Nichelle Nichols, Uhura in the Star Trek franchise, dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols, Uhura in the Star Trek franchise, dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols, the actress whose role as chief communications officer Uhura in the original ’60s “Star Trek” franchise helped lay the groundwork for television by showing a black woman in a position of power and who partnered with co-star William Shatner in one of television’s first interracial kisses. Primetime American, died July 30 at 89.

Her son, Kyle Johnson, announced his death on Facebook. Her former agent Zachary McGuinness confirmed the death but had no further details. Ms Nichols suffered a stroke in 2015.

Ms. Nichols, a statue dancer and nightclub singer, earned quite a few acting credits when she was cast in “Star Trek.” She said she considers the TV series a “nice starting point” for the Broadway stars, and she could hardly expect a low-tech sci-fi show to become a cultural touchstone and bring her lasting recognition.

“Star Trek” was breaking barriers in many ways. Whereas other network shows of the era featured local magicians and talking horses, “Star Trek” presented allegorical tales of violence, prejudice, and war — the stormy social issues of the era — under the guise of an intergalactic adventure in the 23rd century. The show featured black and Asian members in support of non-stereotypical but nonetheless visible and atypical roles.

Ms. Nichols worked with series creator Gene Roddenberry, her one-day lover, to bring power to Uhura – a stunning departure for the Black TV actress when “Star Trek” debuted on NBC in 1966. Trek “When she was a teenager, she screamed at her family, “Come quickly, come quickly. There’s a black lady on TV and she’s not a maid! “

On the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, wearing a short red dress that allowed her to show off her dancer’s legs, Mrs. Nichols stood out among the only male officers. Uhura was realistically presented as fourth in command, representing the hoped-for future when blacks enjoyed full equality.

The show received average reviews and ratings and was canceled after three seasons, but it became a television mainstay in the promotion. An animated “Star Trek” movie aired in the early 1970s, with Ms. Nichols voicing O’Hur’s voice. Soon, fan communities known as “Trekkies” or “Trekkers” sprouted up at large-scale conventions where they dressed up in character.

Ms. Nichols re-enacted O’Hare, who was promoted from lieutenant to captain, in six feature films between 1979 and 1991 that helped make “Star Trek” a tyrannical force. She was joined by plenty of original cast, including Shatner as heroic leader, James T. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as half-human and half-Vulcan Spock science officer, DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, George Takei. as the flagship of Enterprise Solo, James Doohan as Chief Engineer Scotty, and Walter Koenig as the navigator Chekhov.

Ms Nichols said Roddenberry allowed her to name her Uhura, which she said was a feminine version of the Swahili word meaning “freedom”. I imagined her character as a famous linguist who, from a flashing console on the bridge, heads a communications crew hidden in the bowels of a spaceship.

But she said that by the end of the first season, her role had been reduced to little more than a “glorious telephone operator in the space,” remembered for her frequently conveyed line to the captain, “The welcome hesitations are open, sir.”

In her 1994 memoir, Beyond Ora, she said that during filming, her and other supporting cast’s lines were routinely cut. She blamed Shatner, whom she called an “insensitive, mischievous selfish” who used star bills to attract the spotlight. She also said that studio employees tried to undermine her ability to negotiate the contract by hiding the copious fan mail.

Years later, Ms. Nichols claimed in interviews that she threatened to quit during season one but reconsidered after meeting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP fundraiser. She said he introduced himself as a fan and became visibly intimidated when she made it clear that she wanted to give up her role, which is one of the few non-humiliating parts of blacks on TV.

“Because of Martin, I looked at work differently,” she told Entertainment Tonight. There was more than just a job.”

Her most notable “Star Trek” moment came in the 1968 episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” about a group of “superior” beings who use mind control to make the visiting Enterprise crew submit to their will. They force Kirk and Uhura, fellow platonics, to kiss passionately.

In subsequent decades, Ms. Nichols and Shatner described the Eucharist as a highly controversial historical event within the network. It garnered almost no public attention at the time, perhaps due to the show’s lukewarm ratings but also because Hollywood films had already broken such taboos. A year before the episode of “Star Trek,” NBC aired Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and each flicked their lips during a TV special.

“Star Trek” went off the air in 1969, but Ms. Nichols’ continued association with Uhura at Trekkie conferences led to NASA convening in 1977 to help recruit women and minorities into the nascent Space Shuttle astronaut corps.

NASA historians said her recruitment drive – the first since 1969 – had many facets, and Ms. Nichols’ specific influence as an itinerant ambassador was modest. But the class of astronauts in 1978 had six women, three black men and one Asian American man from among the 35 chosen.

Grace Dale Nichols, the daughter of a chemist and a housewife, was born in Robbins, Illinois, on December 28, 1932, and grew up in the nearby city of Chicago.

Having studied classical ballet and Afro-Cuban dance, she made her professional debut at the age of 14 at the College Inn, a high-society dinner club in Chicago. Her performance, in honor of pioneering black dancer Catherine Dunham, impressed the conductor Duke Ellington, who was among the audience. A few years later, newly baptized Nichelle, she made a brief appearance on his travel show as a dancer and singer.

At eighteen, she married Foster Johnson, a tap dancer fifteen years her senior. They had a son before the divorce. As a single mother, Ms. Nichols continued to work in the nightclub circuit.

In the late 1950s, she moved to Los Angeles and entered a cultural milieu that included Pearl Bailey, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr., with whom she had a “short, stormy, sexy” relationship. She got an uncredited role in Otto Preminger’s film version of “Porgy and Bess” (1959) and helped her then-boyfriend, actor and director Frank Silvera, with his stage performances.

In 1963, she landed a guest role in The Lieutenant, an NBC military drama produced by Roddenberry. She began an affair with Roddenberry, who was married, but broke things off when she found out he was seriously involved with actress Majel Barrett. “I can’t be the other woman to the other woman,” she wrote in Beyond Aura. (Roddenberry later married Barrett, who played a nurse on Star Trek.)

Mrs. Nichols’ second marriage, to songwriter and arranger Duke Mundy, ended in divorce. Besides her son, Kyle Johnson, the actor who starred in Gordon Parks’ 1969 film “The Learning Tree,” the full list of survivors wasn’t immediately available.

After her role on Star Trek, Mrs. Nichols played a hard-boiled lady opposite Isaac Hayes in the 1974 Blacksploitation movie “Truck Turner”. For many years, she did a solo show honoring black artists such as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, and Leontyne Price. She is also credited with authoring two science fiction novels featuring a female heroine named Saturna.

Ms. Nichols did not appear in the reboot of “Star Trek,” directed by JJ Abrams, which featured Zoe Saldana as Aura. But she has bravely continued to promote the franchise and has spoken openly about her role in the role that overshadowed all her other roles.

“If you have to be smeared, at least someone with dignity,” Ms Nichols told the UPI news service.

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