Nichelle Nichols, who broke the barriers for black women in Hollywood as communications officer Lt. Uhura, in the original “Star Trek” television series, has died aged 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. However, her light, like the ancient galaxies now seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and be inspired by,” Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page on Sunday. “Her life was a life well lived and as such a model for all of us.”
Her role in the 1966-69 series earned Nichols a lifetime of honor among the series’ avid fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies. It also earned her credit for breaking stereotypes that limited black women to acting roles as servants and included an on-screen interracial kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.
Shatner tweeted Sunday: “I am so sorry to hear about Nichelle’s passing. She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character who did so much to redefine social issues both here in the US and around the world.”
George Takei, who shared the bridge of the USS Enterprise as Sulu in the original “Star Trek” series, called her groundbreaking and incomparable. “Because today my heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars you rest among now, my dear friend,” he tweeted.
Nichols’ impact was far greater than her immediate co-stars, and many others in the “Star Trek” world have also tweeted their condolences.
Celia Rose Gooding, who currently plays Uhura on “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” tweeted that Nichols “has made room for so many of us. She reminded us that we can’t just reach the stars, our influence is essential. for their survival. Forget shaking the table, she built it.”
“Star Trek: Voyager” alum Kate Mulgrew tweeted: “Nichelle Nichols was the first. She was a pioneer navigating a very challenging course with grit, grace and a beautiful fire that we probably won’t see again.”
Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spin-offs, beginning in 1979 with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and attending “Star Trek” fan conventions. She also served as a NASA recruiter for many years, helping to bring minorities and women into the astronaut corps.
Nichols broke barriers for black women in Hollywood
More recently, she had a recurring role on television’s “Heroes”, playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.
The original “Star Trek” premiered on NBC on September 8, 1966. The multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the distant future — the 23rd century — human diversity would be fully accepted.
“I think a lot of people took it to heart… that what was being said on TV at the time was a cause for celebration,” Nichols said in 1992 when a “Star Trek” exhibit was on display 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 meeting 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 left the show, he got really serious and said, ‘You can’t do that,'” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview.
“‘You changed the face of television forever, and that’s why you changed people’s minds,'” she told the civil rights leader.
“That foresight that Dr. King had was a bolt of lightning in my life,” Nichols said.
During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Capt. James Kirk in what was described as the first interracial kiss to air on an American television series. In the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”, their characters, who always had a platonic relationship, were forced into the kiss by aliens who controlled their actions.
The kiss “suggested that there was a future where these issues weren’t such a big deal,” Eric Deggans, a television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018. “The characters themselves weren’t panicked because a black woman kissed a white man … In this utopian future, we have solved this problem. We are past it. That was a wonderful message to send.”
Concerned about the response from Southern television stations, showrunners wanted to film a second shot of the scene where the off-screen kiss took place. But Nichols said in her book, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” that she and Shatner deliberately switched the lines to force the original recording.
Despite concerns, the episode aired without blowback. In fact, it got the most “fan mail Paramount had ever gotten on ‘Star Trek’ for one episode,” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.
Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. Michelle wanted to mention, but she had to have alliterative initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence “Nichelle”.
Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14, moved to nightclubs in New York, and worked for a while with the bands Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before coming to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.” the first of several small film and TV roles that led to her “Star Trek” stardom.
Nichols was known for not being afraid to stand up to Shatner on set when others complained that he stole scenes and camera time. They later found out that she was a big supporter of the show’s creator.
In her 1994 book “Beyond Uhura,” she said she met Roddenberry when she guest-starred on his show “The Lieutenant,” and the two had an affair a few years before “Star Trek” started. The two remained good friends for life.
Another fan of Nichols and the show was future astronaut Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman in space when she flew aboard the shuttle Endeavor in 1992.
In an AP interview before her flight, Jemison said she watched Nichols on “Star Trek” all the time, adding that she loved the show. Jemison eventually met Nichols.
Nichols was a regular at “Star Trek” conventions and events into her 80s, but her schedule was curtailed from 2018 when her son announced she was suffering from advanced dementia.
Nichols was placed under guardianship by her son Johnson, who said her mental decline made her unable to run her business or appear in public.
Some, including Nichols’ managers and her boyfriend, film producer and actor Angelique Fawcett, objected to the conservatory, seeking greater access to Nichols and records of Johnson’s financial and other moves on her behalf. Her name was sometimes invoked at courthouse meetings to free Britney Spears from her own conservatorship.
But the court consistently sided with Johnson, and because of Fawcett’s objections, allowed him to move Nichols to New Mexico, where she lived with him in her final years.
Associated Press Entertainment writer Andrew Dalton contributed from Los Angeles. Former AP writer Polly Anderson contributed biographical material to this report.