Remembering Actress Nichelle Nichols

Actress Nichelle Nichols, best known as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, died on July 30 of natural causes. She was 89. Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images.

Best known for her groundbreaking role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series, actress Nichelle Nichols died on July 30. She was 89.

“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all,” Nichols’ son Kyle Johnson said in a statement. 

Memorializing Nichols

Across the globe, fans, friends, and fellow actors alike paid tribute to Nichols

“I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world. I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family,” tweeted William Shatner, alias Capt. James T. Kirk. 

Grosse Pointe native Charlie Carden is the fleet captain of the U.S.S. Grand Petoskey, a Grand Rapids-based chapter of the Starfleet International Fan Club. At the July 31 monthly meeting, Carden dedicated the meeting to Nichols, praised her accomplishments, and had a moment of silence for her.

“Nichelle came to television at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was roaring and there were those, particularly in the southern United States – some of which still rage today – who didn’t want to see representation of anything but white males on their black-and-white television screens, which quite frankly became color with the cast of this amazing show. A Black woman and an officer on the bridge of this ship for me will always be the strongest representation of (Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s) vision that in the future, nothing will matter at all except an individual’s character, skills, and compassion. Nichelle is his legacy,” said Carden. 

Greg Cox, a New York Time best-selling author who’s penned several Trek novels, spoke fondly about meeting Nichols. 

My one-and-only personal encounter was brief but memorable. It was a huge comic-con in Chicago where one of the stars from the hot new Lord of the Rings movies was drawing a much bigger line than Nichols, who was kinda being ignored by comparison, stuck at a table in a corner,” said Cox. “Under the circumstances, she could have been forgiven for being bored or weary or wishing she had just stayed home, but, no, she was nothing but warm and personable when I nervously approached her, more than slightly starstruck. One Trekkie or a hundred, she was going to be there for her fans 100 percent. I still have her autograph – framed, of course.”

Cox also spoke about her legacy.

“It is a testament to Nichelle Nichols’ remarkable presence and performance that Uhura emerged as such a vivid and beloved personality,” he said. “Even in those episodes that gave her little to do, Uhura came off as a very real and distinctive personality: smart, witty, resourceful, playful, determined, and somebody you’d definitely want to serve beside on the final frontier. The word ‘iconic’ gets thrown around too freely these days but make no mistake: Nichols made Lt. Uhura an icon to generations.”

Making History as Uhura

Born Grace Dell Nichols outside of Chicago on Dec. 28, 1932, Nichols studied at the Chicago Ballet Academy, beginning her career as a singer and dancer before turning to acting. She was discovered by jazz legend Duke Ellington in her teens. She toured with both Ellington and Lionel Hampton all over the United States and Europe. She danced with Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1959’s Porgy and Bess.

“One day Mr. Ellington invited me into his dressing room and told me: ‘Nichelle, sing for me.’ ‘But there’s no piano!’ I said. ‘You don’t need one,’” Nichols recalled in 2018. “So, I sang. I knew the lead singer’s role by heart, and I belted it out in front of him. At the end, he clapped and said, ‘Do you have a gold dress? The lead singer is sick.’ This was my big chance. The great Duke Ellington was playing for me, and it was like I was on a cloud – I could do no wrong!”

However, she’s indelibly linked to the role of Uhura, the communications officer on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise led by Kirk in a 23rd century utopia where all races were accepted on Trek, the 56-year-old science-fiction franchise. 

“(Trek’s staying power) comes down to Gene’s vision of a future that goes beyond the struggles we all see every day on Earth,” Nichols said. “It shows how amazing humanity can be when we put that behind us. We can do what we do best: Explore.”

What made this role unique is that Nichols was the first Black woman to have a leading role on a network TV series where she played someone who was equal and not subservient. This was unheard of at the time. 

Nichols didn’t realize just how important her role was. In fact, she had planned to leave Trek until Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced her otherwise. She recalled King telling her: “For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen. It’s what we’re marching for. You’re a role model and whether you like it or not, you belong to history now.”

Nichols continued: “You didn’t say ‘no’ to (King). He told me how important that role, that representation was, and I wasn’t going to say no. Frankly, up until then, I wasn’t aware that the show was having the impact that it did. I can see it now, though, and I’m glad I listened.”

“Nichelle Nichols as Uhura changed the way we saw world and the future. Here was a smart, professional, respected African-American woman on a starship, who was considered a vital and – most importantly – equal part of the crew and life on the Enterprise,” said University of Michigan alumna/science-fiction author Sarah Zettel.

In the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Nichols made history again as she and Shatner shared a kiss, which is the first interracial kiss on network TV.

“I think it’s hyped higher than I think it ought to be,” said Shatner. “I was asked to kiss a very beautiful woman. Without any reluctance, I did.”  

The Longevity of Trek and Uhura

 Although Trek was cancelled at the end of its third season in 1969, it found a new life in syndication in the early 1970s, along with a strong cult following. In 1971, U-M student George Christman reached out to other fans in an effort to revive Trek. He founded the Star Trek Association for Revival (STAR) at U-M and ran an ad to recruit fellow fans in The Ann Arbor News. As a result, he was inundated with phone calls. STAR’s membership reached 250,000 across 13 countries. 

Trek’s strong, vocal fanbase resulted in Trek’s strong resurgence with a vengeance, including 13 movies, 11 TV series, numerous video games, novels, comics, and countless other merchandise. To date, it’s grossed approximately $10.6 billion in revenue. 

Nichols reprised her role as Uhura in 1973-74’s Star Trek: The Animated Series. She made her big screen debut as Uhura in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Her last canonical appearance as Uhura was 1991’s Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. Her final appearance as Uhura was in 2007’s noncanonical Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, which co-starred Walter Koenig and Ann Arbor native Grace Lee Whitney, et al. 

Demonstrating she has a sense of humor about herself and her famous character, Nichols appeared on The Simpsons and Futurama

“She is an incredibly important person in the history of television. We were pleased she agreed to do our show and she was, of course, gracious and funny,” said The Simpsons showrunner Al Jean, a Farmington Hills native. 

Nichols has been succeeded in the role of Uhura by Zoe Saldaña for three reboot feature films, mostly recently 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, and Celia Rose Gooding on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which recently concluded its first season. 

Gooding stated in a recent interview that Uhura is her favorite Trek character. 

“She was the first Black woman on TV who wasn’t a servant,” she said. “I’m a huge fan of women leading. It’s exciting for me to be part of a group to open doors for coming iterations of Trek – it’s real cool. I’m excited for the rest of world to be prepared for this. It feels really good to continue that history.”

Both Gooding and Saldaña paid their respects to Nichols on social media. 

“She made room for so many of us. She was the reminder that not only can we reach the stars, but our influence is essential to their survival. Forget shaking the table, she built it!” said Gooding.

Saldaña released a statement: “I’m saddened to learn of Nichelle Nichols’ passing. We have lost a true star – a unique artist who was ahead of her time always. She’s an icon, an activist, and most importantly an amazing woman who blazed a trail that has shown so many how to see women of color in a different light.”

An Inspiration to Many

Using her celebrity status, Nichols recruited women and minorities for NASA. Thanks to her efforts, there was a jump in the number of women and minorities applying for the space program. One of her earliest recruits was Charles Bolden, who retired as NASA administrator in 2017. Another recruit was Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. As Uhura, Nichols also inspired astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space, who even appeared as a crew member on the spin-off series Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

“We have a power in the spotlight. That power is representation. We don’t have to show what is, we can represent what can be, an ideal, and it’s like people are seeing it in real life,” said Nichols. 

The official NASA Twitter account posted a tribute saying: “We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible. She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”

rom L-R: President Barack Obama and actress Nichelle Nichols both give the Vulcan salute in 2012. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Nichols also inspired former President Barack Obama. The two met in 2012, both smiling for the camera and giving the Vulcan salute. In fact, that photo was prominently on display at the “Star Trek: Exploring Strange New Worlds” exhibit in 2019 at The Henry Ford in Dearborn. 

President Joe Biden also paid tribute to Nichols in a statement.

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she shattered stereotypes to become the first Black woman to act in a major role on a primetime television show with her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek,” said Biden. “With a defining dignity and authority, she helped tell a central story that reimagined scientific pursuits and discoveries. And she continued this legacy by going on to work with NASA to empower generations of Americans from every background to reach for the stars and beyond.”

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