As the communications officer Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek” TV show, Nichelle Nichols broke down barriers for Black women in Hollywood. She died at the age of 89.
Her son Kyle Johnson said that Nichols died in Silver City, New Mexico, on Saturday.
“My mother, Nichelle Nichols, died of natural causes last night. “Her light, like the old galaxies that are just now being seen for the first time, will stay for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by,” Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page on Sunday. “She lived a good life and is a good example for all of us.”
Fans of the show, who are called Trekkers and Trekkies, will always remember Nichols for her part in the 1966–1969 series. It also got her praise for breaking stereotypes that said black women could only act as servants. For example, she kissed her white co-star William Shatner on screen, which was unheard of at the time.
Shatner wrote in a tweet on Sunday, “I’m so sorry to hear about Nichelle’s death. She was a beautiful woman and played a great character who did a lot to change the way people thought about social issues in the US and around the world.
In the first “Star Trek” series, George Takei, who played Sulu, was on the bridge of the USS Enterprise with her. Takei said that she was a pioneer and that no one else was like her. “For today, my heart is heavy and my eyes are shining like the stars you now rest among my dearest friend,” he wrote on Twitter.
Nichols’ death affected a lot more people than just her co-stars, and many people in the “Star Trek” world tweeted their condolences.
Celia Rose Gooding, who plays Uhura on “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” said on Twitter that Nichols “made room for so many of us. She was a reminder that we can not only reach the stars but that our actions are vital to their survival. Don’t bother trying to shake the table; she built it.”
“Star Trek: Voyager” alum “Nichelle Nichols was The First,” Kate Mulgrew wrote on Twitter. She was a trailblazer who walked a difficult path with courage, grace, and a beautiful fire that we may never see again.”
Nichols, like other original cast members, was in six big-screen spinoffs starting with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979 and went to many “Star Trek” fan conventions. She also worked for a long time as a NASA recruiter, helping women and people of color get jobs as astronauts.
We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible. She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars. pic.twitter.com/pmQaKDb5zw
— NASA (@NASA) July 31, 2022
In more recent years, she played the great-aunt of a young boy with magical powers on the TV show “Heroes.”
On September 8, 1966, NBC showed the first episode of “Star Trek.” The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, wanted viewers to know that in the far future, in the 23rd century, people of different races and cultures would be fully accepted.
Nichols said in 1992, when a “Star Trek” exhibit was on display at the Smithsonian Institution, that many people thought what was being said on TV at the time was a reason to celebrate.
She often talked about how Martin Luther King Jr. liked the show and thought her part was great. In 1967, she met him at a civil rights event. At the time, she had already decided not to come back for the second season of the show.
“When I told him I was leaving the show and would miss my co-stars, he got very serious and said, ‘You can’t do that,'” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in an interview in 2008.
She said that the civil rights leader told her, “You’ve changed the face of TV for good, so you’ve changed people’s minds.”
“Dr. King’s insight was like a bolt of lightning in my life,” Nichols said.
During the third season of the show, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s character, Capt. James Kirk shared what was said to be the first kiss between two people of different races on an American TV show. In the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” aliens who were controlling what their characters did make them kiss, even though they had always been friends.
Eric Deggans, a TV critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018 that the kiss “suggested that these issues might not be such a big deal in the future.” “The characters didn’t freak out about the fact that a black woman was kissing a white man… We fixed this problem in the future which looks like a utopia. We’re done with it. That was a great thing to say.”
Showrunners wanted to film a second take of the scene where the kiss happened off-screen because they were worried about how Southern TV stations would react. But Nichols said in her book “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories” that she and Shatner purposely messed up lines so that the original take could be used.
Even though there were worries, the episode aired without any backlash. In fact, Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television that it was the episode that got the most fan mail for a single Star Trek episode.
Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois. She said in the 2010 interview that she hated the name “Gracie,” which everyone kept calling her. When she was a teenager, her mother told her that she had wanted to name her Michelle, but thought that she should have initials that started with the same letter, like Marilyn Monroe, who Nichols loved. So, we have “Nichelle.”
Nichols started her professional career as a singer and dancer in Chicago when she was 14 years old. She then moved to New York and worked in nightclubs and with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands for a while before moving to Hollywood and making her film debut in “Porgy and Bess” in 1959. This was the first of many small film and TV roles that led to her “Star Trek” fame.
Nichols was known for not being afraid to stand up to Shatner on set when other actors complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time. They found out later that the show’s creator was a big fan of hers.
In her 1994 book “Beyond Uhura,” she said that she met Roddenberry when she was a guest star on his show “The Lieutenant,” and that they had an affair a few years before “Star Trek” started. They stayed close friends for the rest of their lives.
Mae Jemison, who was the first black woman to go into space when she flew on the shuttle Endeavour in 1992, also liked Nichols and the show.
Jemison told the AP before her flight that she loved “Star Trek” and watched Nichols on it all the time. Jemison did get to meet Nichols in the end.
Nichols went to a lot of “Star Trek” conventions and events well into her 80s, but she had to cut back when her son told her fans in 2018 that she had advanced dementia.
Nichols was put under the care of her son Johnson by the court because her mental decline made her unable to take care of her own business or go out in public.
Some people didn’t like the conservatorship, including Nichols’ managers and her friend, film producer, and actor Angelique Fawcett. They wanted more access to Nichols and to records of what Johnson did for her financially and in other ways. Her name was sometimes brought up at rallies in front of the courthouse to get Britney Spears out of her own guardianship.
But the court always sided with Johnson. Over Fawcett’s objections, it let Johnson move Nichols to New Mexico, where she spent her last years with him.