Nichelle Nichols, ‘Star Trek’ Pioneering Actress, Days At 89

“Star Trek” pioneer actor and lawyer specializing in space exploration Nichelle Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89 years old.

His death was first announced by his son, Kyle Johnson, the Facebook and then confirmed to Variety by its talent manager and business partner, Gilbert Bell.

“Last night my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” Johnson said. wrote on the official Nichols Facebook and Instagram Pages on Sunday. “Its light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn and be inspired by.”

“His was a life well lived and as such a role model for all of us,” he added. “I and the rest of our family would appreciate your patience and indulgence as we mourn his loss until we can recover enough to talk more.”

Born Grace Dell Nichols on December 1. Born on December 28, 1932 near Chicago, Nichols was a multi-talented performer.

His entertainment career began when she was only 16, as a singer with Duke Ellington in a ballet she created for one of his compositions. Although she would continue to work as a model and dancer, Nichols toured internationally as a singer with the big bands led by Ellington and Lionel Hampton.

Nichols made his film debut opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1959 film “Porgy and Bess” and began working in television a few years later. She was then cast in the role of a lifetime as Lt. Nyota Uhura, communications officer on the Starship Enterprise, in the original “Star Trek” television series.

African-American women had appeared on television before, but they were usually cast as servants. When “Star Trek” debuted in 1966, Nichols’ prominent role in a prime-time series marked a milestone in television.

Academy Award-winning actor and comedian Whoopi Goldberg credits Nichols with inspiring her own acting career.

“When I was 9 years old, ‘Star Trek’ came out. I watched it and I shouted through the house, ‘Come here, mom, everyone, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on tv and she’s not a good one!‘” Goldberg said. “I knew right away that I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Nichols stayed with “Star Trek” throughout its original run, which ended in 1969, and made guest appearances in subsequent “Star Trek” films.

However, she originally planned to quit after her first year on the show. As Nichols explained in a 2011 PBS interview, she changed her mind after a chance encounter at an NAACP event.

“One of the promoters came over and said somebody wanted to meet me. I said he was my biggest fan,” Nichols said. “I thought it was a Trekker, a kid. I turned around in my seat and there it was. Dr. Martin Luther King jr. with a big smile on his face. He said, ‘I’m a Trekker, I’m your biggest fan.’ »

King encouraged Nichols to stay with the show.

“He was telling me why I couldn’t [resign]“, she recalls. “I said I had the non-stereotypical leading role, I had a role with honor, dignity and intelligence. He said, ‘You just can’t abdicate, it’s an important role. It’s why we walk. We never thought we would see this on TV.

In November 1968, Nichols made history when her “Star Trek” character kissed Captain James T. Kirk, played by white actor William Shatner. The scene is often cited as the first interracial kiss on american tv.

During her long acting career, Nichols appeared in several other small-screen and big-screen productions, including the NBC series “Heroes” and films like “The Supernaturals” and “The Bitter Earth.” She also lends her voice to animated programs like “Futurama” and “Batman: The Animated Series”.

Nichols as Lt.  Nyota Uhura and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek episode "Journey to Babel," originally aired Nov. 17, 1967.
Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura and William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek episode “Journey to Babel”, which originally aired November 1. 17, 1967.

CBS/Getty Images Photo Archive

Nichols may be best remembered for her career in entertainment, but she also leaves a different legacy: as a woman who dedicated decades of her life to championing space exploration, especially to women and minorities.

A lover of all things space, Nichols served on the National Space Society Board of Governors, a non-profit space advocacy organization, and was reportedly an active leader of the now defunct Space Cadets of America. She also started a consulting firm, Women in Motion, which partnered with NASA to recruit minority and female staff for the space agency. His recruits included Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut in space, and Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut.

Nichols received the NASA Distinguished Award Public Service Award for his efforts in this area. She even had an asteroid named in her honor.

In recent years, Nichols had given up on public and professional appearances amid a series of health issues. She is said to have battled dementia since 2013 and had a mild stroke two years later. Until his death, Nichols was in the midst of a bitter tutelage battle on his succession between his longtime talent manager Bell and his son amid elder abuse allegations; it has sparked renewed interest in the midst of the #FreeBritney movement around Britney Spears.

She made him last public appearance at Comic-Con in Los Angeles in December 2021 as part of a three-day farewell celebration honoring his pioneering career.