Nichelle Nichols (1932 - 2022)
Nichelle Nichols, the suburban Chicago native who broke barriers for Black women in Hollywood when she played communications officer Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek” television series, has died at the age of 89. She was born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, the child of artist and postal worker Samuel Nichols Jr. and Velma Nichols.
Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14, moving on to New York nightclubs, working for a time with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands before her Hollywood film debut in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.”
Her role in the 1966-69 series as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifelong position of honor with series’ fans. It also earned her accolades for breaking stereotypes that had limited Black women to acting roles as servants and included an interracial onscreen kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.
Nichelle often recalled how Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the show and praised her role. She met him at a civil rights gathering in 1967, at a time when she had decided not to return for the show’s second season. “When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and I was leaving the show, he became very serious and said, ‘You cannot do that,’ ” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview. “You’ve changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you’ve changed the minds of people,” she said the civil rights leader told her.
The first interracial kiss broadcast on a US television series elicited a worry about reaction from Southern television stations, and showrunners filmed a second take of the scene where the kiss happened off-screen, but Nichols said she and Shatner deliberately flubbed lines to force the original take to be used. The episode ended up airing without blowback, and ultimately got the most fan mail ever received for an episode.
More recently, Nichelle had a recurring role on television’s “Heroes.” Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spinoffs starting in 1979 with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and frequented “Star Trek” fan conventions. She also served for many years as a NASA recruiter, helping bring minorities and women into the astronaut corps.