Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek series, as well as in movies and by voicing an animated version of the character, has died at 89.
Her son, Kyle Johnson, announced on Nichols’s Facebook page that she had died July 30. (No cause of death was given.)
Nichols was groundbreaking both as a Black woman co-starring on a TV series in the 1960s — and for one of the early interracial kisses — with William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk.
“[Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry believed in me,” Nichols said on her website. “His belief presented me with a fantastic opportunity: to help conceive and create the groundbreaking role of Uhura on Star Trek, the original series.”
“And my belief was expanded to embrace Gene’s vision of a bright future for humanity. When I was on those wonderful sets with all of the cast members, the universe of Star Trek began to feel not so much a fantasy but an opportunity to lay the groundwork for what we might actually achieve by the 23rd Century … a bold aspiration and an affirmation of Uhura as we eagerly await her arrival.”
That first series only lasted from 1966 to 1968 on NBC, but then lived long and prospered mightily in syndication, spawning movie franchises and numerous spinoffs.
President Joe Biden released a statement praising Nichols:
“In Nichelle Nichols, our nation has lost a trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women,” he said.
“A daughter of a working-class family from Illinois, she first honed her craft as an actor and singer in Chicago before touring the country and the world performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and giving life to the words of James Baldwin.
“During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she shattered stereotypes to become the first Black woman to act in a major role on a primetime television show with her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek. With a defining dignity and authority, she helped tell a central story that reimagined scientific pursuits and discoveries. And she continued this legacy by going on to work with NASA to empower generations of Americans from every background to reach for the stars and beyond.
“Our nation is forever indebted to inspiring artists like Nichelle Nichols, who show us a future where unity, dignity, and respect are cornerstones of every society.“
George Takei, who played navigator Lt. Sulu on the series, said: “I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise. For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
Many have credited Star Trek, which featured a multicultural cast in positions of importance with which many could identify, with fueling their love of space exploration.
“Nichelle Nichols was a trailblazing actress, advocate and dear friend to NASA. At a time when Black women were seldom seen on screen, Nichelle’s portrayal as Nyota Uhura on Star Trek held a mirror up to America that strengthened civil rights,” said NASA administrator and former Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. “Nichelle’s advocacy transcended television and transformed NASA. After Apollo 11, Nichelle made it her mission to inspire women and people of color to join this agency, change the face of STEM and explore the cosmos. Nichelle’s mission is NASA’s mission. Today, as we work to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon under Artemis, NASA is guided by the legacy of Nichelle Nichols.”
The Smithsonian tweeted a photo of the Uhura uniform in its collection with a note:
Today we remember Nichelle Nichols. She starred as Lieutenant Uhura on "Star Trek" wearing this uniform now in our @NMAAHC, making history for African American women in TV and film. Nichols also volunteered to recruit women and people of color for NASA. #BecauseOfHerStory pic.twitter.com/fZZqfGlomzJuly 31, 2022
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.