Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ dead at 89

Her role on the series from 1966-69 as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifetime position of honor among the series’ rabid fans known as the Trekkers and Trekkies.

SILVER CITY, NM — Nichelle Nichols, who broke barriers for black women in Hollywood when she met communications officer Lt. Uhura, who played in the original Star Trek television series, has died at the age of 89.

Her son Kyle Johnson said Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico.

“Last night my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and died. However, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, their light will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by,” Johnson wrote on her official Facebook on Sunday -Side. “Her life was well lived and as such a role model for all of us.”

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Her role on the series from 1966-69 as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifetime position of honor among the series’ rabid fans known as the Trekkers and Trekkies. It also earned her awards for breaking stereotypes that had confined black women to playing roles as servants and included an on-screen interracial kiss with co-star William Shatner, who was unknown at the time.

“I’ll have more to say about the groundbreaking, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who served as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise shared the bridge with us and died today at the age of 89,” wrote George Takei on Twitter. “For today my heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars under which you now rest, my dearest friend.”

Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six theatrical spin-offs beginning in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture and attended Star Trek fan conventions. She also served as a recruiter for NASA for many years, helping bring minorities and women into the astronaut corps.

More recently, she had a recurring role on the television show Heroes, playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.

The original “Star Trek” premiered on September 8, 1966 on NBC. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the distant future – the 23rd century – human diversity would be fully accepted.

“I think a lot of people took it to heart…that what was being said on television at the time was cause for celebration,” Nichols said in 1992 when a “Star Trek” exhibit was on view at the Smithsonian Institution.

She often recalled how Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the show and praised her role. She met him at a civil rights meeting 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 got very serious and said, ‘You can’t do that,'” she said in a 2008 interview with The Tulsa (Okla.) World.

“‘You changed the face of television forever, and that’s why you changed people’s minds,'” she said, the civil rights activist told her.

“This foresight that Dr. King was a lightning bolt in my life,” Nichols said.

During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Captain James Kirk shared what is known as the first interracial kiss to be aired on a US television series. In the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”, her characters, who have always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced to kiss by aliens who controlled their actions.

The kiss “suggested that there might be a future where these issues wouldn’t play such a big role,” National Public Radio television critic Eric Deggans told The Associated Press in 2018. “The characters themselves didn’t freak out because a black woman kissed a white man… In this utopian future, we solved that problem. We are beyond. That was a wonderful message.”

Concerned about the reaction from Southern TV networks, the showrunners wanted to film a second shot of the scene where the kiss happened off-screen. But Nichols said in her book Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories that she and Shatner intentionally messed up lines to force the use of the original take.

Despite misgivings, the episode aired without setback. In fact, it received “the most fan mail Paramount has ever received for an episode of Star Trek,” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.

Nichols, who was born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. When she was a teenager, her mother told her that she wanted to name Michelle but thought she should have alliterative initials like Marilyn Monroe, who Nichols loved. Hence “Nichelle”.

Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at the age of 14, then moved to New York nightclubs and worked for a time with the bands Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before heading to Hollywood in 1959 for her film debut in Porgy and Bess came. the first of several small film and television roles that led to her Star Trek fame.

She was a regular at Star Trek conventions and events well into the ’80s, but starting in 2018 her schedule was cut short when her son announced she had advanced dementia.

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