She shared the very first lip-to-lip interracial kiss on television when she kissed co-star William Shatner, who starred as Captain Kirk.
Nichelle Nichols who starred as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in Star Trek died at the age of 89 in New Mexico. The actor's death was confirmed by her son, Kyle Johnson. "I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” wrote her son on Facebook on Saturday night.
She was part of the original Star Trek series that aired on television in the 1960s. Johnson said his mother died of natural causes seven years after suffering a stroke. “Her light, however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and draw inspiration,” he wrote on her website, reported The Guardian.
Her role as Uhura helped break down racial barriers in television and served as a role model for Black women. "Before we understood how much representation matters Nichelle Nichols modeled it for us. With her very presence and her grace, she shone a light on who we as people of color are and inspired us to reach for our potential. Rest well glittering diamond in the sky," wrote actor Wilson Cruz.
Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, on December 28, 1932. She started out as a dancer and nightclub singer before her acting career. She sang as a 16-year-old with jazz great Duke Ellington. Nichols was cast as Uhura after she guest-starred in a 1964 episode of an NBC show by Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry. She thought being cast in the TV series would be a “nice stepping stone” to Broadway stage fame.
The original Star Trek premiered on NBC on 8 September 1966 and was far ahead of its time in terms of diversity and acceptance. The multicultural, multiracial cast was Roddenberry’s way of portraying a diverse and inclusive future set in the 23rd century. He reportedly insisted on an integrated crew for Starship Enterprise.
“I think many people took it into their hearts … that what was being said on TV at that time was a reason to celebrate,” said Nichols, recalling her role as Uhura in 1992. Recalling her impact on the series, Roddenberry said in a documentary, “I was pleased that in those days when you couldn’t even get Blacks on television, that I not only had a Black but a Black woman and a Black officer.”
Nichols nearly quit the series mid-way through the first season, saying she wanted to return to the musical theatre which she described as "her first love." It was an intervention from Martin Luther King Jr. that urged her to continue. She met King at an NAACP fundraiser and learned that he was a huge fan of the show. “He told me that Star Trek was one of the only shows that his wife Coretta and he would allow their little children to stay up and watch,” she said. “I thanked him and I told him I was leaving the show. All the smile came off his face and he said, ‘You can’t do that. Don’t you understand, for the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen? You don’t have a Black role. You have an equal role.’" That was enough for her to reconsider. “I went back to work on Monday morning and went to Gene’s office and told him what had happened over the weekend. And he said, ‘Welcome home. We have a lot of work to do.’”
She also shared the very first lip-to-lip interracial kiss on television. She kissed co-star William Shatner, who starred as Captain Kirk in the series which was believed to be a huge step forward at the time and was broadcast on NBC. Interracial marriage was still illegal in as many as 17 states in America. Even the scene involving Nichols sharing a kiss with Shatner was written in a way to avoid potential backlash. In the episode, "Plato’s Stepchildren," they are made to kiss after being inhabited by aliens.
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. pic.twitter.com/pmQaKDb5zw— NASA (@NASA) July 31, 2022
Her co-star from the series George Takei took to Twitter to pay tribute to the actor. "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. For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend," he wrote. President Biden paid tribute to the actor.
“Our nation has lost a trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women,” said Biden, before adding that she helped break stereotypes. Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, a Star Trek fan, shared a photo with Nichols and tweeted: "One of my most treasured photos — Godspeed to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior, and a tremendous actor. Her kindness and bravery lit the path for many. May she forever dwell among the stars.” Stacey Abrams also made a cameo appearance on "Star Trek: Discovery" as the United Earth president.
Nichols was married and divorced twice, and is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.
Cover image source:
Left: Getty Images for Ovation | Photo by Araya Diaz
Right: Screenshot/Paramount Pictures