Nichelle Nichols dead: Played Uhura in ‘Star Trek’ series

Nichelle Nichols, who played the communications officer on the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek and famously took part in what is believed to be the first interracial kiss on television, has died.

Nichols died of heart failure Saturday night at a hospital in Silver City, NM, a family friend who handled media inquiries for Nichols’ son confirmed Sunday to the Los Angeles Times. She was 89 years old.

Nichols suffered a stroke at her Woodland Hills in 2015 and battled dementia and had fought a years-long conservatorship battle with her son, a former manager and close friend.

Nichols rose to fame as the handsome, composed, immensely competent Lt. Uhura in three Star Trek television seasons and six Star Trek films. Cast as a master of 23rd-century intergalactic technology, a black American woman defied the typical depiction of black women as domestics or entertainers in her role. When she considered leaving the show for a Broadway play after the first season, she was swayed by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When they met at an NAACP fundraiser in Beverly Hills, King was horrified when she spoke of quitting, according to her American television archives from 2010.

“For the first time, the world sees us as we were meant to be seen,” King told her. “Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) opened a door. If you leave, this door can be closed. Her role is not a black role, nor is it a female role — he can fill it with anything, including an alien.”

“I couldn’t say anything,” she recalls. “I just stood there and realized that every word he said was the truth.”

“He told me it was the only show he and his wife Coretta would allow their young children to stay up and watch,” Nichols told CNN years later. More importantly, Nobel laureate Nichols said she is and must continue to break important new ground for black Americans.

“For the first time,” King told her, “the world sees us as we are meant to be seen. That’s what we’re marching for.”

“Also,” said King, who admitted to being a huge “Star Trek” fan, “you’re the fourth in command — you’re the senior communications officer.”

Days later, she told Roddenberry that she had changed her mind.

“He took out my resignation letter, which was torn into a hundred pieces, and handed me the stack. I said, ‘Thank you Gene’.”

Nichols embraced her role and continued to appear in Star Trek events throughout her life. She became an eloquent advocate for the US space program and led a successful campaign to recruit women and minorities into astronaut training.

Elegant, assertive, and able to construct a subspace bypass circuit in next to no time, Uhura inspired a generation of black women. Comedian Whoopi Goldberg, when she first saw her when she was about 9 years old, recalled running through the house shouting, “Everybody hurry up, hurry up – there’s a black lady on TV and she is not a maid!”

Star Trek was canceled in 1969 after just three seasons. In its afterlife, it became far more popular, sparking six more TV series and more than a dozen feature films.

Nicole Nichols

Nicole Nichols

(CBS/Getty Images)

Nichols appeared in 66 episodes of the original Star Trek and in six Star Trek films. She was also in demand at Star Trek conventions, where fans asked her more than anyone about one plot point: the lengthy clinch between Uhura and Captain James Kirk, widely credited as the first interracial kiss on television.

“The first thing people want to talk about is the first interracial kiss and what it did for them.”

– Nichelle Nichols

“The first thing people want to talk about is that first interracial kiss and what it did for them,” she said in a 2010 interview for the Archive of American Television. “And they thought differently about the world — they thought differently about people.”

The episode titled “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which first aired on November 22, 1968, featured a race of extraterrestrials who worshiped the earthly philosopher Plato. In their study of humanity, they wanted to observe human intimacy – and telekinetically forced Uhura and Kirk, played by William Shatner, to kiss.

By the standards of the time, it was a potentially explosive scene. Just a year earlier, the Supreme Court had lifted state bans on interracial marriage. Star Trek producers were so concerned about the public reaction that they attempted to film a version of the scene with the kiss and another with just a hug for use on Southern networks.

The kissless approach was thwarted, however, when Nichols and Shatner intentionally screwed up their lines in take after take.

In her autobiography, Beyond Uhura, Nichols recalled Shatner strategically flipping it on its head: “Bill shook me and hissed menacingly in his ham-fisted Kirkish staccato, ‘Me! HABIT! KISS! YOU! I! HABIT! KISS! YOU!’ It was absolutely horrible and we were hysterical and ecstatic.”

Eventually, what appeared to be a usable shot was shot and everyone went home for the evening. It wasn’t until the next day that producers realized Shatner had crossed his eyes as the camera caught his face during the non-kiss. At this point, executives abandoned their Southern strategy.

“I think they thought we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway,” Nichols said. “And so the kiss stayed.”

The expected backlash never materialized. The scene became increasingly famous over time, although television historians point to a number of earlier, less announced interracial television kisses, including a kiss on the cheek from Sammy Davis Jr. to Nancy Sinatra a few months earlier.

Grace Dell Nichols was born on December 28, 1932 in Robbins, Illinois into a large family and took the name Nichelle as a teenager. Her father, Samuel Nichols, was the mayor and chief magistrate of the small Chicago suburb founded in 1917 as a haven for African American families.

Young Nichelle, who studies ballet and Afro-Cuban dance, performed in a revue at the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago, where she caught the eye of the famous Duke Ellington. As a teenager, she sang and danced with Ellington’s Touring Company and later performed with jazz great Lionel Hampton’s orchestra.

During the 1950s, Nichols performed in nightclubs across the United States and Canada. She opened for comedian Redd Fox and danced in Otto Preminger’s 1959 screen version of Porgy and Bess. later created “Star Trek”. The two had a fleeting romance that turned into a long-lasting friendship; In 1966 he asked her to join the crew of Starship Enterprise.

They agreed to name their character Uhura – a variant of Uhuru, a Swahili word for freedom.

After one season, Nichols was fed up. Her character didn’t seem that important and her lines were sparse. Also, her heart was in musical comedy and she longed for Broadway.

However, she stuck it out until the last episode. “When you have a man like Martin Luther King saying you can’t leave a show, it’s disheartening,” she told USA Today in 1994. “It humbled my heart and I couldn’t walk.”

A year after their chance meeting at the NAACP banquet, Nichols sang at King’s funeral.

After the end of the original “Star Trek,” Nichols assumed her role in “Star Trek” events. At a Trek conference in Chicago, a presentation by NASA scientist Jesco von Puttkamer inspired her to join NASA as well.

“For someone who used to think the only civilian benefits of the space program were Teflon and Tang, it’s funny that I became a NASA missionary,” she told the Chicago Tribune years later.

A recruitment campaign led by Nichols in 1977 drew applications from more than 2,600 minority astronauts. These included Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; and three of the astronauts who died in the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion: Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, and Ellison Onizuka.

Nichols married tap dancer Foster Johnson in 1951 and songwriter Duke Mondy in 1968. Both marriages ended in divorce. Her survivors include her son, Kyle Johnson. One brother, Thomas Nichols, died in 1997 in the Heaven’s Gate sect mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego.

In addition to her Star Trek and NASA work, Nichols recorded an album, wrote two science fiction novels, and created Reflections, a one-woman stage tribute to Black American singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker and Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne – and herself.

But perhaps Nichols’ most lasting legacy is remembering people like Mae C. Jemison, an astronaut who became a close friend.

In 1992, Jemison boarded the space shuttle Endeavor and became the first black American woman in space. In homage to the woman who inspired her, Jemison began each shift of her eight-day voyage with the announcement that had become Nichols’ trademark as the Enterprise shot through galaxies far, far away:

“Hearing frequencies open!”

The original cast of "star trek" including Nichelle Nichols, top left, DeForest Kelley, top right, Leonard Nimoy, bottom left, and William Shatner.

The original cast of “Star Trek” included Nichelle Nichols, top left, DeForest Kelley, top right, Leonard Nimoy, bottom left, and William Shatner.

(Handout / McClatchy-Tribune) Nichelle Nichols dead: Played Uhura in ‘Star Trek’ series

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