Groundbreaking ‘Star Trek’ icon Nichelle Nichols dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols was a Black woman in Hollywood who broke all barriers when she played Lt. Uhura, a communications officer on the original Star TrekTelevision series has ended at the age 89.

Kyle Johnson, her son, said Nichols had died in Silver City (New Mexico) on Saturday.

“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. 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,” Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page Sunday. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”

Her role in the 1966-69 series as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifelong position of honor with the series’ rabid fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies. Her role in the series earned her praises for challenging stereotypes that limited Black women’s roles to those of servants. It even featured an intersex kiss between William Shatner and Nichols, which was unusual at that time.

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

Takei played Sulu during the original Star TrekSeries alongside Nichols. Her impact was felt by many beyond her co-stars and others within the series. Star TrekWorld also shared condolences on Twitter

Celia Rose Gooding is currently playing Uhura. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, wrote on Twitter that Nichols “made room for so many of us. Her example was a reminder of the importance of our influence in ensuring that we can reach the stars and not just their survival. Forget shaking the table, she built it.”

Nichelle Nichols, Actor, speaks at the Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention held at The Westin O’Hare, Rosemont, Ill. on June 8, 2014.

Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP


Star Trek Voyager alum Kate Mulgrew tweeted, “Nichelle Nichols was The First. She was a trailblazer who navigated a very challenging trail with grit, grace, and a gorgeous fire we are not likely to see again.”

As with other cast members, Nichols appeared in six spinoffs on big screen that began in 1979. Star Trek: The Motion PictureAnd frequented Star TrekConventions for fans. Her many years of service as a NASA recruiter helped to bring women and minorities into the NASA astronaut corps.

More recently, she had a recurring role on television’s HeroesPlaying the role of the great aunt to a boy who has mystical abilities.

The original Star TrekOn September 8, 1966, the show premiered at NBC. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the far-off future — the 23rd century — human diversity would be fully accepted.

“I think many people took it into their hearts … that what was being said on TV at that time was a reason to celebrate,” Nichols said in 1992 when a Star TrekSmithsonian Institution, Washington.

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Many times, she recalled Martin Luther King Jr. being a big fan and complimented her for it. She met him at a civil rights gathering in 1967, at a time when she had decided not to return for the show’s second season.

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

“’You’ve changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you’ve changed the minds of people,’” she said the civil rights leader told her.

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

During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Capt. James Kirk had what was called the first ever interracial kiss broadcast on U.S. TV. This episode features: Plato’s Stepchildren, their characters, who always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced into the kiss by aliens who were controlling their actions.

Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner in ‘Star Trek’ episode ‘Plato’s stepchildren.’

CBS/Getty Images

The kiss “suggested that there was a future where these issues were not such a big deal,” Eric Deggans, a television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018. “The characters themselves were not freaking out because a Black woman was kissing a white man … In this utopian-like future, we solved this issue. We’re beyond it. That was a wonderful message to send.”

The showrunners worried about Southern stations’ reactions wanted to film another take of the scene that featured the kiss off-screen. Nichols wrote in her book: Beyond Uhura, Star Trek and Other MemoriesShatner and her deliberately forgot lines so that the original interpretation could be applied.

It aired without controversy, in spite of concerns. In fact, it got the most “fan mail that Paramount had ever gotten on Star Trek for one episode,” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.

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Shatner tweeted Sunday: “I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world.”

Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. Her mother had told her that she wanted her to call her Michelle as a teenager, but she thought it would be more appropriate to give her alliterative initials, like Marilyn Monroe. Nichols was fond of Marilyn Monroe. Hence, “Nichelle.”

Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14, moving on to New York nightclubs and working for a time with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands before coming to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959’s Porgy and BessShe was the first of many small roles in TV and film that would lead to her role. Star Trek stardom.

Nichols was well-known for standing up to Shatner while others complained about him stealing camera time and scenes. They later learned she had a strong supporter in the show’s creator.

She wrote the 1994 book Uhura beyondRoddenberry, according to Roddenberry’s account of her meeting Roddenberry while she was a guest on his program The LieutenantThey had an affair several years ago. Star Trek began. They remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

Future astronaut Mae Jemison was another fan of Nichols’ show. She became the first Black woman to fly in space aboard the Shuttle. Enduring1992

Nichelle Nichols supports striking Writers Guild of America members outside Paramount Pictures Studios in Los Angeles, December 10, 2007.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

Jemison claimed that she saw Nichols in an interview with AP before her flight Star TrekShe loved it all, and she said so every day. Jemison finally met Nichols.

Nichols was always at the event. Star TrekConventions and other events were her regular activities until her 80th birthday, but she became less active after her son revealed that her mother was now suffering from advanced dementia.

Nichols was given a conservatorship order by Johnson to protect her from her son’s mental illness. Johnson said Nichols couldn’t manage her affairs nor make public appearances due to her mental decline.

Some, including Nichols’ managers and her friend, film producer and actor Angelique Fawcett, objected to the conservatorship and sought more access to Nichols and to records of Johnson’s financial and other moves on her behalf. Britney was often called her name at rallies at the courthouse, where she sought to be released from Britney’s conservatorship.

The court ruled in favor of Johnson and allowed Fawcett to transfer Nichols from New Mexico to her, where she spent the last years with him.

— With additional reporting by Andrew Dalton and Polly Anderson

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