Nichelle Nichols died at the age of 89. The actress, known for her role as Uhura in Star Trek, was a pioneer in entertainment. The news of her death came from a post on her Facebook by her son Kyle. She passed away of natural causes.
Nichols was part of the original crew of the Enterprise on Star Trek. She was cast as Gene Roddenberry after appearing in his show The Lieutenant. In that show, she played the wife of a Black U.S. Marine who was the victim of racism.
About halfway through the first season of Star Trek, Nichols considered quitting to return to musical theater, her first love. However, a chance meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., who it turns out was a fan of Star Trek, changed this.
“He told me that Star Trek was one of the only shows that his wife Coretta and he would allow their little children to stay up and watch,” she shared. “I thanked him and I told him I was leaving the show. All the smile came off his face and he said, ‘You can’t do that. Don’t you understand, for the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen? You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.’”
“I went back to work on Monday morning and went to Gene’s office and told him what had happened over the weekend. And he said, ‘Welcome home. We have a lot of work to do.’”
Roddenberry also shared in the documentary saying, “I was pleased that in those days, when you couldn’t even get Blacks on television, that I not only had a Black but a Black woman and a Black officer.”
In November 1968, she wouldn’t just be playing a Black officer on the show. She and William Shatner shared the first interracial kiss on screen when Uhura and Kirk kissed in Plato’s Stepchildren. NBC execs were worried about how this would be received in the South and ordered another version of the scene to be shot. However, both Nichols and Shatner messed up every take of the other version.
In her 1994 book, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, Nichols recalled how it played out after they continued to mess up. “Finally, the guys in charge relented: ‘To hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss,” Uhura wrote. “I guess they figured we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.”
Nichelle Nichols portrayed Nyota Uhura throughout all three seasons of the original Star Trek. She also lent her voice to the role in Star Trek: The Animated Series. She then continued to reprise the role in the first six Star Trek films.
Outside of Star Trek, Nichols also was an advocate for representation at NASA and pushed them to reach out to women and minorities. “I went everywhere,” she said. “I went to universities that had strong science and engineering programs. I was a guest at NORAD [the North American Aerospace Defense Command], where no civilian had gone before.
“At the end of the recruitment, NASA had so many highly qualified people. They took six women, they took three African-American men … it was a very fulfilling accomplishment for me.”
Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka all applied to NASA thanks to Nichols. In 2018, a documentary about her efforts called Woman in Motion was released.
Nichelle Nichols is survived by her son Kyle Johnson.