Nichelle Nicholsbest known for her role as communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series, died Saturday night in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89.
The pioneering actress’ death was confirmed by Gilbert Bell, her talent manager and business partner of 15 years, although no official cause of death has been released.
Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in the original series, voiced her Star Trek: The Animated Series as in the first six Star Trek films—is highly regarded as a role model in the entertainment industry, being one of the first black women to be cast in such a high-profile role on television.
The legendary actress revealed why she decided to stay on the show for so long after considering taking a different path at one point in her career. In an interview with the Archives of American Television, she told an astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson that she is actually considering leaving Star Trek after the first Broadway season, however The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jrwho was a fan of the series and understood the importance of her character in opening doors for other African-Americans on television, personally convinced her to stay on the show.
Nichols drew attention by sharing one of the first interracial kisses in television history with a costar William Shatner On Star Trek1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”. Given the climate at the time, this was a bold move by show creator Gene Roddenberry and NBCbecoming the first televised white/African American straight lip-to-lip kiss.
Although an important moment, NBC insisted that the actors’ lips never touched, but Nichols and Shatner remember the filming process very differently, as Nichols shared in his 1994 autobiography. Beyond bullying, that this is actually a “real kiss”. Worried about audience backlash, the network was adamant about filming alternate shots with and without the kiss, but Nichols and Shatner deliberately botched each of the latter so that NBC would be forced to air what appeared to be a kiss (whether their lips actually touched in the particular aired scene or not).
Whoops Goldbergwho later played Guinan Star Trek: The Next Generationadmitted to looking up to the other actress, recalling being amazed and excited to see a black female character on TV who wasn’t a maid.
Dr. A.S. Mae Jemisonthe first black woman to fly aboard the space shuttle is also cited Star Trek as influencing her decision to join the space agency.
(scroll to continue reading)
Born Grace Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols forged a remarkable career, breaking into show business at the age of 16, singing with Duke Ellington in a ballet she created for one of his compositions.
She studied in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, getting her big break in casting Oscar Brownthe acclaimed but ill-fated 1961 musical “Kicks and Co.” Although the play had only a short run, Nichols attracted the attention of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefnerwho booked her at his Chicago Playboy Club.
In later years, Nichols began doing voice acting, lending his talents to animated series gargoyles, Spider Man, and Futurama.
The world-class actress played the mother of Cuba Gooding Jrthe main character in 2002 Snow Dogs, and appeared in 2005 An ice cube comedy Are we there yet? In 2007, she recurred in the second season of the NBC drama characters, and booked roles in films True Loved and The torturer next year.
Nichols suffered a stroke in 2015 and was diagnosed with dementia in 2018. Married and divorced twice, she is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.
More Pop Culture: