Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in ‘Star Trek’ franchise, dies aged 89

Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in ‘Star Trek’ franchise, dies aged 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 portraying a black woman in a position of authority, and who co-starred William Shatner, one of the first to share interracial kisses on American prime-time television, died July 30 in Silver City, NM. She was 89.

Her son Kyle Johnson announced the death on Facebook. Her former agent, Zachery McGinnis, also confirmed the death but had no 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 sees the TV series as a “nice stepping stone” to Broadway fame, and little did she expect a low-tech sci-fi show to become a cultural touchstone and earn her enduring recognition.

Star Trek was groundbreaking in many ways. While other network programs of the era featured house witches and talking horses, “Star Trek” delivered allegorical tales of violence, prejudice and war – the troubling social issues of the era – in the guise of a 23rd century intergalactic adventure. The show featured black and Asian performers in supporting, yet visible, non-stereotypical roles.

Ms. Nichols worked with series creator Gene Roddenberry, her former lover, to bring authority to Uhura – a notable departure for a black TV actress when “Star Trek” debuted on NBC in 1966. Actress Whoopi Goldberg often said this while watching Star Trek growing up, she would yell at her family, “Come on, come on, hurry up. There’s a black lady on TV and she’s not a maid!”

On the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Ms. Nichols stood out among the otherwise all-male officers in a red mini dress that allowed her to show off her dancer legs. Uhura was presented soberly fourth in command, depicting a hopeful future in which blacks would enjoy full equality.

The show received mediocre reviews and ratings and was canceled after three seasons, but it became a TV mainstay in syndication. In the early 1970s, an animated film called “Star Trek” aired, in which Ms. Nichols provided the voice of Uhura. Communities of fans known as “Trekkies” or “Trekkers” soon broke out at large-scale conventions where they dressed in character.

Ms. Nichols reprized Uhura, who was promoted from lieutenant to commander, in six feature films between 1979 and 1991, which helped make “Star Trek” a juggernaut. She was joined by much of the original cast, including Shatner as the heroic Captain, James T. Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy as the half-human, half-Vulcan Science Officer Spock; DeForest Kelley as the bitter Dr. McCoy; George Takei as Enterprise’s helmsman, Sulu; James Doohan as Chief Engineer Scotty; and Walter Koenig as Navigator, Chekov.

Ms Nichols said Roddenberry allowed her to name her Uhura, which she believes is a feminized version of a Swahili word for “freedom”. She envisioned her character as a renowned linguist, projecting from a blinking console on the bridge from a hidden communications staff inside the starship.

But by the end of season one, she said, her role had been reduced to little more than a “glorified space operator,” whom she remembered for her oft-quoted line to the captain: “Hail frequences open sir.”

In her 1994 memoir Beyond Uhura, she said that her lines and those of other supporting actors were routinely cut during filming. She blamed Shatner, whom she called an “uncaring, hurtful selfish person” who used his star reckoning to grab the limelight. She also said that studio staff tried to undermine her contract negotiating power by hiding her copious amounts of fan mail.

Years later, Ms. Nichols claimed in interviews that she threatened to quit in the first season but reconsidered after meeting civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP fundraiser. She said he introduced himself as a fan and was visibly horrified when she explained her desire to quit her role, one of the few non-submissive roles for black people on television.

“Because of Martin,” she told Entertainment Tonight, “I saw the work differently. It was something more than just a job.”

Her most prominent “Star Trek” moment came in a 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which is about a group of “superior” beings who use mind control to get the visiting Enterprise crew to bend to their will. They force Kirk and Uhura, fellow platonics, to kiss passionately.

In later decades, Ms. Nichols and Shatner touted the hickey as a landmark event that was highly controversial within the network. It drew almost no public attention at the time, perhaps because of the show’s tepid 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. kissing each other on the lips during a TV special.

“Star Trek” went off the air in 1969, but Ms. Nichols’ continued association with Uhura at Trekkie conventions resulted in a 1977 NASA contract to help recruit women and minorities into the nascent Space Shuttle astronaut corps.

NASA historians have said that her recruitment campaign – the first since 1969 – had many jags and Ms Nichols’ specific impact as an itinerant ambassador was modest. But the 1978 class of astronauts had six women, three black men and one Asian-American man among the 35 chosen.

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

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

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

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 called a “brief, whirlwind, thrilling” affair would have. She landed an uncredited role in Otto Preminger’s film version of Porgy and Bess (1959) and assisted her then-boyfriend, actor-director Frank Silvera, in his theatrical productions.

In 1963, she won a guest role on The Lieutenant, an NBC military drama created by Roddenberry. She began an affair with Roddenberry, who was married, but broke off the relationship 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. Aside from 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 on Star Trek, Ms. Nichols played a tough madame in the 1974 blacksploitation film Truck Turner opposite Isaac Hayes. For many years she performed a one-woman show honoring black entertainers such as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Leontyne Price. She has also been credited as the co-author of two science fiction novels starring a heroine named Saturna.

Ms. Nichols did not appear in the remake of director JJ Abrams’ Star Trek film, which starred actress Zoe Saldana as Uhura. But she valiantly continued to promote the franchise and spoke openly about her part in a role that eclipsed all of her others.

“If you need to be typed,” Ms Nichols told the UPI news service, “at least it’s someone with dignity.”