Nichelle Nichols – who played communications officer Uhura in Star Trek on television and in the movies – died over the weekend at the age of 89.
Born in Illinois in 1932, Nichols was a skilled singer who worked with Duke Ellington, and eventually joined his band.
Nichols also made a living in musical theater, appearing in acclaimed productions of Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess.
But it was a guest spot on NBC series The Liutenant that changed her career, and her life, as the show’s producer Gene Roddenberry then cast Nichols in his next series, Star Trek.
How Nichelle Nichols made history in Star Trek
As Nyota Uhura, Nichols was one of the first African-American actresses to feature prominently in a major TV series. She played the character in the 1960s TV series, the 1970s animated show, and the 1980s movies, with Uhura working her way up from communications officer to lieutenant commander to full commander.
But Nichols is perhaps most famous for kissing William Shatner in the 1968 episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren.’ As one of the first interracial kisses on American television, the moment caused controversy, and made history.
Speaking about the kiss to EMusic in 2001, (which can be read at Trek Today), Nichols said: “I didn’t think of it as the first interracial kiss. I just got the script, and I said ‘Oh, wow, great! We’re going to get a little romance in here!’
“Not many people know this, but it was originally written as being between Uhura and Spock. But Bill Shatner said ‘Oh no! If anyone is going to get to kiss Nichelle, it’s going to be me!’ And so they rewrote it, and we all laughed about it.”
George Takei pays tribute to his Star Trek co-star
Friends, actors and politicians have been paying tribute to Nichelle Nichols since talent manager Gilbert Bell announced her passing.
George Takei – who played Sulu in Star Trek – 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, and who passed today at age 89. For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
William Shatner – aka Captain Kirk – Tweeted: “I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world. I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family. Bill.”
While President Joe Biden called Nichelle Nichols a “trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women.”
Biden’s statement continued: “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.”