Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ dies at 89
By Bruce Weber
Nichelle Nichols, the actress revered by “Star Trek” fans everywhere for her role as Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer on the starship USS Enterprise, died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89.
The cause was heart failure, said Sky Conway, a writer and a film producer who was asked by Kyle Johnson, Nichols’ son, to speak for the family.
Nichols had a long career as an entertainer, beginning as a teenage supper-club singer and dancer in Chicago, her hometown, and later appearing on television.
But she will forever be best remembered for her work on “Star Trek,” the cult-inspiring space adventure series that aired from 1966-69 and starred William Shatner as Captain Kirk, the heroic leader of the starship crew; Leonard Nimoy (who died in 2015) as his science officer and adviser, Mr. Spock, an ultralogical humanoid from the planet Vulcan; and DeForest Kelley (who died in 1999) as Dr. McCoy, aka Bones, the ship’s physician.
A striking beauty, Nichols provided a frisson of sexiness on the bridge of the Enterprise. She was generally clad in a snug red doublet and black tights; on its 1967 cover, Ebony magazine called her the “most heavenly body in ‘Star Trek.’” Her role, however, was both substantial and historically significant.
Uhura was an officer and a highly educated and well-trained technician who maintained a businesslike demeanor while performing her high-minded duties. Nichols was among the first Black women to have a leading role on a network television series, making her an anomaly on the small screen, which until that time had rarely depicted Black women in anything other than subservient roles.
In a November 1968 episode, during the show’s third and final season, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura are forced to embrace by the inhabitants of a strange planet, resulting in what is widely thought to be the first interracial kiss in television history.
Nichols’ first appearances on “Star Trek” predated the 1968 sitcom “Julia,” in which Diahann Carroll, playing a widowed mother who works as a nurse, became the first Black woman to star in a nonstereotypical role in a network series.
Grace Dell Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, on Dec. 28, 1932 (some sources give a later year), and grew up in Chicago. Her father was, for a time, the mayor of Robbins, and a chemist. At 13 or 14, tired of being called Gracie by her friends, she requested a different name from her mother, who liked Michelle but suggested Nichelle for the alliteration.
She was a ballet dancer as a child and had a singing voice with a naturally wide range — more than four octaves, she later said. While still attending Englewood High School, she landed her first professional gig in a revue at the College Inn, a well-known Chicago night spot.
There she was seen by Duke Ellington, who employed her a year or two later with his touring orchestra as a dancer in one of his jazz suites.
Nichols appeared in several musical theater productions around the country during the 1950s. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, she recalled performing at the Playboy Club in New York City while serving as an understudy for Carroll in the Broadway musical “No Strings” (although she never went on).
In 1959, she was a dancer in Otto Preminger’s film version of “Porgy and Bess.” She made her television debut in 1963 in an episode of “The Lieutenant,” a short-lived dramatic series about Marines at California’s Camp Pendleton and created by Gene Roddenberry, who went on create “Star Trek.”
Uhura was to be her legacy: A decade after “Star Trek” went off the air, Nichols reprised the role in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and she appeared as Uhura, by then a commander, in five subsequent movie sequels through 1991.
Besides a son, her survivors include two sisters, Marian Smothers and Diane Robinson.
Nichols was married and divorced twice. In her 1995 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” she disclosed that she and Roddenberry, who died in 1991, had been romantically involved for a time. In an interview in 2010 for the Archive of American Television, she said that he had little to do with her casting in “Star Trek” but that he defended her when studio executives wanted to replace her.
At the time she took the role of Uhura, Nichols said, she thought of it as a mere job, valuable as a resume enhancer, but she fully intended to return to the stage; she wanted a career on Broadway. Indeed, she threatened to leave the show after its first season and gave Roddenberry her resignation. He told her to think it over for a few days.
In a story she often told, that Saturday night, she was a guest at an event in Beverly Hills — “I believe it was an NAACP fundraiser,” she recalled in the Archive interview — where the organizer introduced her to someone he described as “your biggest fan.”
“He’s desperate to meet you,” she recalled the organizer saying.
The fan, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., introduced himself.
“He said, ‘We admire you greatly, you know,’” Nichols said, and she thanked him and told him that she was about to leave the show. “He said, ‘You cannot. You cannot.’”
King told her that her role as a dignified, authoritative figure in a popular show was too important to the cause of civil rights for her to forgo. As Nichols recalled it, he said, “For the first time, we will be seen on television the way we should be seen every day.”
On Monday morning, she returned to Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened.
“And I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.’”