Despite concerns, the episode aired without blowback. In fact, it got the most “fan mail that Paramount had ever gotten on Star Trek for one episode,” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.
“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,” George Takei wrote on Twitter. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
Takei played Sulu in the original Star Trek series alongside Nichols. But her impact was felt beyond her immediate co-stars, and many others in the Star Trek world also tweeted their condolences.
Celia Rose Gooding, who currently plays Uhura in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, wrote on Twitter that Nichols “made room for so many of us. She was the reminder that not only can we reach the stars, but our influence is essential to their survival. Forget shaking the table, she built it.”
Star Trek: Voyager alum Kate Mulgrew tweeted, “Nichelle Nichols was The First. She was a trailblazer who navigated a very challenging trail with grit, grace, and a gorgeous fire we are not likely to see again.”
Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spinoffs starting in 1979 with Star Trek: The Motion Picture and frequented Star Trek fan conventions. She also served for many years as a NASA recruiter, helping bring minorities and women into the astronaut corps.
The original Star Trek premiered on NBC on September 8, 1966. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the far-off future – the 23rd century – human diversity would be fully accepted.
“I think many people took it into their hearts … that what was being said on TV at that time was a reason to celebrate,” Nichols said in 1992 when a Star Trek exhibit was on view at the Smithsonian Institution.
She often recalled how the Reverend Martin Luther King jnr was a fan of the show and praised her role and personally encouraged her to stay with the series.
“When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and I was leaving the show, he became very serious and said, ‘You cannot do that,’” she told The Tulsa World (Oklahoma) in a 2008 interview.
“‘You’ve changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you’ve changed the minds of people,’” she said the civil rights leader told her.
“That foresight Dr King had was a lightning bolt in my life,” Nichols said.
More recently, she had a recurring role on television’s Heroes, playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.
Grace Dell Nichols was born on December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, to Samuel Earl Nichols and Lishia Mae Nichols. Her father was a chemist and town mayor, according to Star Trek FAQ, a 2012 book by Mark Clark. She was one of nine children in a family that included several half siblings.
Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. When she was a teen her mother told her she had wanted to name her Michelle, but thought she ought to have alliterative initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence, “Nichelle”.
Nichols studied ballet and Afro-Cuban dance as a child first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14, moving on to New York nightclubs and working for a time with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands before coming to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959’s Porgy and Bess, where she worked alongside Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis jnr and Pearl Bailey. The role “opened doors for me that I might have otherwise been knocking on for years,” Nichols wrote in her autobiography.
In 1951, she married Foster Johnson, a dancer, and had a son, Kyle. The marriage ended in divorce.
In 1964, she appeared in her first TV episode, The Lieutenant, another show by Roddenberry.
According to the autobiography, the two struck up a friendship that became a romance until Nichols learned that the married writer was also having an affair with Majel Barrett. Barrett played nurse Chapel in the original Star Trek, had recurring roles in subsequent films and married Roddenberry. Nichols’s friendship with the producer continued.
Nichols was known as being unafraid to stand up to Shatner on the set when others complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time.
Nichols revived her Uhura role in the 1979 movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in which the character was promoted to lieutenant commander. In the next feature film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Uhura had reached the rank of full commander.
In 1992, Mae Jemison, who as a child followed the exploits of the starship Enterprise on television, became the first black female astronaut to enter space. Before blasting off aboard the US space shuttle Endeavour, she called Nichols to thank her for her inspiration, according to a 1996 profile in Stanford Today magazine.
“Images show us possibilities,” Jemison said, according to the article. “A lot of times, fantasy is what gets us through to reality.”
In 1968, in the last season of Star Trek, Nichols married for a second time, to songwriter Duke Mondy, according to FAQ. They remained together until 1972.
Her schedule became limited starting in 2018 when her son announced that she was suffering from advanced dementia.
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