Nichelle Nichols, who broke barriers for black women in Hollywood as Lieutenant Ora’s communications officer on the original TV series “Star Trek,” has died at the age of 89.
Her son, Kyle Johnson, said Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. But her light, like ancient galaxies now seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn and be inspired by,” Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page on Sunday. “It’s been a good life, and therefore a role model for all of us.”
Her role in the 1966-1969 series earned her a place of lifelong honor with rabid fans of the series, known as Trekkers and Trekkies. She also won honors for breaking stereotypes that limited black women to acting roles as maids and included an on-screen interracial kiss with then-unheard of co-star William Shatner.
Shatner tweeted on Sunday: “I am so sorry to hear of Nichelle’s passing. She was a beautiful woman and played a wonderful character who did so much to redefine social issues here in the US and around the world.”
George Takei, who shared the USS Enterprise Bridge with her as Solo on the original “Star Trek” series, described her as groundbreaking and incomparable. “Today, my heart is heavy, and my eyes shine like the stars in which they rest now, my dearest friend,” he wrote on Twitter.
Nichols’ influence has been felt far beyond her direct co-stars, and many others in the “Star Trek” universe have also tweeted their condolences.
Celia Rose Gooding, who currently plays Aura in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, tweeted that Nichols “made room for so many of us. It was a reminder that not only can we reach for the stars, but our influence is essential to their survival. Forget shaking the table, I built her.”
Star Trek: Voyager alum Kate Mulgrew tweeted, “Nichelle Nichols was the first. She was a pioneer who traversed a challenging trail with determination, grace and a brilliant fire we are unlikely to see again.”
Like other original cast members, Nichols has also appeared in six spin-offs on the big screen beginning in 1979 with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and frequenting “Star Trek” fan conventions. She also worked for many years as a female recruit at NASA, helping to bring minorities and women into the astronaut corps.
Nichols has broken barriers for black women in Hollywood
Most recently, she played a recurring role on the TV show “Heroes”, playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mysterious powers.
The original “Star Trek” premiered on NBC on September 8, 1966. The multicultural and multi-ethnic cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the far future—the thirteenth century—human diversity will be fully acceptable.
“I think a lot of people took it in heart…that what was said on TV at the time was cause for celebration,” Nichols said in 1992 when “Star Trek” was on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
You often remember how Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the show and praised her role. She met him at a civil rights rally in 1967, at a time when she decided not to return for the second season of the show.
She told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview, “When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and was leaving the show, he got really serious and said, ‘You can’t do that.'”
“You changed the face of television forever, and in turn, changed people’s minds,” the civil rights leader told her.
“That insight into Dr. King was a thunderbolt in my life,” Nichols said.
During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner captain James Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to be aired on an American television series. In the episode, “Plato’s Stepson,” their characters, who have always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced to kiss by aliens who were controlling their actions.
Eric Diggans, a television critic for NPR, told The Associated Press in 2018, that the kiss “suggests that there is a future where these issues aren’t that important.” We were kissing a white man… In this utopian-like future, we solved this problem. We are out. That was a great message to send.”
Fearing a backlash from southern television stations, the announcers wanted to film a second shot of the scene where the off-screen kiss occurred. But Nichols said in her book, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, that she and Shatner deliberately missed lines to force the use of the original image.
Despite concerns, the episode aired without reaction. Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archives of American Television:
Grace Dale Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, and Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in a 2010 interview. When she was a teen, her mother told her she wanted to name her Michelle, but she thought it was It should have her initials like Marilyn Monroe, which Nichols loved. Hence, “Nichelle”.
Nichols made her professional debut as a singer and dancer in Chicago at the age of 14, moving to New York nightclubs and working for some time with the bands Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before coming to Hollywood for her first movie in 1959 titled “Porgy and Bess” Her first film and television roles Young led to her star in “Star Trek”.
Nichols was known to not be afraid to stand up to Shatner on set when others complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time. They later learn that she has a staunch supporter in the show maker.
In her 1994 book, Beyond Uhura, she said she met Roddenberry when she guest-starred on his show “The Lieutenant,” and the two had an affair two years before Star Trek began. The two remained close friends for life.
Fans of Nichols and the show include future astronaut Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman in space when she flew on the shuttle Endeavor in 1992.
In an interview with the Associated Press prior to her trip, Jemison said she had been watching Nichols on “Star Trek” the whole time, adding that she loved the show. Eventually, Jameson met Nichols.
Nichols was a regular at “Star Trek” conventions and events until her 80s, but her schedule became limited starting in 2018 when her son announced that she had advanced dementia.
Nichols was placed under court guardianship under the control of her son Johnson, who said her mental decline made her unable to manage her affairs or appear in public.
Some, including Nichols’ managers and her friend, film producer and actress Angelique Fawcett, objected to the custody and sought greater access to Nichols and records of Johnson’s financial and other moves on her behalf. Her name was sometimes invoked at court rallies that sought to free Britney Spears from her will.
But the court consistently sided with Johnson, and over Fawcett’s objections allowed him to move Nichols to New Mexico, where she lived with him in her later years.
Contributing writer Andrew Dalton to Associated Press Entertainment from Los Angeles. Former Associated Press writer Polly Anderson contributed biographical material to this report.
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