Nichelle Nichols, an actor whose role as communications chief Uhura in the original Star Trek franchise in the 1960s helped break new ground on TV by showing a black woman in a position of authority and who shared one of the first interracial kisses on American prime-time television with co-star William Shatner has passed away at the age of 89.
Nichols, a stately dancer and nightclub singer, had a few acting credits when she was cast in Star Trek. She said she viewed the TV series as a “beautiful stepping stone” to Broadway stardom, barely anticipating that a low-tech science fiction show would become a cultural touchstone and bring her lasting recognition.
Star Trek was barrier-breaking in many ways. While other networking programs of the time offered house witches and talking horses, Star Trek brought allegorical tales of violence, prejudice and war – the churning social issues of the era – under the guise of a 23rd-century intergalactic adventure. The show featured black and Asian cast members in supporting yet visible, non-stereotypical roles.
Nichols teamed up with series creator Gene Roddenberry, her former lover, to give Uhura authority—a striking aberration for a Black TV actress back then. Star Trek debuted on NBC in 1966. Actor Whoopi Goldberg often said that when she saw: Star Trek as an adolescent she shouted to her family: ‘Come quickly, come quickly. There is a black lady on television and she is not a maid!”
On the bridge of the spaceship CompanyIn a red mini-dress to show off her dancer’s legs, Nichols stood out among the otherwise all-male officers. Uhura was presented businesslike, exemplifying a hopeful future where blacks would enjoy full equality.
The show received mediocre reviews and ratings and was canceled after three seasons, but it became a TV mainstay in syndication. an animated Star Trek aired in the early 1970s, with Nichols voicing Uhura. Communities of fans known as “Trekkies” or “Trekkies” soon erupted at large-scale conventions where they dressed in character.
Nichols reprized Uhura, promoted from lieutenant to commander, in six feature films between 1979 and 1991 that helped Star Trek a juggernaut. She was joined by much of the original cast, including Shatner as the heroic captain, James T Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer Spock, DeForest Kelley as the wry Dr McCoy, George Takei as the CompanySulu’s helmsman, James Doohan as chief engineer Scotty and Walter Koenig as navigator Chekov.
Nichols said Roddenberry allowed her to be called Uhura, which she believed was a feminized version of a Swahili word for “freedom.” She imagined her character as a renowned linguist who, from a flashing console on the bridge, is in charge of a hidden communications staff in the bowels of the spaceship.
But by the end of the first season, she said, her role had been reduced to little more than a “glorified space operator,” remembered for her oft-quoted line to the captain, “Greeting frequencies open, sir.”
In her 1994 memoir Beyond Uhura, she said that during filming, her lines and those of other supporting actors were routinely cut out. She blamed Shatner, who she called an “insensitive, hurtful egotist” who used his star bill to gain the limelight. She also said studio staff tried to undermine her contract negotiating power by hiding her copious fan mail.
Years later, Nichols claimed in interviews that she threatened to quit during the first season, but reconsidered after meeting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. during an NAACP fundraiser. She said he introduced himself as a fan and was visibly shocked when she explained that she wanted to give up her role, one of the few non-slave roles for Blacks on television.
“Because of Martin,” she said… Entertainment tonight“I looked at work differently. There was more than just a job.”
Her most prominent Star Trek The moment came in a 1968 episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” about a group of “superior” beings who use mind control to control the visiting Company crew submit to their will. They force Kirk and Uhura, platonic colleagues, to kiss.
In later decades, Nichols and Shatner touted the hug as a landmark that was highly controversial within the network. It received almost no public attention at the time, perhaps because of the show’s lukewarm ratings, but also because Hollywood movies had already broken such taboos. A year before the Star Trek episode, NBC had broadcast Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr kissing each other on the lips during a TV special.
Star Trek went off the air in 1969, but Nichols’ continued association with Uhura at Trekkie conventions led in 1977 to a NASA contract to help recruit women and minorities into the Space Shuttle’s nascent astronaut corps.
NASA historians said the recruiting drive — the first since 1969 — had many traces and that Nichols’ specific impact as an itinerant ambassador was modest. But the 1978 astronaut class had chosen six women, three black men, and one Asian-American man under 35.
Grace Dell Nichols, the daughter of a chemist and a homemaker, was born in Illinois on December 28, 1932, and grew up in Chicago.
After studying classical ballet and Afro-Cuban dance, she made her professional debut at age 14 at the College Inn, a high society Chicago supper club. Her performance, in tribute to pioneering black dancer Katherine Dunham, reportedly impressed bandleader Duke Ellington, who was in the audience. A few years later, just rebranded as Nichelle, she briefly appeared on his touring show as a dancer and singer.
At the age of 18, she married Foster Johnson, a tap dancer who was 15 years her senior. They had a son before they got divorced. As a single mom, Nichols continued to work the grind of 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, tempestuous, exciting” affair. She got an uncredited role in director Otto Preminger’s film version of Porgy and Bess (1959) and assisted her then boyfriend, actor and director Frank Silvera, in his theatrical stagings.
In 1963 she won a guest role on the lieutenant, an NBC military drama created by Roddenberry. She began an affair with Roddenberry, who was married, but broke up when she discovered that he was also seriously involved with actress Majel Barrett. “I couldn’t be the other woman for the other woman,” she wrote in Beyond Uhura. (Roddenberry later married Barrett, who played a nurse) Star Trek.)
Nichols’ second marriage, to songwriter and arranger Duke Mondy, ended in divorce. In addition to her son, Kyle Johnson, an actor who starred in writer-director Gordon Parks’ 1969 film the learning treea complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
After her role on Star TrekNichols played a hard-boiled madame opposite Isaac Hayes in the 1974 blacksploitation film truck turner. For many years she performed in a one-woman show honoring black entertainers such as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Leontyne Price. She was also credited with co-authoring two science fiction novels featuring a heroine named Saturna.
Nichols did not appear in director JJ Abrams’ Star Trek movie reboot with actress Zoe Saldana as Uhura. But she continued to promote the franchise and spoke candidly about her role in a role that eclipsed all her others.
“If you have to be typecast,” Nichols told UPI news service, “at least it’s someone with dignity.”
Nichelle Nichols, actor, born December 28, 1932, died July 30, 2022
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