Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed communications officer Uhura in the original “Star Trek” series, died Saturday night in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89 years old.
Nichols’ death was confirmed by Gilbert Bell, her talent manager and business partner of 15 years.
Nichols shared one of the first interracial kisses in TV history on Star Trek. That moment, with co-star William Shatner, was a brave move on her part, “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and NBC given the climate at the time, but the 1968 episode of “Plato’s Stepchildren” was written to give everyone involved a break: Uhura and Captain Kirk did not choose to kiss but instead were forced to do so involuntarily by aliens who had the ability to control human movements. However, it was a historic moment.
There have been a couple of interracial kisses on American television before. A year earlier in “Movin’ With Nancy,” Sammy Davis Jr. kissed Nancy Sinatra on the cheek in what appeared to be a spontaneous but actually carefully planned gesture. The Uhura-Kirk kiss was possibly the first white/African American televised kiss.
But Uhura, whose name comes from a Swahili word meaning “freedom,” was essential beyond the interracial kiss: a capable female officer who could man other stations on the bridge when needed, she was one of the first African American women to be singled out in a non-traditional role. mean on TV.
Nichols played Lieutenant Ora in the original series, voiced her in “Star Trek: The Animated Series” and played Aura in the first six films of the “Star Trek” series. Uhura was promoted to first lieutenant in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and to full captain in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Nichols considered leaving “Star Trek” after the first season to pursue a career on Broadway, but Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who was a fan of the series and recognized her character’s importance in opening doors for other African Americans on television, personally convinced her to stay on the show, she told the physicist Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview with the American Television Archive.
Whoopi Goldberg, who would later play Guinan in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” called Uhura a role model, recalling that she was both surprised and excited to see a black woman character on TV who wasn’t a maid.
Nichols and Shatner remember shooting the famous kiss quite differently. On Star Trek Memories, Shatner said that NBC insisted that the actors’ lips never touch (even though they appear to be). But in Nichols’ 1994 autobiography Beyond Uhura, the actress insisted that the kiss was in fact real. The network, nervous about the audience’s reaction, insisted that the alternate shoot be filmed with and without a kiss, but Nichols and Shatner deliberately misfired each one so that NBC had to broadcast what appeared to be a kiss (whether or not they actually touched their lips. Not).
The “Star Trek” and “Movin’ With Nancy” moments drew some negative reactions, though Nichols noted that the fan mail was overwhelmingly positive and supportive.
NASA later hired Nichols in an effort to encourage women and African Americans to become astronauts. The NASA Astronaut Group 8, selected in 1978, included the first women and racial minorities to be recruited, including three blacks. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman to fly a space shuttle, cited “Star Trek” as one of the factors influencing her decision to join the space agency.
Nichols has been a supporter of the space program for decades.
In 1991, Nichols became the first African-American woman to have her handprints immortalized at the TCL Chinese Theatre. The party also featured other members of the original “Star Trek” cast.
Born Grace Nichols in Robbins, Illinois on December 28, 1932, Nichols began her show business career at the age of 16 with Duke Ellington in a ballet she made for one of his compositions. Later, she sang with his band.
She studied in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Her break came with an appearance in the movie “Kicks and Co.” The notable but ill-fated 1961 lyrical, in which she played campus queen Hazel Sharpe, who has been seduced by Satan and Orgy magazine into becoming the “Orgy Maiden of the Month…” The play closed after her brief experience in Chicago, but Nichols caught the attention of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, who Book her at the Chicago Playboy Club.
Nichols also appeared as Carmen in Chicago Stock Company produced by “Carmen Jones” and performed in the New York production of “Porgy and Bess”, making her feature debut in an unrecognized role as a dancer in an adaptation of this work in 1959. (Later She showcased her singing talents on some occasions on Star Trek.)
While working in Chicago, Nichols was twice nominated for that city’s Sarah Seddons Theater Award for Best Actress. The first came about “Kicks and Co.” , while the second was for her performance in “The Blacks” by Jean Genet.
She had small roles in the films “Made in Paris” and “Mr. Buddwing” and Sandra Dee’s vehicle “Doctor, you’ve got to be kidding!” before being cast in “Star Trek.”
During the early 1960s, prior to the movie Star Trek, Nichols had an affair with Gene Roddenberry that lasted several years, according to her autobiography. The relationship ended when Roddenberry realized that he was in love with Majel Hudec, who had married her. When Roddenberry’s health was deteriorating decades later, Nichols co-wrote a song for him called “Jane” that she sang at his funeral.
In January 1967, Nichols appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine which published two feature articles about her in five years.
In the early 1970s, the actress made some guest appearances on television and appeared in the 1974 Blaxploitation movie “Truck Turner” starring Isaac Hayes. She appeared in a supporting role in the 1983 television adaptation of “Anthony and Cleopatra”, which also featured “Star Trek” co-star Walter Koenig. She starred with Maxwell Caulfield and Talia Balsam in the 1986 science fiction film The Supernaturals.
Later, Nichols started voice work, lent her talent to the animated series “Gargoyles” and “Spider-Man”. She also expressed herself in “Futurama”.
The actress played the mother of lead character Cuba Gooding Jr. in 2002’s Snow Dogs and Miss Mabel in the 2005 comedy Ice Cube Are We There Yet?
In 2007, Nichols reprized in the second season of the NBC drama “Heroes” as Nana Dawson, the mother of a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina who takes care of her orphaned grandchildren and nephew, Mica Sanders (Normal Series Noah Gray Cape). The following year she appeared in the films “Tru Loved” and “The Torturer”.
Nichols suffered a stroke in 2015 and was diagnosed with dementia in 2018, causing a guardianship dispute between her manager Bill, her son, and a friend.
Nichols has been married and divorced twice. She is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.