Nichelle Nichols, who played communications officer Uhura in the original “Star Trek” series, died Saturday night in Silver City, NM. He was 89 years old.
Nichols’ death was confirmed by Gilbert Bell, her talent manager and partner of 15 years.
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Nichols shared one of the first interracial kisses in television history on “Star Trek.” This moment, shared with her co-star William Shatner, was a bold move on the part of Nichols, “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and NBC considering the climate at the time, but the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” , which aired in 1968. , was written to give the opinion of everyone involved: Uhura and Captain Kirk did not choose to kiss, but instead were forced to do so involuntarily by aliens with the ability to control people’s movements. However, it was a watershed moment.
There had been a few interracial kisses on American television before. A year earlier on “Movin’ With Nancy,” Sammy Davis Jr. kissed Nancy Sinatra on the cheek in what appeared to be a spontaneous gesture, but was actually carefully planned. The Uhura-Kirk kiss was possibly the first televised white/African-American lip-to-lip kiss.
But Uhura, whose name comes from a Swahili word for “freedom,” was essential beyond the interracial kiss: A capable officer who could man other stations on the bridge when needed, she was one of the first African-American women characters in a minor role on television.
Nichols played Lt. Uhura in the original series, voiced her on “Star Trek: The Animated Series” and played Uhura in the first six “Star Trek” films. Uhura was promoted to lieutenant in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and to 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 her character in opening doors for other African-Americans on TV, he personally convinced her to stay on the show, she told astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview for the Archive of American Television.
Whoopi Goldberg, who later portrayed Guinan on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” described Uhura as a role model, recalling that she was surprised and excited to see a black female character on television who wasn’t a maid.
Nichols and Shatner had very different memories of filming the famous kiss. In “Star Trek Memories,” Shatner said that NBC insisted that the actors’ lips never actually touch (although they appear to). But in Nichols’ 1994 autobiography “Beyond Uhura,” the actress insisted the kiss was in fact real. Upset by the audience’s backlash, the network insisted that alternate takes be shot with and without a kiss, but Nichols and Shatner deliberately dropped each of the latter so that NBC would be forced to air what appeared to be a kiss ( whether their lips touched or not).
Both the “Star Trek” and “Movin’ With Nancy” moments drew some negative reactions, though Nichols recalled that fan mail was overwhelmingly positive and supportive.
NASA later employed Nichols in an effort to encourage women and African Americans to become astronauts. NASA’s Astronaut Group 8, selected in 1978, included the first women and ethnic minorities to be recruited, including three who were black. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman to fly on the Space Shuttle, cited “Star Trek” as an influence on her decision to join the space service.
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 included other members of the original “Star Trek” cast.
Born Grace Nichols in Robbins, Ill. on December 28, 1932, Nichols began her show business career at the age of 16 singing with Duke Ellington in a ballet she created for one of his compositions. Later, he sang with his band.
He studied in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Her break came with an appearance in the high-profile but ill-fated 1961 musical “Kicks and Co.” by Oscar Brown, 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 closed after its brief run in Chicago, but Nihcols caught the attention of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, who booked her at his Chicago Playboy Club.
Nichols also appeared as Carmen for a Chicago brokerage production of “Carmen Jones” and starred in a New York production of “Porgy and Bess,” making her feature debut in an unspecified role as a dancer in a adaptation of this work. in 1959. (She would later showcase her singing talent from time to time on “Star Trek”.)
While working in Chicago, Nichols was twice nominated for the city’s Sarah Siddons Theater Award for Best Actress. The first came for “Kicks and Co.”, while the second for her performance in “The Blacks” by Jean Genet.
He had small roles in Made in Paris, Mr. Buddwing, and the Sandra Dee vehicle Doctor, You’ve Gotta Be Kidding! before being cast in ‘Star Trek’.
In the early ’60s, before “Star Trek,” Nichols had a relationship with Gene Roddenberry that lasted several years, according to her autobiography. The relationship ended when Roddenberry realized he was in love with Majel Hudec, whom he married. When Roddenberry’s health had declined decades later, Nichols wrote a song for him, titled “Gene,” which he sang at his funeral.
In January 1967, Nichols appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine, which published two feature articles on her within five years.
In the early 70s, the actress made a few guest appearances on television and appeared in the 1974 blaxploitation film “Truck Turner” starring Isaac Hayes. She appeared in a supporting role in a 1983 television adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra, which also featured her Star Trek co-star Walter Koenig. She starred with Maxwell Caulfield and Talia Balsam in the 1986 sci-fi horror film “The Supernaturals.”
Later, Nichols began doing voice work, lending her talent to the animated series “Gargoyles” and “Spider-Man.” She also did her voice in “Futurama”.
The actress played the mother of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s protagonist. in 2002’s Snow Dogs and Miss Mable in the 2005 Ice Cube comedy Are We There Yet?
In 2007, Nichols returned to the second season of the NBC drama Heroes as Nana Dawson, the matriarch of a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina who cares for her orphaned grandchildren and great-grandson, Micah Sanders (series regular Noah Gray- Cabey). The following year he appeared in the films ‘Tru Loved’ and ‘The Torturer’.
Nichols was married and divorced twice. She is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson;
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