Actress and singer Nichelle Nichols, best known for her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Nyota Uhura in “Star Trek: The Original Series,” has died at age 89, according to a statement from her son, Kyle Johnson. Nichols died from natural causes, he said. Nichols portrayed communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the “Star Trek” TV series and many of its film offshoots. When “Star Trek” began in 1966, Nichols was a television rarity: a Black woman in a notable role on a prime-time television series. There had been African-American women on TV before, but they often played domestic workers and had small roles; Nichols’ Uhura was an integral part of the multicultural “Star Trek” crew.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” Nichols is widely known for participating in one of the first interracial kisses on US television when her character kissed James T. Kirk, portrayed by White Canadian actor William Shatner. In an interview with CNN in 2014, Nichols said the kiss scene “changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another.” After “Trek’s” three-season run, Nichols dedicated herself to the space program. She helped NASA in making the agency more diverse, helping to recruit astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik and Guion Bluford, among others.
George Takei, who portrayed the USS Enterprise’s helmsman Hikaru Sulu, posted a touching tribute to his co-star. “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, and who passed today at age 89,” wrote Takei on Twitter. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.” NASA tweeted “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.”
Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols near Chicago in 1932. (Unhappy with Grace, she took the name Nichelle when she was a teenager.) Her grandfather was a White Southerner who married a Black woman, causing a rift in his family. Blessed with a four-octave vocal range, Nichols was performing in local clubs by the time she was 14. Among the performers she met was Duke Ellington, who later took her on tour. She also worked extensively in Chicago clubs and in theater. She moved to Los Angeles in the early ’60s and landed a role in a Gene Roddenberry series, “The Lieutenant.” A number of “Star Trek” veterans, including Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig and Majel Barrett, also worked on the show. When Roddenberry was creating “Trek,” he remembered Nichols. She was in Europe when she got the call.
Nichols was once tempted to leave the series; however, a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. changed her mind. Towards the end of the first season, Nichols was given the opportunity to take a role on Broadway. She preferred the stage to the television studio, so she decided to take the role. Nichols went to Roddenberry’s office, told him that she planned to leave, and handed him her resignation letter. Roddenberry tried to convince Nichols to stay but to no avail, so he told her to take the weekend off and if she still felt that she should leave then he would give her his blessing. But it took Dr. Martin King Jr to convince her to stay on the show. King personally encouraged her to stay on the series, saying she “could not give up” because she was playing a vital role model for Black children and young women across the country, as well as for other children who would see Black people appearing as equals, going so far as to favorably compare her work on the series to the marches of the ongoing civil rights movement.
Former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison has cited Nichols’ role of Lieutenant Uhura as her inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut and Whoopi Goldberg has also spoken of Nichols’ influence. In her role as Lieutenant Uhura, Nichols kissed white actor William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the November 22, 1968, Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”. The episode is cited as the first example of an interracial kiss on scripted U.S. television. The Shatner/Nichols kiss was seen as groundbreaking, even though it was portrayed as having been forced by alien telekinesis. There was some praise and almost no dissent. Despite the cancellation of the series in 1969, Star Trek lived on in other ways, and continued to play a part in Nichols’ life. She again provided the voice of Uhura in Star Trek: The Animated Series.
Nichols co-starred in six Star Trek films, the last one being Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Between the end of the original series and the Star Trek animated series and feature films, Nichols appeared in small television and film roles. She briefly appeared as a secretary in Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding! (1967), and portrayed Dorienda, a foul-mouthed madam in Truck Turner (1974) opposite Isaac Hayes. In the comedy film Snow Dogs (2002), Nichols appeared as the mother of the male lead, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. n 2006, she appeared as the title character in the film Lady Magdalene’s, the madam of a legal Nevada brothel in tax default. Nichols released two music albums. Down to Earth is a collection of standards released in 1967, during the original run of Star Trek. Out of This World, released in 1991, is more rock oriented and is themed around Star Trek and space exploration.
In her autobiography, Nichols wrote that she was romantically involved with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for a few years in the 1960s. She said the affair ended well before Star Trek began, when she realized Roddenberry was also involved with her acquaintance Majel Hudec (known as Majel Barrett). Nichols married twice, first to dancer Foster Johnson (1917–1981). They were married in 1951 and divorced that same year. Johnson and Nichols had one child together, Kyle Johnson, who was born August 14, 1951. She married for the second time to Duke Mondy in 1968. They were divorced in 1972. In early 2018, Nichols was diagnosed with dementia, and subsequently announced her retirement from convention appearances. Asteroid 68410 Nichols is named in her honor. Nichols died of heart failure in Silver City, New Mexico, on July 30, 2022, at the age of 89.