Nichelle Nichols, actress who became a role model for young American black women as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek – obituary

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Nichelle Nichols as Lt Nyota Uhura in Star Trek - CBS via Getty Images
Nichelle Nichols as Lt Nyota Uhura in Star Trek - CBS via Getty Images

Nichelle Nichols, who has died aged 89, starred in the cult 1960s science-fiction series Star Trek – and as the sultry Lieutenant Nyota Uhura planted one of American television’s first interracial kisses on the lips of Captain James T Kirk, played by William Shatner, boldly going where no woman had gone before.

As the black communications officer of the starship USS Enterprise, Nichelle Nichols found herself cast in the United States not only as Uhura but also as a role model for a generation of African American women; the black Oscar-winning film star Whoopi Goldberg hailed her as a life-enhancing social colossus.

Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner in the first scripted white-on-black interracial kiss on American television, in the 1968 Star Trek episode Plato's Stepchildren - CBS via Getty Images
Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner in the first scripted white-on-black interracial kiss on American television, in the 1968 Star Trek episode Plato's Stepchildren - CBS via Getty Images

In Britain, reaction was rather more phlegmatic, the television critic Clive James noting that every week the mini-skirted Uhura would do little but turn leggily from her console on the starship’s bridge (which he rudely likened to a Wimpy Bar) to observe either that all contact with Star Fleet had been lost or regained. This, at least, was a variation on Uhura’s weekly mantra: “Connecting you now, Captain.”

Her steamy encounter with Capt Kirk – in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” – was originally shown in America in November 1968, and while there had been television depictions of whites and Asians kissing, this was the first white-on-black inter-racial kiss ever seen in a scripted show on American television. Predictably it drew much negative attention, and even the NBC network that screened it fretted about reaction in the Deep South.

The kiss was portrayed as involuntary, the result of telekinesis, possibly to avoid any hint of romance that would risk outrage among some sensitive viewers. In his memoirs, Shatner recalled NBC insisting that the couple’s lips never touched (both turned their heads away from the camera). But Nichelle Nichols, in her autobiography Beyond Uhura (written in 1994 after Shatner’s book), insisted that the kiss was real, even in takes where their lips were obscured by her head.

In fact, two versions of the scene were filmed, one with the kiss, the other without. But both Nichelle Nichols and Shatner were so determined to force the network’s hand that they deliberately fluffed every take in the kissless version. Among the hundreds of comments was a single mildly reproving letter from a white Southerner who wrote: “I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.”

Nichelle Nichols as Commander Uhura and Kirstie Alley as Lieutenant Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - CBS via Getty Images
Nichelle Nichols as Commander Uhura and Kirstie Alley as Lieutenant Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - CBS via Getty Images

Grace Dell Nichols was born on December 28 1932 in Robbins, Illinois, where her father was the town mayor and chief magistrate. When she was 16 she wrote a ballet for a musical suite by Duke Ellington, with whom she would later tour as a jazz singer. She studied in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, where she sang at the famous Blue Note and Playboy clubs. She also appeared in the title role for a Chicago theatre company production of Carmen Jones.

As Nichelle Nichols, she toured North America, Canada and Europe, singing with the Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands, and appeared in a West Coast production of the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. “I never did get to meet Princess Margaret,” she said of her time with Ellington. “She was one of the band’s biggest fans.”

In the early 1960s, she had an affair with Gene Roddenberry, the former Los Angeles police officer who had become a television scriptwriter, and who wrote her into his first series, The Lieutenant, in 1964.

She joined Star Trek in 1966, the name of her character Uhura being a variant of “uhuru”, the Swahili word for “freedom”. But she soon wearied of being marginalised by television executives, and when she discovered that her fan mail was being withheld, she considered leaving the show at the end of the first season.

“If they had to cut dialogue it was always me and George [Takei, who played the Asian character Hikaru Sulu] they cut,” she recalled. “Eventually I was down to: ‘Hailing frequencies open, sir.’”

But a chance meeting with Dr Martin Luther King changed her mind. Pointing out that she had a groundbreaking non-stereotypical role, King urged her to stay, as she had already become a vital role model for young black women in America. She not only stayed with the series but appeared in six Star Trek films and provided the voice for Lt Uhura on the Star Trek animated series in 1974-75.

With Curtis Graves of Nasa and Congresswoman Yvonne Burke at the first flight and landing of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise in 1977 - Afro Newspaper/Gado
With Curtis Graves of Nasa and Congresswoman Yvonne Burke at the first flight and landing of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise in 1977 - Afro Newspaper/Gado

When Star Trek was cancelled in 1969, Nichelle Nichols turned to other film work, taking on the role of Dorinda, the madam in the blaxploitation film Truck Turner (1974). She released several pop singles as well as an EP, Dark Side of the Moon, and made the rounds at Star Trek conventions. Her 1991 album Out of this World included the song she wrote in tribute to Gene Roddenberry, Gene, which she sang at Roddenberry’s memorial service.

Her continued interest in space travel led to an invitation to fly aboard the C-141 Astronomy Observatory, which analysed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn, on an eight-hour, high-altitude mission.

Nichelle Nichols in 2010 - Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images
Nichelle Nichols in 2010 - Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

With other cast members from the original Star Trek, she attended the naming of the first space shuttle, Enterprise, at Cape Canaveral in 1976, the name having been changed from the original Constitution following a campaign by Star Trek fans known as “Trekkies”.

When Nichelle Nichols joined the board of the National Space Institute, she actively recruited more ethnic minorities and women, including Sally Ride, who joined Nasa in 1978 and became the first American woman in space in 1983. “If I had my life over again I’d do everything to get up there,” Nichelle Nichols said.

Nichelle Nichols’s first marriage in 1951, to Foster Johnson, a dancer, ended in divorce, as did her second to Duke Mondy, a songwriter and music arranger. A son of her first marriage, Kyle, who became an actor, survives her.

Nichelle Nichols, born December 28 1932, died July 30 2022