Obituary: Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt Uhura in Star Trek and was key to its message of diversity

Nichelle Nichols, photographed in December last year (Photo: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)
Nichelle Nichols, photographed in December last year (Photo: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)

Born: December 28, 1932;

Died: July 30, 2022.

NICHELLE Nichols, who has died aged 89, was an actress, dancer and singer who was best-known for her portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura in the ground-breaking science-fiction classic, Star Trek. She starred in the original 1960s television series and six successful films in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a member of the original cast alongside William Shatner as Captain Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock, Uhura was the crew member who famously opened and closed the hailing frequencies. However, as a black woman, she w,as also central to the show’s mission to promote diversity and a progressive future.

She performed TV’s first inter-racial kiss with Kirk, and when she considered quitting the show, it was the prominent civil rights activist, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, who convinced her to change her mind. He told her she was changing the position of black people on screen and had to stay.

Star Trek had been a difficult experience for Nichols, though. It was still extremely rare for a black woman to feature so prominently in a prime-time show and Star Trek was a step forward, but Nichols grew frustrated that the initial promise of strong storylines for Uhura did not materialise and her lines were often cut in favour of the leading men.

She also learned that racism ran right through the television industry; she discovered, for example, that her fan mail was held back because executives at the TV company, Desilu, didn't want her becoming too popular.

Nichols’ experiences of trying to break into showbusiness had also prepared her for racism and prejudice. Part-African, part-American, part-Cherokee, and part -Welsh, she was born in Robbins, Illinois, a town about 30 miles southwest of Chicago.

America in the 1930s was in places deeply racist, but Robbins was a rare exception, having been established by a white man, Henry E Robbins, who wanted to counter discrimination. He bought up tracts of land, which he then sold for a fair price to black and mixed couples, who would otherwise have no hope of ever owning land. Nichols’ father became the town’s mayor.

Later, the family moved to Chicago, where Nichols discovered her love of ballet, although racism would emerge again. People said to her parents, "there are no black ballerinas, so why bother?" but thanks to her father’s persistence, she found a place at a ballet school. She also loved singing and began to sing professionally when she was 14.

For a time in her teens and twenties, Nichols worked as a singer and dancer, touring with her first husband, fellow dancer Foster Johnson, before landing a part in the 1959 movie musical Porgy and Bess. One of the stars was Sammy Davis Jnr, with whom she had a brief but passionate affair.

She first met Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, in 1963 when she was cast in an episode of his TV cop show, The Lieutenant and he told her he wanted her for the part in a new show he was creating: Star Trek. Uhura, he told her, was a citizen of a future United States of Africa and was a communications expert and linguist, but he had to fight to keep her in the cast after the network resisted the idea of a black woman in such a prominent role.

The show was first broadcast in 1966 and quickly became a cult hit, but by the second series Nichols was ready to quit. This was when she met Martin Luther King and, in an interview with The Herald in May 2002, she explained what happened next.

''I had decided to quit the show,'' she said. ''The next night I met Martin Luther King and we talked about Star Trek. When I said I was quitting, he said, 'You cannot leave'. He told me that for the first time the world saw, through Star Trek, black people as we should be seen: intelligent, qualified equals. He said Star Trek had opened that door, but that it could close again.'' For Nichols it was an epiphany. ''It just blew my mind. Star Trek was the same thing King was doing. In a non-violent way, we were changing minds.''

Nichols remained convinced for the rest of her life that Star Trek was an important factor in removing barriers for black people in showbusiness and wider society and the 1968 episode Plato’s Stepchildren was particularly important in this regard. In the story, Kirk and Uhura kissed, making it the first kiss between the races on television. The TV executives feared the states of the Deep South would refuse to show it and wanted the scene removed, but the writers and Nichols fought the decision, and won.

Despite its importance in the fight for black rights, Star Trek was not a completely positive experience for Nichols and, apart from the Trek movies, she struggled to establish a high-profile career elsewhere.

She moved into writing and producing educational films for a while and worked with NASA to recruit more women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds as astronauts and the project massively boosted the numbers. Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, said she was inspired by Uhura to pursue her career.

In a tribute on Twitter NASA said Nichols had "symbolized to so many what was possible. She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars".

Away from television and film, Nichols performed a one-woman show in which she portrayed 12 famous singers and actresses, including Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt. She also wrote couple of science-fiction novels, one of which featured Uhura. In 1992, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for her contribution to television.

She remained an evangelist for the power of Star Trek and its legacy. ''It can be summed up in one four-letter word,” she said. “Hope. The hope for a better being, the hope for greatness. In 100 years from now, I have a feeling we'll meet someone from another planet. In fact, I insist on it".

Towards the end of her life Nicholls, who had been diagnosed with dementia, was the subject of a lengthy legal battle over her finances and care. One of the three parties involved was her only child, Kyle Johnson, who was also her conservator. A #FreeNichelle movement was formed in opposition to the court-mandated conservatorship.

Nichols was married twice, first to Foster Johnson, with whom she had Kyle, and then to the songwriter Duke Mondy; it also ended in divorce.