Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek Icon and NASA Advocate, Has Passed
Hailing frequencies have now closed. Nichelle Nichols, best known as Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek TV series and the first six movies, died of natural causes last night. Her son Kyle Johnson announced the sad news on her official website. (The site quickly overloaded to capacity, and the announcement reposted on her official Facebook page.) The actress had been diagnosed with dementia in 2018.
Nichols began her career as a stage actress and a singer with the likes of Duke Ellington. An appearance on Gene Roddenberry’s first TV series The Lieutenant — and a brief romantic involvement with him –would ultimately lead to Star Trek. There, she blazed a trail as one of the first black series regulars on American TV, part of Roddenberry’s vision to show an optimistic future where racial and cultural prejudices no longer existed. On the show, she participated in what is widely believed to be the first interracial kiss between a white man and a black woman on a scripted American TV series, when Uhura and Captain Kirk are forced into it by powerful alien beings.
Though she considered leaving the show to do Broadway, Nichols very famously changed her mind due to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A fan of the show, he met her at an NAACP event and convinced her how important it was for black people to see her in that kind of role. She subsequently stuck with Trek through all three seasons, the animated series, and six subsequent feature films. Several significant genre voice-acting roles since include the part of Elisa Maza’s mother Diane on Gargoyles.
Like many Star Trek alumni, Nichols recorded some music albums, though unlike some others, she could actually sing. In The Firm’s infamous parody song “Star Trekkin’,” it is an Uhura impersonator who sings the chorus line, “There’s Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow…”
In addition to acting, Nichols became so passionate about real-life space travel that she volunteered for NASA. Working with the organization to recruit diverse astronauts, she helped to bring aboard the likes of Sally Ride. Her NASA work is featured in the documentary Women in Motion.
And Uhura has become such an iconic character that she continues even after her original actress has gone. Zoe Saldana played an alternate-timeline version of the character in three movies, and Celia Rose Gooding continues to play her on the prequel series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
Nichelle Nichols was 89, and an inspiration. Please feel free to share some of your favorite memories of her below.