Nichelle Nichols, the actress revered by “Star Trek” fans everywhere for her role as Lieutenant Ora, the communications officer aboard the USS Enterprise spacecraft, died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico, at the age of 89.
Skye Conway, the film writer and producer, who was asked by Kyle Johnson, Ms Nichols’ son, to speak on behalf of the family, said the cause was heart failure.
Ms. Nichols has had a long career in entertainment, starting as a singer and dancer at a dinner club in Chicago, her hometown, and later appearing on television.
But she is best remembered forever for her work on “Star Trek,” the cult-inspiring space adventure series that aired from 1966 to 1969 and starred William Shatner as Captain Kirk, the heroic captain of the starship crew. Leonard Nimoy (who died in 2015) as our chief science officer and advisor, Mr. Spock, an extreme human from the planet Vulcan; and DeForest Kelley (who died in 1999) as Dr. McCoy, aka Bones, the ship’s doctor.
A stunning beauty, Mrs. Nichols provided a whiff of sex appeal on the Enterprise Bridge. She generally wore a warm red jacket and black stockings; Ebony magazine called her “the most heavenly body in Star Trek” on its 1967 cover. However, her role was substantial and historically significant.
Oora was a highly educated and well-trained officer and technician who maintained a pragmatic demeanor while performing her high-level duties. Ms. Nichols was among the first black women to play a leading role in a network television series, making her an anomaly on the small screen, which until that time had rarely portrayed black women in anything other than submissive roles.
On the November 1968 episode, during the show’s third and final season, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Oora are forced to embrace the inhabitants of an alien planet, resulting in what is widely believed to be the first interracial kiss in television history.
Nichols’ first appearances in “Star Trek” predated the 1968 sitcom Julia, in which Diahan Carroll played a widowed mother who works as a nurse, becoming the first black woman to star in an atypical role in a network series. .
(The series “Beulah,” also called “The Beulah Show,” starring Ethel Waters—and later Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel—as the maid of a white family, aired on ABC in the early 1950s and was then cited by civil rights activists for their humiliating images for blacks).
But Ohori’s influence reached far beyond television. In 1977, Ms. Nichols began a partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, contracting as a representative and speaker to help recruit female and minority candidates for spaceflight training; The following year’s class of astronaut candidates was the first to include women and members of minority groups.
In subsequent years, Ms. Nichols appeared in public and recorded public service announcements on behalf of the agency. In 2012, after she was the keynote speaker at Goddard Space Center during the celebration of African American History Month, a NASA press release about the event praised her for helping the cause of diversity in space exploration.
“Nichols’ role as one of television’s first black characters was more than a stereotype and one of the first women in a position of power (she was the fourth to lead the establishment) inspired thousands of applications from women and minorities,” he said. Among them: Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Judith Resnick, the first American woman in space Sally Ride and current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.
Grace Dale Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, on December 28, 1932 (some sources give a year later), and she was raised in Chicago. Her father was, for a time, mayor of Robbins, and a chemist. At the age of 13 or 14, tired of her friends calling Gracie, she asked for a different name than her mother, who liked Michelle but suggested Nichelle for alliteration.
She was a ballerina as a child and had a singing voice with a naturally wide range – more than four octaves, she said later. While attending Englewood High School, she had her first professional gig in a play at College Inn, a popular nightclub in Chicago.
There she was seen by Duke Ellington, who after a year or two hired her with the touring orchestra as a dancer in one of his jazz suites.
Mrs. Nichols appeared in many musical theater productions across the country during the 1950s. In an interview with Archives of American Television, she recalled her performance at the Playboy Club in New York City while acting as a replacement for Mrs. Carroll in the Broadway musical “No Strings” (although it never lasted).
In 1959, she was a dancer in Otto Preminger’s film version “Porgy and Bess”. She made her television debut in 1963 in an episode of “The Lieutenant,” a short-lived Marine Corps drama series at Camp Pendleton written by Gene Roddenberry, who went on to create “Star Trek.”
Ms. Nichols has appeared on other TV shows over the years – among them “Peyton Place” (1966), “Head of the Class” (1988) and “Heroes” (2007). She also appeared on stage occasionally in Los Angeles, including in a one-woman show in which she made impressions on black female artists who came before her, including Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, and Eartha Kate.
But Aura was meant to be her legacy: a decade after “Star Trek” was discontinued, Ms. Nichols reprized her role in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, appearing as Aura, then-leader, five years later in the series. Movies until 1991.
Besides her son, among the survivors are two sisters, Marian Smothers and Diane Robinson.
Mrs. Nichols has been married and divorced twice. In her 1995 autobiography, “Beyond Aura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” she revealed that she and Roddenberry, who died in 1991, had been romantically involved for some time. In a 2010 interview for Archives of American Television, she said it had little to do with her starring in “Star Trek” but that he defended her when studio managers wanted to replace her.
Ms Nichols said that when she took on the role of Uhura, she considered it just a job at the time, and valuable as a resume enhancer. She fully intended to return to the theater, as she wanted to get a job on Broadway. In fact, she threatened to leave the show after its first season and submitted her resignation to Roddenberry. He told her to think about it for a few days.
In a much-told story, Saturday night she was a guest at an event in Beverly Hills, California — “I think she was a NAACP fundraiser,” she recalled in an interview with the Archives — where the organizer introduced her to someone he described as “your biggest fan.”
I remembered the organizer saying, “He’s desperate to meet you.”
The admirer, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., introduced himself.
“He said, ‘We like you a lot, you know,'” said Mrs. Nichols, “and thanked him and told him she was about to leave the show. He said, ‘You can’t. You can’t.'”
Dr. King told her that her role as a respected and authoritative figure on a popular show was too important to the civil rights cause for her to give up. As Mrs. Nichols recalled, he said: “For the first time, we will be seen on television the way we should every day.”
On Monday morning, she returned to Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened.
‘And I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay.’
Eduardo Medina contributed to the report.