Nichelle Nichols, the actress revered by “Star Trek” fans everywhere for her role as Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer on the spaceship USS Enterprise, died Saturday in Silver City, NM. She was 89.
The cause was heart failure, said Sky Conway, a writer and film producer who was asked by Kyle Johnson, Ms. Nichols’ son, to speak on behalf of the family.
Ms. Nichols had a long career as an entertainer, starting out as a teenage singer and dancer at a supper club in her hometown of Chicago, and later appearing on television.
But she will be forever remembered for her work on “Star Trek,” the cult-inspiring space adventure series that aired from 1966 to 1969 and starred William Shatner as Captain Kirk, the heroic leader of the starship’s crew; Leonard Nimoy (who died in 2015) as his scientific officer and advisor, Mr. Spock, an ultralogical humanoid from the planet Vulcan; and DeForest Kelley (who died in 1999) as Dr. McCoy, aka Bones, the ship’s doctor.
A striking beauty, Mrs. Nichols sent a shiver of sexiness on the bridge of the Enterprise. She was generally dressed in a cozy red jerkin and black tights; Ebony magazine called her the “celestial body in ‘Star Trek'” on its 1967 cover. However, her role was both substantial and historically significant.
Uhura was an officer and a highly skilled and educated technician who maintained a businesslike demeanor while performing her high-level duties. Ms. Nichols was one of the first black women to star in a network television series, which made her an anomaly on the small screen, which until then had rarely portrayed black women in anything but submissive roles.
In a November 1968 episode, during the show’s third and final season, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura are forced to embrace by the inhabitants of an alien planet, resulting in what is widely regarded as the first interracial kiss in television history. .
Ms. Nichols’ first appearances on “Star Trek” predate the 1968 sitcom “Julia”, in which Diahann Carroll, who played a widow who works as a nurse, became the first black woman to play a non-stereotypical role on a network series. .
(A series called “Beulah,” also called “The Beulah Show,” starring Ethel Waters—and later Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel—as a maid for a white family, aired on ABC in the early 1950s and then quoted by civil rights activists for his demeaning portrayals of black people.)
But Uhura’s influence extended far beyond television. In 1977, Mrs. Nichols partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, contracting as a representative and speaker to help recruit female and minority candidates for space training; the following year’s class of astronaut candidates was the first to include women and members of minority groups.
In the following years, Mrs. Nichols publicly and recorded public service announcements on behalf of the agency. In 2012, after she was the keynote speaker at the Goddard Space Center at a celebration of African American History Month, a NASA press release about the event praised her help for the cause of diversity in space exploration.
“Nichols’ role as one of the first black characters on television to be more than just a stereotype and one of the first women in a position of authority (she was fourth in command of the Enterprise) inspired thousands of applications from women and minorities,” the statement said. release. said. “Among them: Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Judith Resnick, first American woman in space Sally Ride and current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.”
Grace Dell Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, on December 28, 1932 (some sources give a later year), and grew up in Chicago. Her father was mayor of Robbins for a time and a chemist. When she was 13 or 14, she was tired of being called Gracie by her friends and asked for another name from her mother, who liked Michelle but suggested Nichelle for the alliteration.
A ballet dancer as a child, she had a singing voice with a naturally wide range — over four octaves, she later said. While attending Englewood High School, she got her first professional appearance in a revue at the College Inn, a well-known Chicago nightspot.
There she was spotted by Duke Ellington, who hired her a year or two later with his touring orchestra as a dancer in one of his jazz suites.
Ms. Nichols appeared in several musical theater productions across the country during the 1950s. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, she recalled performing at the Playboy Club in New York City while serving as an understudy for Ms. Carroll in the Broadway musical “No Strings” (though she never moved on).
In 1959 she was a dancer in the film version of Otto Preminger’s “Porgy and Bess”. She made her television debut in 1963 in an episode of “The Lieutenant,” a short-lived dramatic series about Marines at Camp Pendleton, created by Gene Roddenberry, who went on to make “Star Trek.”
Ms. Nichols appeared on other television shows over the years, including “Peyton Place” (1966), “Head of the Class” (1988), and “Heroes” (2007). She also made occasional appearances on the Los Angeles stage, including in a one-woman show where she portrayed and paid tribute to black female entertainers who preceded her, including Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt.
But Uhura would become her legacy: A decade after ‘Star Trek’ went off the air, Ms. Nichols landed the role in ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ and she appeared as Uhura, then a commander, in five consecutive sequels through 1991.
In addition to a son, her survivors are two sisters, Marian Smothers and Diane Robinson.
Mrs. Nichols was married and divorced twice. In her 1995 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” she revealed that she and Roddenberry, who died in 1991, had been in a romantic relationship for a while. In a 2010 interview for the Archive of American Television, she said he had little to do with her casting on “Star Trek,” but that he defended her when studio executives wanted to replace her.
When she took on the role of Uhura, Ms. Nichols said, she considered it a mere job at the time, valuable as a resume booster; she fully intended to return to the stage, as she wanted a career on Broadway. Indeed, she threatened to leave the show after the first season and tendered her resignation from Roddenberry. He told her to think about it for a few days.
In a story she often told, she was a guest at an event in Beverly Hills, California that Saturday night—“I believe it was an NAACP fundraiser,” she recalled in the archive interview—where the organizer introduced her to someone he described as “your biggest fan.”
“He really wants to meet you,” she recalled what the organizer had said.
The fan, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., introduced himself.
“He said, ‘We admire you a lot, you know,'” Mrs. Nichols said, thanking him and telling him she was about to leave the show. “He said, ‘You can’t. You can’t.'”
dr. King told her that her role as a dignified, authoritative figure on a popular show was too important for the civil rights cause to abandon. As Ms Nichols recalled, he said, “For the first time, we will be seen on television as we should be seen every day.”
On Monday morning she went back to Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened.
And I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.'”
Eduardo Medina contributed reporting.