Nichelle Nichols, Uhura in the ‘Star Trek’ franchise, dies at 89

Nichelle Nichols, an actress whose role as communications chief Uhura in the original “Star Trek” franchise in the 1960s helped break new ground in television by showing a black woman in a position of authority and who shared with the co- star William Shatner one of the first interracial kissers on American primetime television, died July 30 in Silver City, NM She was 89.

His son, Kyle Johnson, announced the death on Facebook. His former agent Zachery McGinnis also confirmed the death but did not provide further details. Ms Nichols had a stroke in 2015.

Ms. Nichols, a statuesque dancer and nightclub singer, had some acting credits when she was cast in “Star Trek.” She said she viewed the TV series as a “nice stepping stone” to Broadway stardom, barely anticipating that a low-tech sci-fi show would become a cultural touchstone and bring her lasting recognition.

“Star Trek” crossed barriers in many ways. While other network programs of the time featured house witches and talking horses, “Star Trek” delivered allegorical tales of violence, prejudice and war – the troubling social issues of the time – under the guise of covered in a 23rd century intergalactic adventure. The show featured black and Asian actors in supporting but nonetheless visible and non-stereotypical roles.

Ms. Nichols worked with series creator Gene Roddenberry, her former lover, to imbue Uhura with authority – a stark departure for a black television actress when “Star Trek” debuted on NBC in 1966. actress Whoopi Goldberg has often said that when she saw “Star Trek” as a teenager, she yelled at her family, “Come quick, come quick. There’s a black lady on TV and it’s not a good !

On the deck of the Enterprise spacecraft, wearing a red mini dress that allowed her to flaunt her dancing legs, Ms Nichols stood out among the otherwise all-male officers. Uhura was presented neutrally as the fourth in command, illustrating a hopeful future when black people enjoyed full equality.

The show received lackluster reviews and ratings and was canceled after three seasons, but became a television mainstay in syndication. An animated “Star Trek” aired in the early 1970s, with Ms. Nichols voicing Uhura. Fan communities known as “Trekkies” or “Trekkers” soon sprang up at large-scale conventions where they dressed up as characters.

Ms. Nichols reprized Uhura, promoted from lieutenant to commander, in six feature films between 1979 and 1991 that helped make “Star Trek” a juggernaut. She was joined by much of the original cast, which included Shatner as heroic Captain James T. Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy as half-human, half-Vulcan science officer Spock; DeForest Kelley as the acerbic Dr. McCoy; George Takei as helmsman of the Enterprise, Sulu; James Doohan as Chief Engineer, Scotty; and Walter Koenig as navigator, Chekov.

Ms Nichols said Roddenberry allowed her to name Uhura, which she said was a feminized version of a Swahili word for ‘freedom’. She imagined her character as a renowned linguist who, from a flashing console on the bridge, presides over a communications staff hidden in the bowels of the spacecraft.

But by the end of the first season, she said, her role had been reduced to little more than a “glorified telephone operator in space,” remembered for her oft-quoted line to the captain, “Hailing frequencies open, sir.”

In her 1994 memoir, “Beyond Uhura”, she said that, during filming, her lines and those of the other supporting actors were regularly cut off. She blamed Shatner, whom she called an “insensitive and hurtful egomaniac” who used his stardom to hog the limelight. She also said studio staff tried to undermine her contract bargaining power by hiding her extensive fan mail.

Years later, Ms. Nichols claimed in interviews that she threatened to quit in the first season, but reconsidered after meeting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. at a fundraiser. of NAACP funds. She said he came off as a fan and was visibly horrified when she explained his desire to give up his role, one of the few non-menial roles for black people on television.

“Because of Martin,” she told the “Entertainment Tonight” website, “I looked at work differently. There was something more than just a job.

His most significant “Star Trek” moment came in a 1968 episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” about a group of “superior” beings who use mind control to compel the crew of the ‘Enterprise visiting to submit to their will. They force Kirk and Uhura, platonic colleagues, to kiss passionately.

Over the next few decades, Ms. Nichols and Shatner touted the kiss as a highly controversial historical event within the network. It caught little public attention at the time, perhaps because of the show’s lukewarm ratings, but also because Hollywood films had already broken such taboos. A year before the “Star Trek” episode, NBC aired Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. giving each other a kiss on the lips during a special.

“Star Trek” went off the air in 1969, but Ms. Nichols’ continued association with Uhura at Trekkie conventions led to a contract with NASA in 1977 to help recruit women and minorities into the fledgling corps of space shuttle astronauts.

NASA historians said her recruiting campaign – the first since 1969 – had many facets and that the specific impact of Ms Nichols as a goodwill ambassador was modest. But the 1978 astronaut class had six women, three black men and one Asian American man among the 35 chosen.

Grace Dell Nichols, the daughter of a chemist and homemaker, was born in Robbins, Illinois on December 28, 1932, and grew up in nearby Chicago.

After studying classical ballet and Afro-Cuban dance, she made her professional debut at the age of 14 at the College Inn, a high-society supper club in Chicago. Her performance, in tribute to pioneering black dancer Katherine Dunham, reportedly impressed bandleader Duke Ellington, who was in the audience. A few years later, newly renamed Nichelle, she appeared briefly in his traveling show as a dancer and singer.

At 18, she married Foster Johnson, a tap dancer 15 years her senior. They had a son before divorcing. As a single mother, Ms Nichols continued to work the nightclub circuit.

In the late 1950s, she moved to Los Angeles and entered a cultural milieu that included Pearl Bailey, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr., with whom she had what she described as a “short, stormy and exciting”. She landed an uncredited role in director Otto Preminger’s film version of “Porgy and Bess” (1959) and assisted her then-boyfriend, actor and director Frank Silvera, in his stage productions.

In 1963, she won a guest role in “The Lieutenant”, an NBC military drama created by Roddenberry. She began an affair with Roddenberry, who was married, but broke up when she found out he was also seriously involved with actress Majel Barrett. “I couldn’t be the other woman for the other woman,” she wrote in “Beyond Uhura.” (Roddenberry later married Barrett, who played a nurse on “Star Trek.”)

Ms. Nichols’ second marriage, to songwriter and arranger Duke Mondy, ended in divorce. Besides her son, Kyle Johnson, an actor who starred in writer-director Gordon Parks’ 1969 film “The Learning Tree,” a full list of survivors was not immediately available.

After her role in ‘Star Trek’, Ms Nichols played a tough madam opposite Isaac Hayes in the 1974 blacksploitation film ‘Truck Turner’. For many years she presented a solo show honoring black artists such as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Leontyne Price. She was also credited as co-author of two science fiction novels featuring a heroine named Saturna.

Ms Nichols did not appear in director JJ Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ film reboot which featured actress Zoe Saldana as Uhura. But she bravely continued to promote the franchise and spoke candidly about her role in a role that eclipsed all of her others.

“If you’re going to be pigeonholed,” Ms. Nichols told UPI’s news service, “at least he’s someone worthy.”

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