Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ dies at 89

By Lindsey Bahr

Nichelle Nichols, who broke barriers for black women in Hollywood when she starred as communications officer Lt. Uhura in the original ‘Star Trek’ TV series, has died aged 89 .

His 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 seen now for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy. enjoy, learn and be inspired,” Johnson wrote on his official Facebook page on Sunday. “His was a life well lived and as such a role model for us all.”

His role in the 1966-69 series as Lieutenant Uhura earned Nichols a lifetime position of honor with the series’ rabid fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies. It also earned her accolades for breaking stereotypes that limited black women to playing servant roles and included an on-screen interracial kiss with co-star William Shatner who was unknown at the time.

“I will have more to say about the pioneering and incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the deck with us as Lieutenant Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who died today at age 89,” George Takei wrote on Twitter. “For today my heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars among which you now rest, my dearest friend.”

Takei played Sulu in the “Star Trek” original series alongside Nichols. But his impact was felt beyond his immediate co-stars, and many other members of the “Star Trek” world also tweeted their condolences.

Celia Rose Gooding, who currently plays Uhura in “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” wrote on Twitter that Nichols “made room for so many of us. She was a reminder that not only can we reach for the stars, but that our influence is essential to 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 who walked a very difficult path with courage, grace, and a beautiful fire that we are unlikely to see again.

Like other members of the original cast, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spin-offs beginning with 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and attended “Star Trek” fan conventions. She also served for many years as a NASA recruiter, helping integrate minorities and women into the astronaut corps.

More recently, she had a recurring role on the television series “Heroes”, playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.

The original “Star Trek” premiered on NBC on September 8, 1966. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the distant future – the 23rd century – human diversity would be fully embraced.

“I think a lot of people took it to their hearts … that what was being said on television at that time was cause for celebration,” Nichols said in 1992 during a “Star Trek” exhibit at the Smithsonian. Institution.

She often recalled how much of a fan Martin Luther King Jr. was on the show and praised her role. She met him at a civil rights rally 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 got real 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 as a result, you changed people’s minds,'” she said, the civil rights leader told her.

“That foresight of Dr. King was a lightning bolt in my life,” Nichols said.

During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Captain James Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to air on an American television series. In the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”, their characters, who have always enjoyed a platonic relationship, were forced into a kiss by aliens who controlled their actions.

The kiss “suggested there was a future where these issues weren’t so important,” Eric Deggans, television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018. “The characters themselves didn’t panic because a black woman kissed a white man… In this utopian future, we solved this problem. We are beyond. It was a wonderful message to send.

Worried about the reaction of Southern television stations, the showrunners wanted to film a second take of the scene where the kiss happened off-screen. But Nichols said in her book, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” that she and Shatner deliberately missed the lines to force the use of the original take.

Despite concerns, the episode aired without blowback. In fact, it received the most “fan mail Paramount has ever received on ‘Star Trek’ for an episode,” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the American Television Archive.

Shatner tweeted on Sunday: “So sorry to hear of Nichelle’s passing. She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character who did so much to redefine social issues here in the United States and around the world.

Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. says she had wanted to call her Michelle, but thought she should have alliterative initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence, “Nichelle”.

Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at the age of 14, then in New York nightclubs and worked for a time with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton’s bands before moving on. coming to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.” The first of several small film and television roles that led her to “Star Trek” stardom.

Nichols was known for not being afraid to stand up to Shatner on set when others complained he was stealing scenes and camera time. They later learned that she had a strong following in the show’s creator.

In her 1994 book, “Beyond Uhura,” she says she met Roddenberry when she starred on his show “The Lieutenant,” and the two had an affair a few years before “Star Trek” began. The two remained close 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 space 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 until she was 80, but her schedule became limited starting in 2018 when her son announced she had advanced dementia.

Nichols was placed in judicial guardianship under the supervision of her son Johnson, who said her mental decline rendered her unable to manage her affairs or make public appearances.

Some, including Nichols’ managers and his friend, film producer and actress Angelique Fawcett, opposed the conservatorship and demanded more access to Nichols and to records of Johnson’s financial and other movements on his behalf. Her name was occasionally invoked at courthouse rallies seeking to free Britney Spears from her own guardianship.

But the court always sided with Johnson and, over Fawcett’s objections, allowed her to move Nichols to New Mexico, where she lived with him in his later years.


Associated Press Entertainment writer Andrew Dalton contributed from Los Angeles. Former AP staff writer Polly Anderson provided biographical material for this report.


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