Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols dies at 89, Star Trek

Nichelle Nichols, best known for her role as Star Trek’s communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, died Saturday night in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89 years old at the time.

Nichelle Nichols dies at 89, Star Trek

“I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” her son Kyle Johnson wrote on the Uhura.com website. “Her light, like the ancient galaxies now visible for the first time, will, however, remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by.”

Nichols was one of the first Black women to appear in a major television series, and her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original TV series was groundbreaking: an African American woman whose name was derived from the Swahili word for “freedom,” Uhuru.

“Here I was in the 23rd century projecting what should have been quite simple,” Nichols told NPR in 2011. “We’re aboard a spaceship. I was the chief of communications. On a starship, you are the fourth in command. They didn’t see this as happening until, oh, the 23rd century. Both children and adults saw it as now.”

In the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Nichols made headlines when Uhura shared an intimate kiss with Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner). Their interracial kiss on the lips was groundbreaking, and it was one of the first such moments on television.

Grace Dell Nichols was born in a Chicago suburb where her father was the mayor. She grew up singing and dancing and aspired to be a musical theater star. Her first break came in the 1961 musical Kicks and Co., a satire of Playboy magazine. She starred in Carmen Jones, a Chicago stock company production, and Porgy and Bess in New York.

‘To me, the highlight and pinnacle of my life as a singer, actor, and dancer/choreographer was to star on Broadway,’ she told NPR in 2011, adding that as her popularity on Star Trek grew, she began to receive other offers. “I decided to leave, travel to New York, and make my way onto the Broadway stage.”

Nichols claimed she informed Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry of her intention to resign. “He was furious about it. And he told me to take the weekend and think about what I’m trying to accomplish with this show. You’re an essential component and very important to it.”

So she went to an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills that weekend and was asked to meet a man who claimed to be her number one fan: Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“He complimented me on the way I’d created the character. I thanked him and said something along the lines of, ‘Dr. King, I wish I could be marching with you.’ ‘No, no, no,’ he said. No, you don’t get it. We don’t require you… to march. You’re on the march. You are an example of what we are fighting for.’ So I told him, “Thank you so much.” I’m also going to miss my co-stars.”

 

“His face became very, very serious,” she remembered. “And he asked, ‘What are you on about?'” And I replied, ‘Well, I just told Gene yesterday that I’m leaving the show after the first year because I’ve been offered… And he stopped me, saying, ‘You can’t do that.’ I was taken aback. ‘Don’t you realize what this man has accomplished?’ he asked. For the first time, we are being seen as we should be seen around the world. ‘Do you realize that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our small children to stay up and watch?’ he says. “I couldn’t say anything.”

Nichols returned to the series, which aired from 1965 to 1969. She also appeared in six subsequent feature films, including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which she was promoted to commander.

Nichols also assisted in the recruitment of astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Guion Bluford, and others for many years. She also founded her own science foundation, Women in Motion.

 

“Many actors become stars, but only a few stars can move a nation,” actress Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman on television in the 1970s, tweeted. “Nichelle Nichols demonstrated Black women’s extraordinary power and paved the way for a better future for all women in media.” Thank you very much, Nichelle. “We’ll miss you.”

“I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise,” George Takei, who costarred on Star Trek as helmsman Hikaru Sulu, wrote on Twitter. “My heart is heavy today, my dearest friend, and my eyes shine like the stars you now rest among.”

 

He also shared a photo of himself and a longtime friend, both of whom were flashing the Vulcan greeting and writing, “We lived long and prospered together.”

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