Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols, who broke barriers for black women in Hollywood when she played communications officer Lt. Uhura in the original television series “Star Trek,” has died at the age of 89.

His son Kyle Johnson said Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico.

“Last night my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Yet the light from her, like ancient galaxies now seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and inspire,” Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page on Sunday. “His was a life well lived and as such a model for all of us.”

Her role in the 1966-69 series as Lieutenant Uhura earned Nichols a lifetime position of honor among rabid fans of the series, known as Trekkers and Trekkies. She also earned praise for breaking stereotypes that had limited black women to acting like servants and included an on-screen interracial kiss with co-star William Shatner that had gone unheard of at the time.

“I will have more to say about the pioneering and incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed away today at age 89,” George Takei wrote on Twitter. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars among which you now rest, my dear friend.”

Takei played Sulu in the original “Star Trek” series alongside Nichols. But his impact was felt beyond his immediate castmates, and many others in the “Star Trek” world also tweeted their condolences from him.

Celia Rose Gooding, who currently plays Uhura on “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” wrote on Twitter that Nichols “made room for a lot of us. She was the reminder that not only can we reach the stars, but our influence is essential to their survival. Forget shaking the table, she built it.”

“Star Trek: Voyager” alumna Kate Mulgrew tweeted: “Nichelle Nichols was the first. She was a trailblazer who navigated a very challenging path with grit, grace, and a beautiful fire that we will likely never see again.”

Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spinoffs beginning with 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and frequented “Star Trek” fan conventions. She also served for many years as a recruiter for NASA, helping recruit minorities and women into the astronaut corps.

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Nichols broke barriers for black women in Hollywood

Most recently, she had a recurring role on the television series “Heroes,” playing the great-aunt of a boy with mystical powers.

The original “Star Trek” premiered on NBC on September 8, 1966. Its multi-cultural, multi-racial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the distant future, the 23rd century, human diversity would be fully accepted.

“I think a lot of people took it to heart … that what was being said on television at the time was a reason to celebrate,” Nichols said in 1992 when a “Star Trek” exhibit was displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.

He often recalled how Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the show and praised his role. He met him at a civil rights rally in 1967, at a time when he had decided not to return for the show’s second season.

“When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and leave the show, he got real serious and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview.

“’You’ve changed the face of television forever and thereby changed the way people think,’” he said the civil rights leader told him.

“That foresight that Dr. King had was a lightning bolt in my life,” Nichols said.

During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s captain, James Kirk, shared what was described as the first interracial kiss broadcast on an American television series. In the episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren”, their characters, who always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced to kiss by aliens who controlled their actions.

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AP Entertainment Correspondent Oscar Wells Gabriel reports on Obit Nichelle Nichols

The kiss “suggested there was a future where these issues wouldn’t be as big a deal,” Eric Deggans, a television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018. “The characters themselves weren’t freaked out because a black woman I was kissing a white man… In this utopian future, we solved this problem. We are beyond. That was a wonderful message to send.”

Concerned about the reaction from southern television stations, the showrunners wanted to film a second take of the kissing scene off-screen. But Nichols said in her book, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” that she and Shatner deliberately missed lines to force the use of the original shot.

Despite the concerns, the episode aired without flashback. In fact, it received the most “fan mail Paramount had ever received on ‘Star Trek’ for an episode,” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.

Shatner tweeted on Sunday: “I am so sorry to hear of Nichelle’s passing. She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character who did a lot to redefine social issues both here in the US and around the world.”

Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. As a teenager, her mother told her she wanted to call her Michelle, but thought she should have alliterative initials as Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. She therefore, she “Nichelle”.

Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14, then moved to New York nightclubs and worked for a time with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton’s bands before coming to Hollywood for her feature film debut in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess,” the first of several small film and television roles that propelled her to stardom on “Star Trek.”

Nichols was known for not being afraid to confront Shatner on set when others complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time. They later found out that he had great support in the show’s creator.

In his 1994 book, “Beyond Uhura,” he said he met Roddenberry when he guest-starred on his show “The Lieutenant,” and the two had an affair a couple of years before “Star Trek” began. The two remained close lifelong friends.

Another fan of Nichols and the show was future astronaut Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman in space when she flew aboard the shuttle Endeavor in 1992.

In an interview with AP before his flight, Jemison said he watches Nichols on “Star Trek” all the time, adding that he loved the show. Jemison finally met Nichols.

Nichols was a regular at “Star Trek” conventions and events into her 80s, but her schedule was limited starting in 2018 when her son announced he was suffering from advanced dementia.

Nichols was placed in a conservatorship under the control of her son Johnson, who said her mental decline prevented her from managing her affairs or making public appearances.

Some, including Nichols’s managers and her friend, film producer and actress Angelique Fawcett, opposed the conservatorship and sought more access to Nichols and records of Johnson’s financial and other movements on her behalf. Her name was sometimes invoked at courthouse rallies seeking the release of Britney Spears from her own conservatorship.

But the court always sided with Johnson and, over Fawcett’s objections, allowed him to move Nichols to New Mexico, where he lived with him in his later years.

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Associated Press Entertainment writer Andrew Dalton contributed from Los Angeles. Former AP writer Polly Anderson contributed biographical material to this report.

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