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Nichelle Nichols, who starred as Lt Uhura in Star Trek, dies aged 89
31 July 2022, 21:54
Her role in the 1966-69 series earned Nichols a lifelong position of honour with the series’ fans.
Nichelle Nichols, who found fame as communications officer Lt Uhura in the original Star Trek television series, has died at the age of 89.
Her son, Kyle Johnson, said she died on Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico.
Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page on Sunday: “Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away.
“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.
“Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Her role in the 1966-69 series as Lt Uhura earned Nichols a lifelong position of honour with the series’ fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies.
It also earned her accolades for breaking stereotypes that had limited black women to acting roles as servants and included an inter-racial on-screen kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.
She often recalled how the Rev Martin Luther King Jr was a fan of the show and praised her role and personally encouraged her to stay with the series.
Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spinoffs, starting in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture and at Star Trek fan conventions.
She also served for many years as a Nasa recruiter, helping bring minorities and women into the astronaut corps.
More recently, she had a recurring role on television’s Heroes, playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.
“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,” George Takei wrote on Twitter.
“For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
The original Star Trek premiered on September 8, 1966. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the far-off future – the 23rd century – human diversity would be fully accepted.
“I think many people took it into their hearts – that what was being said on TV at that time was a reason to celebrate,” Nichols said in 1992 at a Star Trek exhibit .
During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Captain James Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to be broadcast on a US television series.
In the episode, Plato’s Stepchildren, their characters, who always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced into the kiss by aliens who were controlling their actions.
The kiss “suggested that there was a future where these issues were not such a big deal”, Eric Deggans, a television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018.
“The characters themselves were not freaking out because a black woman was kissing a white man – in this utopian-like future, we solved this issue. We’re beyond it. That was a wonderful message to send.”
Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called Gracie, which everyone insisted on, she said in a 2010 interview.
When she was a teenager her mother told her she had wanted to name her Michelle, but thought she ought to have alliterative initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence Nichelle.
Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at 14, moving on to New York nightclubs and working for a time with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands before moving to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959’s Porgy and Bess, the first of several small film and TV roles that led up to her Star Trek stardom.
Nichols was known as being unafraid to stand up to Shatner on the set when others complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time.