Nichelle Nichols, who broke barriers for black women in Hollywood when she played communications officer Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek” TV series, has died at age 89.
Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico, his son Kyle Johnson said.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, passed away of natural causes. However, its light, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and be inspired by,” Johnson wrote on his official Facebook page on Sunday. “Her life was well lived and an example to us all.”
Lt. in the 1966-69 series. Her role as Uhura earned her a lifelong honor with the rabid fans of the series known as Trekkers and Trekkies. It won her acclaim for breaking stereotypes that limited black women to playing maids and included an interracial on-screen kiss with co-star William Shatner, unheard of at the time.
“I will say the most about Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise and passed today at the age of 89,” George Takei wrote on Twitter. “For today, my heart is heavy, my dear friend, my eyes shine like the stars where you now rest.”
He starred alongside Nichols as Takei Sulu in the original “Star Trek” series. But his impact was felt far beyond his immediate co-stars, and many in the “Star Trek” world tweeted their condolences.
Celia Rose Gooding, who currently plays Uhura on “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” tweeted that Nichols “made room for many of us. She reminds us that not only can we reach for the stars, but that our influence is essential to their survival. Forget shaking the table, she built it.”
“Star Trek: Voyager” alum Kate Mulgrew tweeted, “Nichelle Nichols is the first. She’s a trailblazer who navigates the most challenging path with grit, grace and a beautiful fire we’ll never see again.”
Like other original cast members, Nichols appeared in six big screen spinoffs beginning in 1979 with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and at “Star Trek” fan conventions. She worked for several years as a NASA employee, helping to recruit minorities and women into the astronaut corps.
Nichols broke barriers for black women in Hollywood
Most recently, she played the role of the great aunt of a boy with magical powers in the television series “Heroes”.
The original “Star Trek” premiered on NBC on September 8, 1966. Gene Roddenberry’s message to his multicultural, multiracial cast audience is that in the distant future – the 23rd century – human diversity will be fully embraced.
I think Nichols took that to heart when he visited a “Star Trek” exhibit at the Smithsonian in 1992 on TV.
He often recalled being a fan of the Martin Luther King Jr. show and admired his character. He met her at a civil rights rally in 1967, when the show had decided not to return for a second season.
“When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and I was leaving the show, he got really serious and said, ‘You can’t do that,'” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview.
“‘You have changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you have changed the minds of the people,'” the civil rights leader told him.
“Dr. King’s vision was like 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 Stepchildren”, their characters, who have always maintained a platonic relationship, are forced to kiss by aliens who control their actions.
National Public Radio’s television critic Eric Deccans told The Associated Press in 2018 that “Kiss suggests a future where these issues aren’t such a big deal.” Kissing a white man … In this utopian future, we solved this problem. We are beyond that. This is a wonderful message to send. “
Worried about the reaction of southern television stations, the showrunners wanted to shoot the off-screen kiss scene a second time. But Nichols says in his book, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” that he and Shatner intentionally ripped the lines to insist on using the original tag.
Despite the concerns, the episode aired without blowback. In fact, “it received more fan mail than Paramount had ever received for an episode of ‘Star Trek,'” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archives of American Television.
Shatner tweeted on Sunday: “So sorry to hear of Nichelle’s passing. She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable role that did a lot to redefine social issues in America and around the world.
Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called “Crazy” because everyone insisted on it, she said in a 2010 interview. When she was a teenager her mother said she wanted to name her Michelle, but thought she should keep her initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence, “Nichelle.”
Nichols first worked as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14, visiting New York nightclubs and working briefly with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands. The first of several minor film and television roles that led to his “Star Trek” stardom.
Nichols was known for being unafraid to stand up to Shatner on set when others complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time. They later learn that he has a strong supporter in the creator of the show.
In her 1994 book, “Beyond Uhura,” she said she met while guest-starring on Roddenberry’s “The Lieutenant,” and the two had an affair a few years before “Star Trek” began. The two remained close friends throughout their lives.
Another fan of Nichols and the show was future astronaut Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman in space in 1992 when she flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.
In an AP interview before his flight, Jemison said he always watched Nichols on “Star Trek” and said he loved the show. Jemison eventually met Nichols.
Nichols was a regular at “Star Trek” conventions and events in her 80s, but her schedule was limited in 2018 when she announced her son was suffering from advanced dementia.
Nichols was placed under a court conservatorship under the control of her son, Johnson, who said her mental decline made her unable to manage her affairs or appear in public.
Nichols’ managers and some, including her friend, filmmaker and actor Angelique Fawcett, objected to the conservatorship and sought further access to records of Johnson’s financial and other moves on behalf of Nichols and her. His name was sometimes invoked at court rallies demanding Britney Spears’ release from her own conservatorship.
But the court continued to side with Johnson, and over Fawcett’s objections allowed Nichols to move to New Mexico, where he lived with her in his final years.
Associated Press entertainment writer Andrew Dalton contributed from Los Angeles. Former AP writer Polly Anderson provided biographical content for this report.