was a lightning bolt in my life,” Nichols said.
More recently, she had a recurring role on television’s “Heroes,” playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.
During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Capt. James Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to be broadcast on a U.S. television series. In the episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” their characters, who always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced into the kiss by aliens who were controlling their actions.
The kiss “suggested that there was a future where these issues were not such a big deal,” Eric Deggans, a television critic for National Public Radio, said in 2018. “The characters themselves were not freaking out because a Black woman was kissing a white man ... In this utopian-like future, we solved this issue. We’re beyond it. That was a wonderful message to send.”
Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in 2010. When she was a teen her mother told her she had wanted to name her Michelle, but thought she ought to have alliterative initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence, “Nichelle.”
Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at 14, moving on to New York nightclubs and working for a time with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands before moving to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess,” the first of several small film and TV roles that led up to “Star Trek.”