Nichelle Nichols, the pioneering “Star Trek” star who died Saturday at age 89, was a model of unflappable professionalism as Lt. Uhura, never breaking a sweat as she manned the communications desk of the Starship Enterprise.
But for Nicholas Meyer, the director and screenwriter of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” his favorite memory of Nichols on screen is a rare moment where Uhura is at a loss . for words. In the sixth installment, our heroes try to penetrate Klingon airspace without the use of a universal translator, which would give them. This leaves Uhura and the rest of the crew poring over Klingon dictionaries in a desperate attempt to hold a conversation with the crew of another ship.
More from Variety
“Nichelle is just responding to the most sinister Klingon [dialect], and her face looks so hurt, and at one point one of them makes a joke in Klingon,” Meyer recalled. “He doesn’t understand, but he understands that he’s supposed to find it amusing, so he just laughs and then abruptly hangs up. It was just wonderful.”
Nichols broke barriers as one of the first black women to have a major role on network television. And Nichols understood the impact of this kind of representation on the public and used her celebrity to increase opportunities for others by working with NASA to recruit diverse astronauts.
Meyer, who spoke with Variety after news broke that Nichols had died, he sees parallels between her work and that of Bill Russell, the NBA legend and Civil Rights advocate who died Sunday.
My experience writing and directing ‘The Wrath of Khan’ was chaotic in many ways. It was only the second film I’d ever directed, and I was relatively unfamiliar with the whole Star Trek world. What I thought was remarkable, not just about Nichelle, but about the entire cast, was how professional and gracious they were in welcoming a newcomer into this world and teaching me how it worked and how they worked together.
When Star Trek was a TV series, they were used to the idea of different directors, different writers coming in for different episodes, so they had professional experience. They were just incredibly helpful to me. And she was incredibly helpful. I was also writing the script and he would say things like, “That’s not exactly how Uhura would express herself here.” She would give me her version and then I would change it.
Nichelle told me to keep in mind that Uhura’s professionalism transcends her gender. This is a trained officer who is relentless. He said, “If you listen to these NASA communications officers, all hell can break loose, but they never give it away in the way they talk. They remain calm.”
As for Nichelle, she was always professional and prompt. She knew her lines and wasn’t shy about making contributions. I remember him lecturing me about “Wrath of Khan” and saying, “Look, you’re saving my close-ups for the end of the day. It’s not the best time to shoot an actress.” What did I know? So we went back to the set in first thing in the morning.
Nichelle was multitalented in that Leonard Bernstein way. Everything she touched was good. He could dance. He could sing. He could act. She was a born storyteller and also spoke fearlessly about things she thought were important, whether they were things that were important on stage or cultural and political issues.
I think that meeting with Dr. King when he told her to stay on the show because it was important to so many black viewers really opened a window for her and shed light on what she was doing in ways that she hadn’t previously thought much about. But once it became clear to her the good that being on “Star Trek” could bring, she pretty much ran with it for the rest of her life. She worked a lot with NASA and knew exactly what she was doing and was great at helping recruit for them.
When we worked together on “Star Trek VI,” it was a bittersweet experience because it was going to be the last film for the original cast, and they knew it. But it didn’t affect anything until we shot the last scene of the movie, which was on the last day of shooting. He had psychologically integrated himself into the program that day. Well, nobody was happy. It was: “I don’t like this line or I don’t like that line. Can we try this again?’ It wasn’t just Nichelle. Everyone had mixed feelings. These people had interacted with each other for decades and had to make peace with the hand that fate had dealt them. The success of the show and the movies had paid for homes and braces, but also chained them together for eternity. They had complicated feelings about each other and about other jobs they might have wanted to do but had to say no to or weren’t considered. They were a family. They didn’t always get along. She could be hesitant as families tend to be. But now it’s time to say goodbye, and goodbye is usually harder than anyone expects. It was followed by a wrap party and it’s usually clear celebrations. This was quite complicated. No one knew what to feel. It was something between a wedding and an awakening.
When you say that someone or something is wonderful, you already imply some kind of uniqueness or specialness. Hell, if big ones were common, we wouldn’t be so excited when he showed his face. Consider Bill Russell, whom we also commemorate at this time. It’s the same thing. We are talking about greatness and greatness is inimitable, and so is Nichelle. Both Nichelle and Bill Russell were pioneers. They were pioneers in the face of the most horrific adversity, which we would like to tell ourselves is a thing of the past, but know it is not.
I have met two kinds of people in my life – people who have benefited from their experiences and people who have been embittered by them. Well, Nichelle was never bitter about what she had to deal with. It was broadened by her experiences and the adversities she faced.
As told to Brent Lang.
The best of the variety
Sign up for the Variety newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Click here to read the full article.