Actress Nichelle Nichols – who made history with her portrayal of Nyota Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series— died Saturday, July 30 at the age of 89. Her son Kyle Johnson announced Nichols’ passing on her official Instagram account, saying his mother died of natural causes. (The Los Angeles Times reported the cause of death as heart failure.) Deadline Hollywood confirmed her passing with Gilbert Bell, her talent manager and business partner of 15 years. Nichols suffered a minor stroke in 2015 and was diagnosed with dementia in 2018. After that, she rarely appeared in public.
(Last year we wrote about Woman on the move, a new documentary about Nichols and her NASA recruiting work, directed by Todd Thompson (streaming on Paramount+). Some of the following is taken from that text.)
Nichols started her career as a dancer and singer. She had wanted to be the first black ballerina and at the age of 14 she got her first performance at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. She then toured the US, Canada and Europe with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before settling in Los Angeles in 1960 to pursue acting.
One of Nichols’ first roles was playing a black soldier’s betrothed in a short-lived series called the lieutenant, produced by Gene Roddenberry. The episode (which never aired) was titled “To Set It Right” and explicitly dealt with racial prejudice. So when Roddenberry started developing a new series, originally titled Wagon train to the stars, he thought of her for one of the roles. That show was Star Trekand Nichols made history as Uhura. (In her autobiography, Nichols revealed that she was in a romantic relationship with Roddenberry before he met his wife, Majel Hudec, although the affair ended well before she got into bed. Star Trek.)
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
Nichols nearly dropped out of the series after the first season, frustrated with what she considered to be a constantly diminished role. But a chance meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. changed her mind. “You can’t, you can’t,” she recalls saying when she told him she wanted to leave the series. “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should see every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people, who can sing, dance and go to space, who are professors, lawyers. If you leave, those door can be closed because your role is not a black role, and it is not a female role, he can fill it with anyone, even an alien.”
With co-star William Shatner, Nichols was also involved in what is widely touted as the first scripted interracial kiss on American television in 1968. Terms of Service episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren.” As Cyrus Farivar wrote for Ars in 2018:
The hug scene is often referred to as television’s first interracial kiss, but there’s compelling evidence that it wasn’t. Yet this bisou remains an iconic Star Trek moment at a time in America when there were very few mainstream media depictions of interracial intimacy. After all, “Plato’s Stepchildren” aired just 18 months after the Supreme Court decided the case of Loving v. Virginiawhich overturned all bans on interracial marriages in the United States.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the scene in “Plato’s Stepchildren” was shot one way with the lips of the actors meeting (as the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry wrote) and another where they didn’t. However, actors William Shatner (Kirk) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) both argued over the non-kiss takes so that the director (who was concerned about possible backlash) would be forced to use the real McCoy.
After the original series ended, Nichols lived a 1975 Star Trek convention, where the scientific director of NASA also spoke. He expressed his admiration for Uhura. She, in turn, spoke of her love for space and NASA, but also of her sense of powerlessness. When NASA claimed it couldn’t find qualified black people, Nichols didn’t buy it and insisted that black people and women not sign up for the program because they didn’t believe NASA was serious about giving them a chance. So she became a NASA spokesperson through her company, Women in Motion.
Nichols traveled across the country trying to recruit women and minorities into the shuttle program. When she started, 100 of NASA’s aspiring recruits were women and only 35 minorities. By the time she submitted her final report, that number had grown to 1,649 women and 1,000 minorities out of a group of 8,000.
Among those recruits were Sally Ride and Judith Resnick — the first and second American women in space, respectively — as well as Guion Bluford Jr. and Ron McNair, the first and second black astronauts in space, and Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American in space. room. Colonel Frederick D. Gregory also heeded the call, finishing in three shuttle missions before becoming NASA’s deputy administrator.
McNair, Resnick, and Onizuka were all crew members of the Space Shuttle Challenger for the doomed mission STS-51-L. The shuttle broke up in mid-air just 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, killing everyone on board. Nichols was heartbroken at the loss, especially Resnick, with whom she’d grown so close.
Many actors become stars, but few stars can move a nation. Nichelle Nichols showed us the extraordinary power of black women and paved the way for a brighter future for all women in the media. Thank you, Nichelle. We will miss you. pic.twitter.com/KhUf4YM6pX
— Lynda Carter (@RealLyndaCarter) July 31, 2022
Tributes for Nichols are pouring in, including from George Takeic (who played Hikaru Sulu), LeVar Burton, Kate Mulgrew, Jeri Ryan, Wilson Cruz, JJ Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Adam Nimoy, and Shatner. “I’m so sorry to hear about Nichelle’s passing,” shatner tweeted. “She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character who has done so much to redefine social issues both here in the US and around the world. I will definitely miss her. I send my love and condolences to her family.”
“She has made way for so many of us,” tweeted Celia Rose Goodingwho currently stars as Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. “She was the reminder that not only can we reach the stars, but that our influence is essential to their survival. Forget shaking the table, she built it!”
“We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, pioneer and role model, who for so many symbolized what was possible”, NASA tweeted. “She worked with us to recruit some of the first minority women and astronauts, inspiring generations to reach for the stars.”
In his Instagram post, Kyle Johnson asked for privacy for the family as they struggled with their loss. “Her light … like the ancient galaxies now seen for the first time will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and be inspired by,” he wrote. “Her life was a life well lived and as such a model for all of us.”