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Nichelle Nichols, who made history and earned the admiration of Martin Luther King Jr. for her portrayal of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, has died. She was 89.
Nichols, who earlier sang and danced as a performer with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, died Saturday night of natural causes, her son, Kyle Johnson, posted on her official Facebook page.
“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 Sunday. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.” (Read tributes to the late actress here.)
A family spokesman told The Hollywood Reporter that she died in Silver City, New Mexico. She had been living with her son and was recently hospitalized.
Nichols played a person of authority on television at a time when most Black women were portraying servants.
She was cast as Uhura by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry after she guest-starred as the fiancee of a Black U.S. Marine who is a victim of racism in a 1964 episode of another NBC show he created, the Camp Pendleton-set The Lieutenant.
(Leonard Nimoy and Ricardo Montalban, two other Star Trek actors, appeared on that short-lived Roddenberry series as well.)
In the 2010 documentary Trek Nation, Nichols said she informed Roddenberry midway through Star Trek’s first season of 1966-67 that she wanted to quit the show and return to the musical theater, which she called “her first love.”
However, a chance meeting with King at an NAACP fundraiser — who knew he was a Trekker? — led Nichols to stay put.
“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 recalled. “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.’
“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.’”
Said Roddenberry in the 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 played Nyota Uhura, who hailed from the United States of Africa in the future, on all three seasons of the series, which featured a multi-ethnic, multiracial crew manning the deck of the Starship Enterprise.
She reprised the role in all six of the Star Trek films from 1979 through 1991, on animated series and several video games, and on a 2002 episode of Futurama.
In the three recent Star Trek films directed by J.J. Abrams and Justin Lin, Uhura was portrayed by Zoe Saldaña. (Celia Rose Gooding plays her in the new Paramount+ series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.)
On the original Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which first aired in November 1968, Uhura and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) shared a rare, for the time, interracial kiss on television. (They couldn’t help themselves; according to the plot, aliens made them do it.)
When NBC execs learned about the kiss during production, they feared stations in the Southern states would not air the episode, so they ordered that another version of the scene be filmed. But Nichols and Shatner purposely screwed up every additional take.
“Finally, the guys in charge relented: ‘To hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss,” Nichols wrote in her 1994 book, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. “I guess they figured we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.”
In the mid-1970s, after Nichols took NASA to task in a speech for not reaching out to women and minorities, the organization asked her to serve as a recruiter.
“I went everywhere,” she said. “I went to universities that had strong science and engineering programs. I was a guest at NORAD [the North American Aerospace Defense Command], where no civilian had gone before.
“At the end of the recruitment, NASA had so many highly qualified people. They took six women, they took three African-American men. … It was a very fulfilling accomplishment for me.”
Among those who applied to NASA thanks to Nichols were Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka. A documentary about her efforts, Woman in Motion, premiered in 2018.
Born Grace Nichols on Dec. 28, 1932, in the Chicago suburb of Robbins, Illinois, she studied dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy. As a teenager, she toured as a dancer with Ellington and Lionel Hampton, then sang for the first time with Ellington’s band when a performer became ill at the last minute.
She danced with Sammy Davis Jr. in Porgy and Bess (1959), was a dice player in James Garner’s Mister Buddwing (1966) and played the foul-mouthed head of a prostitution ring who puts a hit out on Isaac Hayes in Truck Turner (1974). In 1968, she recorded an album, Down to Earth.
Nichols appeared as the grandmother of avenging angel Monica Dawson (Dana Davis), who has the power to mimic any physical motion she witnesses, on the NBC series Heroes.
Her more recent film appearances came in Snow Dogs (2002), Are We There Yet? (2005) and This Bitter Earth (2012).
Survivors include her son, who starred in the Gordon Parks film The Learning Tree (1969). The Los Angeles Times reported in August that he was at the center of a conservatorship battle over his mom, who had lived in Woodland Hills.
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