Nichelle Nichols, who broke barriers for black women in Hollywood when she played communications officer Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek television series, has died at the age of 89.
Her son, Kyle Johnson, said Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico.
“Last night my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. However, its light, like the ancient galaxies now seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and draw inspiration from,” Johnson wrote on his official Facebook page on Sunday. “Her life was well lived and such a model for us all.”
Her role on the 1966-69 series as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifelong honor among the show’s rabid fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies. It also won her accolades for breaking stereotypes that limited black women to acting roles as handmaidens and featured an interracial on-screen kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.
“I will have more to say about the pioneering, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who died today at the age of 89,” George Takei wrote on Twitter. “For today my heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars among which you now rest, my dearest friend.”
Takei played Sulu in the original Star Trek series alongside Nichols. But her impact was felt beyond her immediate colleagues, and many others in the Star Trek world also offered their condolences on Twitter.
Celia Rose Gooding, who currently plays Uhura on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, wrote on Twitter that Nichols “made room for so many of us. She was the reminder that not only can we reach for the stars, but our influence is essential to their survival. Forget shaking the table, she built it.
Star Trek: Voyager alum Kate Mulgrew tweeted: “Nichelle Nichols was the first. She was a trailblazer who navigated a very challenging path with courage, grace and a wonderful fire that we are unlikely to see again.”
Like other members of the original cast, Nichols also appeared in six spinoffs on the big screen, starting in 1979 with Star Trek: The Movie, and attended Star Trek fan conventions. She also served for many years as a NASA recruitment specialist, helping to attract minorities and women to the astronaut corps.
Most recently, she had a recurring role on TV’s Heroes, playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.
The original Star Trek premiered on NBC on September 8, 1966. Its multicultural and multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the distant future—the 23rd century—human diversity would be fully accepted.
“I think a lot of people took it to heart … that what was being said on television at the time was cause for celebration,” Nichols said in 1992, when a Star Trek exhibit went on display at the Smithsonian Institution .
She often recalled how Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the series and praised her role. She met him at a civil rights rally in 1967, at a time when she had decided not to return for the show’s second season.
“When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and was leaving the show, he got very serious and said, ‘You can’t do this,'” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview.
“You changed the face of television forever and therefore changed people’s perceptions,” she said the civil rights leader told her.
“That foresight of Dr. King was a lightning bolt in my life,” Nichols said.
During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Captain James Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to air on an American television series. In the episode “Plato’s Lost Children”, their characters, who always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced to kiss by aliens who controlled their actions.
The kiss “suggested that there’s a future where these issues aren’t such a big deal,” Eric Degans, television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018. “The characters themselves weren’t freaked out because a black woman kissed a white man … In this utopian future, we have solved this problem. We are beyond it. It was a great message to send.”
Worried about the reaction of southern TV stations, the showrunners wanted to shoot a second take of the scene where the kiss happened off-screen. But Nichols said in her book Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories that she and Shatner intentionally left out lines to force the original version to be used.
Despite concerns, the episode aired without backlash. In fact, it received the most “fan mail Paramount has ever received for a single episode of ‘Star Trek,'” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archives of American Television.
Shatner tweeted Sunday: “So sorry to hear of Nichelle’s passing. She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character who did so much to redefine social issues both here in the US and around the world.”
Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. When she was a teenager, her mother told her she wanted to name her Michelle , but thought it should have alliterating initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence “Nichel”.
Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at the age of 14, moving to New York nightclubs and spending time with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton’s bands before coming to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959 .’Porgy and Bess’, the first of several small film and television roles that led to her Star Trek stardom.
Nichols was known for not being afraid to stand up to Shatner on set when others complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time. Later they learned that she has a strong supporter in the person of the creator of the show.
In her 1994 book Beyond Uhura, she says she met Roddenberry when she was a guest on his show The Lieutenant, and the two had been in a relationship for several years before Star Trek began. The two remained close friends for life.
Another fan of Nichols and the show was future astronaut Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman in space when she flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992.
In an interview with the AP before her flight, Jemison said she watched Nichols on “Star Trek” all the time, adding that she adored the show. Eventually, Jemison was able to meet with Nichols.
Nichols was a regular at Star Trek conventions and events well into her 80s, but her schedule became limited in 2018 when her son announced she was suffering from advanced dementia.
Nichols was placed under court supervision under the control of her son, Johnson, who said her mental decline left her unable to manage her affairs or make public appearances.
Some, including Nichols’ managers and her friend, film producer and actor Angelique Fawcett, opposed the conservatorship and demanded more access to Nichols and to records of Johnson’s financial and other moves on her behalf. Her name was sometimes mentioned in court rallies demanding the release of Britney Spears from her own custody.
But the court consistently sided with Johnson and, despite Fawcett’s objections, allowed him to move Nichols to New Mexico, where she lived with him in her final years.