Nichelle Nichols, breakthrough ‘Star Trek’ actress, dies aged 89

Nichelle Nichols, breakthrough ‘Star Trek’ actress, dies aged 89

“Last night my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and died. However, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, their light will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and draw inspiration from,” Johnson said in a statement released on Sunday shared on Nichols’ official website. “Her life was a life well lived and as such a role model for all of us.”

Nichols died of natural causes, he said.

Nichols portrayed communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the TV series “Star Trek” and many of its film offshoots.

When Star Trek began in 1966, Nichols was a television rarity: a black woman in a notable role in a prime-time television series. There have been African American women on television before, but they often played domestic workers and had small roles; Nichols’ Uhura was an integral part of the multicultural “Star Trek” crew.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the first non-stereotypical role by a black woman in television history.”

Nichols is widely known for having participated in one of the first interracial kisses on US television when her character kissed James T. Kirk, portrayed by white Canadian actor William Shatner. In a 2014 interview with CNN, Nichols said the kissing scene “changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at each other.”

After three seasons of Trek, Nichols turned his attention to the space program. She helped NASA diversify the agency, helping recruit astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, and Guion Bluford, among others.

George Takei, who portrayed USS Enterprise’s helmsman Hikaru Sulu, posted a touching tribute to his co-star.

“I’ll have more to say about the groundbreaking, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who served as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise shared the bridge with us and died today at the age of 89.” wrote Takei on Twitter. “For today my heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars under which you now rest, my dearest friend.”

“We lived together for a long time and we’ve been successful,” he added with a photo of the couple doing the iconic Vulcan salute.

'Star Trek' Turns 50: Like Trekker - Not "trekkies"  please -- pioneered the frontier of fan cultureThe National Air and Space Museum called Nichols “an inspiration to many, not only for her pioneering work on Star Trek, but also through her work with NASA to recruit women and people of color to apply to be astronauts”. on twitter.Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, also paid tribute to the actress. “Thank god to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior and amazing actress,” Abrams wrote on Twitter alongside a photo of herself with Nichols. “Your kindness and courage have lighted the way for many. May she dwell among the stars forever.”

Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in 1932 near Chicago. (Dissatisfied with Grace, she took the name Nichelle as a teenager.) Her grandfather was a white Southerner who married a black woman, causing a rift in his family.

Blessed with a vocal range of four octaves, Nichols was already performing at local clubs by the age of 14. Among the artists she met was Duke Ellington, who later took her on tour. She also worked extensively in Chicago clubs and theater.

In the early ’60s she moved to Los Angeles and got a role in a Gene Roddenberry series The Lieutenant. A number of Star Trek veterans including Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig and Majel Barrett also worked on the show.

When Roddenberry created Trek, he remembered Nichols. She was in Europe when she got the call.

“(My agent said, ‘They do Star Trek, and I didn’t know what Star Trek was,'” she said in an interview with Television Academy.

Uhura was not in the original script and Nichols was responsible for the name. She was reading a book called “Uhuru” – “Freedom” in Swahili – and suggested that her character take the name. Roddenberry found it too hard.

“I said, ‘Well, why don’t you change it up, tone down the ending with an ‘A’, and it’ll be Uhura?’ “, she recalled. “He said, ‘That’s it, that’s your name! You gave it a name; it’s yours.’ ”

Nichols is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.