Nichelle Nichols, one of the first Black actresses to appear in a leading role on a television series and whose Lt. Uhura shared one of the first onscreen interracial kisses on “Star Trek,” has died. The star of the original “Star Trek” series was 89.
Her son announced her death on social media Sunday.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” Kyle Johnson wrote on Instagram Sunday. “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. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
He signed it “Live long and prosper,” a mantra from the iconic series.
Nichols was one of the first African-American women to be featured in a commanding role on television. And command she did: Lt. Nyota Uhura, whose surname was derived from a Swahili word for “freedom,” could staff any station on the bridge of the USS Enterprise when needed.
Nichols, born in Robbins, Ill., started out studying dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy as a teenager. There she caught the eye of jazz legend Duke Ellington, and signed onto his tour as a ballet dancer.
She eventually became his lead singer on tours throughout North America and Europe. She danced in Sammy Davis Jr.’s 1959 movie version of “Porgy and Bess” and acted in several other films and television series before being cast for in the memorable role on the original “Star Trek.”
In one of many television taboos that “Star Trek” dispensed with, Nichols and William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk shared one of television’s first interracial kisses. Granted, they were forced to kiss by the aliens controlling their movements in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” but it proved a groundbreaking moment nonetheless.
The sci-fi series ran for just three years, from 1966-1969, but Nichols, like most of her colleagues, stayed with the franchise throughout the decades. She appeared in six movie sequels, starting with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979. This time Uhura was promoted to lieutenant commander, and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” saw Uhura as a full commander.
Nichols also voiced Uhura in “Star Trek: The Animated Series” and was a regular at “Star Trek” fan conventions. Her last convention appearance was in December as part of a three-day farewell celebration at L.A. Comic-Con. She waved, blew kisses and flashed them the series’ ubiquitous four-fingered Vulcan salute.
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The actress often recalled nearly leaving “Star Trek” after the first season to pursue her first love, Broadway. But series fan the Rev. Martin Luther King convinced her to stay because of her character’s ability to open doors for other Black actors.
One of those inspired was Whoopi Goldberg, who would appear in later “Star Trek” incarnations as Guinan. She has said she saw Uhura as a role model, a Black woman television character with heft.
Nichols’ space odyssey didn’t end with “Star Trek.” She kept her connection to the cosmos in real life, serving as a NASA recruiter for many years in bringing minorities and women into the astronaut corps.
Among the family and friends present at her December farewell appearance was former astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, one of the beneficiaries of Nichols’ recruitment activism.
Among the mourners Sunday was George Takei, who played the original Lt. Sulu on the show and whose sentiments echoed many.
“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,” Takei tweeted. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
With News Wire Services