Nichelle Nichols, who played communications agent Uhura in the “Star Trek” original series, died Saturday night in Silver City, NM. She was 89 years old.
Nichols’ death has been confirmed by Gilbert Bell, his talent manager and business partner of 15 years.
Nichols shared one of the first interracial kisses in television history on “Star Trek.” That moment, with his co-star William Shatner, was a brave move on his part, “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and NBC given the climate at the time, but the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which aired in 1968, was written to give everyone involved a way out: Uhura and Captain Kirk did not choose to kiss, but instead were forced to do so unwittingly by aliens who could control the movements of humans. Nonetheless, it was a defining moment.
There had already been a few interracial kisses on American television. A year earlier on “Movin’ With Nancy,” Sammy Davis Jr. kissed Nancy Sinatra on the cheek in what seemed like a spontaneous move but was actually carefully planned. The Uhura-Kirk kiss was probably the first white/African American televised lip-to-lip kiss.
But Uhura, whose name comes from a Swahili word meaning “freedom”, was essential beyond the interracial kiss: a capable officer who could handle other stations on deck when needed, she was one of the first African-American women to appear in a non-subordinate role on television.
Nichols played Lt. Uhura in the original series, voiced her in “Star Trek: The Animated Series,” and played Uhura in the first six “Star Trek” films. Uhura was promoted to lieutenant commander in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and full commander in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
Nichols considered leaving “Star Trek” after the first season to pursue a career on Broadway, but the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who was a fan of the show and understood the importance of his character in opening doors for others African Americans on TV, personally persuaded her to stay on the show, she told astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview for the American Television Archive.
Whoopi Goldberg, who went on to play Guinan in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, described Uhura as a role model, recalling that she was stunned and thrilled to see a black female character on TV who wasn’t a woman. of room.
Nichols and Shatner remembered filming the famous kiss very differently. In “Star Trek Memories,” Shatner said that NBC insisted that the actors’ lips never touch (despite the fact that they seem to). But in Nichols’ 1994 autobiography “Beyond Uhura,” the actress insisted the kiss was actually real. Nervous about the audience’s reaction, the network insisted on alternate takes being shot with and without a kiss, but Nichols and Shatner deliberately missed each of these so that NBC was forced to air what appeared to be a kiss ( whether their lips are actually touching or not).
The “Star Trek” and “Movin’ With Nancy” moments drew backlash, though Nichols recalled that the fan mail was overwhelmingly positive and supportive.
NASA later employed Nichols with the goal of encouraging women and African Americans to become astronauts. NASA Astronaut Group 8, selected in 1978, included the first women and ethnic minorities to be recruited, three of them black. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman to fly on the space shuttle, cited “Star Trek” as an influence in her decision to join the space agency.
Nichols remained 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 Theater. The ceremony also included other members of the original “Star Trek” cast.
Born Grace Nichols in Robbins, Illinois on December 28, 1932, Nichols began her career in show business at age 16 singing with Duke Ellington in a ballet she created for one of his compositions. Later, she sang with her band.
She studied in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Her break came with an appearance in Oscar Brown’s highly publicized but ill-fated 1961 musical “Kicks and Co.”, in which she played campus queen Hazel Sharpe, who is tempted by the devil and Orgy Magazine to become “Orgy Maiden of the Month”. .” The play ended after its brief tryout in Chicago, but Nichols caught the attention of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, who booked it at his Chicago Playboy Club.
Nichols also appeared as Carmen for a Chicago stock production of “Carmen Jones” and starred in a New York production of “Porgy and Bess”, making her uncredited debut as a dancer in an adaptation of this work. in 1959. (She would later show off her occasional singing skills on “Star Trek.”)
While working in Chicago, Nichols was twice nominated for the Sarah Siddons Theatrical Award for Best Actress in that city. The first came for “Kicks and Co.”, while the second was for her performance in Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.”
She had small roles in the films “Made in Paris”, “Mr. Buddwing” and Sandra Dee’s vehicle “Doctor, you must be kidding!” before she was cast in “Star Trek”.
In the early ’60s, before “Star Trek,” Nichols had an affair with Gene Roddenberry that lasted several years, according to his autobiography. The affair ended when Roddenberry realized he was in love with Majel Hudec, whom he married. When Roddenberry’s health deteriorated decades later, Nichols co-wrote a song for him, titled “Gene”, which she sang at his funeral.
In January 1967, Nichols graced the cover of Ebony magazine, which published two feature articles about her in five years.
In the early 70s, the actress made a few television appearances and appeared in the 1974 Blaxploitation film “Truck Turner” with Isaac Hayes. She appeared in a supporting role in a 1983 television adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra” which also starred her “Star Trek” co-star Walter Koenig. She starred with Maxwell Caulfield and Talia Balsam in the 1986 sci-fi horror feature film “The Supernaturals”.
Later, Nichols began doing voice work, lending his talent to the “Gargoyles” and “Spider-Man” animated series. She also spoke on “Futurama”.
The actress played lead character Cuba’s mother Gooding Jr. in 2002’s “Snow Dogs” and Miss Mable in the 2005 Ice Cube comedy “Are We There Yet?”
In 2007, Nichols returned on the second season of the NBC drama “Heroes” as Nana Dawson, matriarch of a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina who cares for her orphaned grandchildren and his great-nephew, Micah Sanders (series regular Noah Gray-Cabey). 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, sparking a guardianship dispute between his manager Bell and his son as well as a friend.
Nichols has been married and divorced twice. She is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.
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