In “Star Trek,” an NBC prime-time drama that first aired for three seasons starting in 1966, Nichols played Uhura, the chief communications officer aboard the USS Enterprise on a five-year mission through space in the 23rd century. Series creator Gene Roddenberry wrote the character as the only female member among the starship’s top officers. The role was a departure from the maids that Black actresses usually played on television.
“The network men had a fit when they saw that not only was there now an important woman in the command crew on the bridge, but a Black one,” Nichols said, according to “Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television,” Donald Bogle’s 2001 book. “They furiously issued Gene an ultimatum: Get rid of her!” Roddenberry refused.
In November 1968, during the final season, Nichols made history when Uhura and Captain James T. Kirk, the Enterprise commander played by William Shatner, were forced by captors on an unknown planet to embrace and join lips. It was the first kiss between Black and White actors on US network television. The scene needed approval from NBC executives before it aired.
“We received one of the largest batches of fan mail ever,” Nichols said. “Interestingly, almost no one found the kiss offensive.”
Early in the series, Nichols experienced mistreatment at Desilu Productions because of her race and decided to leave the show after the first season, according to her 1994 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura.” She changed her mind after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who she met at an NAACP event, persuaded her to stick with the program.
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“You have the first non-stereotypical role on television, male or female,” he told Nichols, according to her memoir. “You have broken ground.”
President Joe Biden was among those who paid tribute to Nichols, calling her “a trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women.”
Grace Dell Nichols was born on Dec. 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 “Star Trek FAQ,” a 2012 book by Mark Clark. She was one of nine children in a family that included several half siblings.
Nichols studied ballet and Afro-Cuban dance as a child and began her career at 15 as a dancer in a Chicago stage production of “The College Inn Story,” Ebony magazine reported in a 1962 profile.
In 1951, she married Foster Johnson, a dancer, and had a son, Kyle. The marriage ended in divorce.
Nichols toured as a singer with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. She moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s to find film and television work.
Her first movie appearance was an uncredited role in the chorus of Otto Preminger’s 1959 “Porgy and Bess,” where she worked alongside Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr. 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 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.
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.
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.”
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