Nichelle Nichols, who has died at the age of 89, starred in the cult 1960s sci-fi series Star Trek – and as the sultry Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, she planted one of American television’s first multiracial kisses on Captain’s lips James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner. boldly going where no woman had gone before.
As the black communications officer on the USS Enterprise, Nichelle Nichols found herself in the United States not only as an uhura, but also as a role model for a generation of African American women; Black Oscar-winning film star Whoopi Goldberg hailed her as a life-enhancing social colossus.
In Britain, the reaction has been more phlegmatic, with television critic Clive James noting that the miniskirted Uhura did nothing each week but turn from her console on the spaceship’s bridge (which he roughly compared to a wimpy bar) to see one of the to watch both All contact with Starfleet had been severed or restored. This was at least a variation on Uhura’s weekly mantra: “We’ll connect you now, Captain.”
Her heated encounter with Capt Kirk – in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” – was originally shown in America in November 1968, and although there were depictions of whites and Asians kissing on television, this was the first interracial kiss between white and black ever in seen in a scripted show on American television. Predictably, it drew a lot of negative attention, and even the NBC network that aired it worried about the reaction in the Deep South.
The kiss was portrayed as an involuntary result of telekinesis, possibly to avoid any hint of romance that would risk outrage from some sensitive viewers. In his memoir, Shatner recalled how NBC insisted the couple’s lips never touch (both turned their heads away from the camera). But Nichelle Nichols, in her autobiography Beyond Uhura (written in 1994, based on Shatner’s book), insisted that the kiss was real, even in shots where her lips were covered by her head.
In fact, two versions of the scene were filmed, one with the kiss and the other without. But both Nichelle Nichols and Shatner were so determined to enforce the broadcaster’s hand that they intentionally lightened every shot in the kissless version. Among the hundreds of comments was a single mildly reproachful letter from a white Southerner, who wrote: “I am absolutely against race-mixing. But every time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk holds a beautiful lady who looks like Uhura in his arms, he won’t fight it.”
Grace Dell Nichols was born on December 28, 1932 in Robbins, Illinois, where her father was mayor and chief magistrate. At 16 she wrote a ballet for a musical suite by Duke Ellington, with whom she later toured as a jazz singer. She studied in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, where she sang in the famous Blue Note and Playboy clubs. She also appeared in the title role in a production of Carmen Jones by a Chicago theater company.
As Nichelle Nichols, she has toured North America, Canada and Europe, singing with the bands Ellington and Lionel Hampton and appearing in a West Coast production of the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. “I never met Princess Margaret,” she said of her time with Ellington. “She was one of the biggest fans of the band.”
In the early 1960s, she had an affair with Gene Roddenberry, the former Los Angeles police officer-turned-television screenwriter who wrote her in his first series, The Lieutenant, in 1964.
She joined Star Trek in 1966, with her character’s name Uhura being a variant of “uhuru,” the Swahili word for “freedom.” But she soon tired of being marginalized by television executives, and when she discovered her fan mail was being withheld, she considered leaving the show at the end of the first season.
“If they had to break off dialogue, it was always me and George [Takei, who played the Asian character Hikaru Sulu] they cut,” she recalled. “At one point I was down to, ‘Healing frequencies open, sir.'”
However, a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King changed their minds. King pointed out that she had a groundbreaking, non-stereotypical role and urged her to stay as she had already become an important role model for young black women in America. In addition to staying with the series, she appeared in six Star Trek films and provided the voice of Lt. Uhura in the Star Trek animated series.
When Star Trek was canceled in 1969, Nichelle Nichols turned to other film work and landed the role of Madam Dorinda in the blaxploitation film Truck Turner (1974). She released several pop singles and an EP, Dark Side of the Moon, and made the rounds at Star Trek conventions. Her 1991 album Out of This World featured the song she wrote in honor of Gene Roddenberry, Gene, which she sang at Roddenberry’s memorial service.
Her continued interest in space led to an invitation to fly aboard the C-141 Astronomy Observatory, which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn on an eight-hour, high-altitude mission.
With other cast members from the original Star Trek, she participated in the naming of the first space shuttle, Enterprise, at Cape Canaveral in 1976, with the name being changed after a campaign by Star Trek fans known as “Trekkies” against the original Constitution was changed.
When Nichelle Nichols joined the board of directors of the National Space Institute, she actively recruited more ethnic minorities and women, including Sally Ride, who joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space in 1983. “If I had my life all over again, I would do anything to get up there,” Nichelle Nichols said.
Nichelle Nichols’ first marriage in 1951, to Foster Johnson, a dancer, ended in divorce, as did her second, to Duke Mondy, a songwriter and music arranger. She is survived by a son from her first marriage, Kyle, who became an actor.
Nichelle Nichols, born December 28, 1932, died July 30, 2022