Star Trek’s trailblazing actress Nichelle Nichols dies at 89
Nichelle Nichols, a trailblazing black actress who played communications worker Nyota Uhura with cool authority on the hit 1960s series “Star Trek,” has died aged 89.
Her son, Kyle Johnson, announced the death on the official website uhura.com, saying, “Last night my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and died. The first time, will remain.”
A family spokesperson said Nichols died in Silver City, New Mexico, where she had lived with her son.
Tributes poured in quickly, too, from a long list of devoted “Trekkies”.
William Shatner, who played the Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise, expressed his condolences to Nichols’ family.
“She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character who did so much to redefine social issues both here in the US and around the world. I will definitely miss her.”
George Takei, who shared the bridge with Lieutenant Uhura as Sulu’s helmsman, called her “groundbreaking and incomparable.”
I will have more to say about the pioneering, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lieutenant Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at the age of 89. For today my heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars you rest between now, my dear friend.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) July 31, 2022
And US President Joe Biden said Nichols “redefined what is possible for black Americans and women.”
“Our nation is forever indebted to inspiring artists like Nichelle Nichols, who show us a future where unity, dignity and respect are the cornerstones of every society,” he said in a statement.
Nichols made history with one of the first interracial kisses on American television – a 1968 hug shared with Shatner (a kiss worthy of a separate entry in Wikipedia).
Martin Luther King Jr. She herself once praised Nichols, who broke new ground with her powerful performance at a time when black actors were more likely to be cast as servants or criminals.
‘An equal role’
Nichols, who had trained in ballet and musical theater, at one point told “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry that she wanted to leave the show to return to the theater.
But when she told King that, during a chance meeting recounted by the Hollywood Reporter, “All the smiles 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 need to be seen? You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.'”
Nichols worked as a recruiter for NASA — who reached out to her after criticizing its lack of diversity — successfully encouraging several talented African Americans and women of all races to consider careers with the space agency.
NASA paid tribute to her legacy in a tweet Sunday night, calling her a “trailblazer and role model” who “symbolized for so many what was possible.”
The National Air and Space Museum also praised her work off-screen.
“She was an inspiration to many not only for her groundbreaking work on Star Trek, but also through her work with NASA recruiting women and people of color to run for astronauts,” the museum tweeted.
Although best known as Uhura, Nichols had a diverse career, dancing with Sammy Davis Jr. in “Porgy and Bess”, appeared on the NBC series “Heroes” and recorded an album.
She also played Uhura – a Swahili name for “freedom” – in the first six “Star Trek” films.
The Smithsonian, the US national museum network, shared on Twitter a photo of the red space jacket Nichols wore as Uhura on screen, adorned with the iconic “Star Trek” pin, now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Today we commemorate Nichelle Nichols. She played as Lieutenant Uhura in “Star Trek” and now wore this uniform in our @NMAAHC, making history for African American women in TV and film. Nichols also volunteered to recruit women and people of color for NASA. #BecauseOfHerStory pic.twitter.com/fZZqfGlomz
— Smithsonian (@smithsonian) July 31, 2022