Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Uhura in ‘Star Trek’, dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols, the actress revered by “Star Trek” fans everywhere for her role as Lt. Uhura, the communications officer of the spacecraft USS Enterprise, died Saturday in Silver City, N.M. She was 89.

The cause was heart failure, said Sky Conway, a writer and film producer who Kyle Johnson, Ms Nichols’ son, asked to speak on behalf of the family.

Ms. Nichols had a long career as an artist, starting as a teenage singer and dancer at a supper club in her hometown of Chicago, and later appearing on television.

But she will forever be remembered for her work on “Star Trek,” the cult space adventure series that aired from 1966 to 1969 and starred William Shatner as Captain Kirk, the heroic leader of the crew of the spatialship ; Leonard Nimoy (d. 2015) as his science officer and advisor, Mr. Spock, an ultralogical humanoid from the planet Vulcan; and DeForest Kelley (d. 1999) as Dr. McCoy, aka Bones, the ship’s doctor.

Strikingly beautiful, Mrs. Nichols provided a thrill of sensuality on the deck of the Enterprise. She was usually dressed in a cozy red doublet and black tights; Ebony magazine called her “‘Star Trek’s most celestial body'” on its 1967 cover. Her role, however, was both substantial and historically significant.

Uhura was a highly educated and well-trained officer and technician who maintained a professional demeanor while performing her high duties. Ms Nichols was among the first black women to star in a network television series, making her an anomaly on the small screen, which until then had rarely portrayed black women in anything other than roles. subordinates.

In a November 1968 episode, during the show’s third and final season, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura are forced to kiss each other by the inhabitants of a strange planet, resulting in what is widely believed as the first interracial kiss in television history.

Ms. Nichols’ first appearances on ‘Star Trek’ predate the 1968 sitcom ‘Julia’, in which Diahann Carroll, playing a widowed mother who works as a nurse, became the first black woman to play a role. not stereotyped in a network series. .

(A series called “Beulah”, also called “The Beulah Show”, starring Ethel Waters – and later Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel – as a white family’s maid, aired on ABC early 1950s and later cited by civil rights activists for her demeaning portrayals of black people.)

But Uhura’s influence has extended far beyond television. In 1977, Ms. Nichols began an association with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, contracted as a representative and speaker to help recruit women and minorities for spaceflight training; the next year’s class of astronaut candidates was the first to include women and members of minority groups.

Over the next several years, Ms. Nichols made public appearances and recorded public service announcements on behalf of the agency. In 2012, after serving as the keynote speaker at Goddard Space Center during an African American History Month celebration, a NASA press release about the event praised her help for the cause of diversity in space exploration.

“Nichols’ role as one of the first black characters on television to be more than just a stereotype and one of the first women in positions of authority (she was fourth in command of the Enterprise) has inspired thousands of applications from women and minorities,” the statement said. said. “Among them: Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Judith Resnick, America’s first woman in space Sally Ride and current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.”

Grace Dell Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois on December 28, 1932 (some sources give a later year) and grew up in Chicago. His father was, for a time, mayor of Robbins and a chemist. At 13 or 14, tired of being called Gracie by her friends, she asked her mother for a different name, who liked Michelle but offered her Nichelle for alliteration.

She was a ballet dancer as a child and had a singing voice with a naturally wide range – over four octaves, she later said. While attending Englewood High School, she landed her first professional gig in a revue at the College Inn, a well-known Chicago nightclub.

There she was seen by Duke Ellington, who employed her a year or two later with his touring orchestra as a dancer in one of his jazz suites.

Ms. Nichols appeared in several musical theater productions across the country during the 1950s. In an interview with the American Television Archive, she recalled performing at the Playboy Club in New York City while serving as an understudy for Ms. Carroll in the Broadway musical “No Strings” (although it never continued).

In 1959, she was a dancer in Otto Preminger’s film version of “Porgy and Bess”. She made her television debut in 1963 in an episode of “The Lieutenant,” a short-lived drama series about the Marines at Camp Pendleton created by Gene Roddenberry, who later created “Star Trek.”

Ms. Nichols has appeared on other TV shows over the years, including ‘Peyton Place’ (1966), ‘Head of the Class’ (1988) and ‘Heroes’ (2007). She also occasionally appeared on stage in Los Angeles, including in a solo show in which she did impressions and paid tribute to black artists who came before her, including Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt.

But Uhura was to be her legacy: A decade after ‘Star Trek’ airwaves ended, Ms. Nichols reprized the role in ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture,’ and she appeared as Uhura, then-commander, in five subsequent episodes. film sequels until 1991.

Besides a son, his survivors include two sisters, Marian Smothers and Diane Robinson.

Ms. Nichols has been married and divorced twice. In her 1995 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories”, she revealed that she and Roddenberry, who died in 1991, had been romantically involved for some time. In a 2010 interview for the American Television Archive, she said he had little to do with her casting in “Star Trek” but stood up for her when studio executives challenged her. wanted to replace it.

When she took on the role of Uhura, Ms. Nichols said, she considered it a mere job at the time, valuable as a resume enhancer; she fully intended to return to the stage, as she wanted a career on Broadway. Indeed, she threatened to quit the show after its first season and tendered her resignation to Roddenberry. He told her to think for a few days.

In a story she often told, that Saturday night she was a guest at an event in Beverly Hills, California – “I believe it was an NAACP fundraiser,” she recalled in the Archive interview – where the organizer introduced her to someone he described as “your biggest fan”.

“He desperately needs to meet you,” she recalled telling the organizer.

The fan, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., introduced himself.

“He said, ‘We look up to you a lot, you know,'” Ms Nichols said, and she thanked him and told him she was about to leave the show. “He said, ‘You can’t. You can not.'”

Dr. King told her that her role as a dignified and authoritative figure on a popular show was too important to the civil rights cause for her to give it up. As Ms Nichols recalled, he said: ‘For the first time we will be seen on television as we should be seen every day.’

On Monday morning, she returned to Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened.

“And I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I must.'”

Eduardo Medina contributed reporting.

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