I learned that Nichelle Nichols was a singer before she became an actress. She sang with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. I recall a couple of episodes of Star Trek where as the character, Lieutenant Uhura, she sang, her melodious voice having a calming effect on the crew members.
Nichelle was born in Robbins, Illinois, near Chicago, to Samuel Earl Nichols, a factory worker who was both the town mayor of Robbins and its chief magistrate, and his wife Lishia (Parks) Nichols. Later, the family moved into an elegant apartment in Chicago.
She studied in Chicago as well as New York and Los Angeles. Her break came in an appearance in Kicks and Co., Oscar Brown, Jr.’s highly touted, but ill-fated musical. In the thinly veiled satire of Playboy magazine, she played Hazel Sharpe, a voluptuous campus queen who was being tempted by the devil and Orgy Magazine to become “Orgy Maiden of the Month.” Although the play closed after its brief try-out in Chicago, in an ironic twist, she attracted the attention of Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, who was so impressed with her appearance that he booked her immediately at his Chicago Playboy Club. She appeared in a Chicago stock company production of Carmen Jones and performed in a New York production of Porgy and Bess. In between acting and singing engagements, Nichelle did occasional modeling work.
Before she was cast as Lieutenant Uhura, Nichelle was a guest actress on television producer Gene Roddenberry’s first series The Lieutenant.
It was in Star Trek that Nichols gained popular recognition by being one of the first black women featured in a major television series not portraying a servant; her prominent supporting role as a bridge officer was unprecedented. During the first year of the series, Nichelle was tempted to leave the show because she felt that her role lacked significance; however, after a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. she changed her mind. She said that Dr. King personally encouraged her to stay on the show, telling her that he was a big fan of the series. He said she “could not give up” because she was playing a vital role model for black children and young women across the country, as well as for other children who would see African Americans appearing as equals. It is also often reported that Dr. King added that “Once that door is opened by someone, no one else can close it again.”
Today we can thank Dr. King for encouraging Nichelle to stay on the show because she made a significant difference in the lives of two people–Former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison and Whoopi Goldberg. Mae Jemison has cited Nichelle’s role of Lieutenant Uhura as her inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut. It was Nichelle’s influence that motivated Whoopi Goldberg asked for a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as a result the character of Guinan was specially created. Mae Jemison appeared in an episode of the series.
Nichelle shared the first interracial kiss seen on American television with William Shatner in the November 22, 1968, Star Trekepisode “Plato’s Stepchildren”. The kiss was seen as groundbreaking, even though it was portrayed as them doing it under coercion by alien telekinesis. There was some praise and some protest. In her 1994 autobiography, Beyond Uhura, Star Trek and Other Memories, on page 197 Nichols cites a letter from one 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.” During the Comedy Central roast of Shatner on August 20, 2006, Nichols jokingly referred to the groundbreaking moment and said, “Let’s make TV history again … and you can kiss my black ass!”
Despite the cancellation of the series in 1969, Star Trek continued to play a part in Nichelle’s life. She provided the voice of Uhura in Star Trek: The Animated Series; in one episode, “The Lorelei Signal”, Uhura assumes command of the Enterprise. Nichelle noted in her autobiography her frustration that this never occurred in the original series. What a pity. This would have been another groundbreaking moment–a woman and one of color taking command of a starship. Nichelle co-starred in six Star Trek motion pictures, the last one being Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It would have been nice to see her in Generations with William Shatner, Walter Koenig and James Doohan.
For Nichelle there was life after Star Trek. After the show was cancelled, she volunteered her time in a special project with NASA to recruit minority and female personnel for the space agency, which proved to be a success. Those recruited include Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and United States Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, as well as Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair, who both flew successful missions during the Space Shuttle program before their deaths in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986.
An enthusiastic advocate of space exploration, Nichols has served since the mid-1980s on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, a nonprofit, educational space advocacy organization founded by Dr. Wernher von Braun.
After Star Trek, Nichelle has had other acting roles, including a recurring role on the second season of the NBC drama Heroes; the 2002 comedy Snow Dogs, Nichols appeared as the mother of the male lead, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. She did the voices of Diane Maza in the animated series Gargoyles, Thoth-Kopeira in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series and herself in The Simpsons. Nichelle has released two albums.
On a personal note, Nichelle’s brother, Thomas, was a member of the Heaven’s Gate cult; he died on March 26, 1997, in their mass suicide. A member for 11 years, he left an exit video saying, “I’m the happiest person in the world.” Nichelle’s son, Kyle Johnson, an actor is from her marriage to Foster Johnson in 1951. That same year she and Foster divorced. She got married again in 1968, but that marriage didn’t last long and it ended in divorce.
In her autobiography, Nichelle admits that she had an affair with Star Trek creator, Roddenberry for several years in the 1960’s. I wonder if his wife, Majel Barrett who played Nurse Chapel and did the voice of Starfleet Computer suspected anything. When Roddenberry’s health was fading, Nichelle co-wrote a song for him, titled Gene, which she performed at his funeral.
Nichelle is an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Robert A. Heinlein in part dedicated his 1982 novel Friday to her. Currently she lives in Woodland Hills, California. On June 8, 2010, Nichelle received an honorary degree from Los Angeles Mission College (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nichelle_Nichols).
We salute this woman who opened the door for other African American women by playing a character who would become a role model for African American children and young women and allow other children to see people of color as equals. Thank you, Nichelle, for listening to the wise counsel of Dr. King and proving that your role as Lieutenant Uhura was a very significant one after all.
I was very blessed in always knowing what I wanted to do, and by the grace of God I’ve been able to succeed in my chosen career.
All the people in Star Trek will always be known as those characters. And what characters to have attached to your name in life! The show is such a phenomenon all over the world.I think anybody with any intelligence sits down and sees Star Trek not a kids’ show.I`m a fan of the fans. I love them. They`re fabulous. I love being around them. I love their madness and their caring. I love watching them take off for a weekend, don the costumes, and become characters from the 23rd century and beyond. I thank the fans for giving us — me — so much support and love. I want them to know I love them. They`ll always be my friends. I`ll see the fans, always. They can rest assured of that. (on fans of “Star Trek”)