Nichelle Nichols: 1932-2022

Star Trek actress was pioneer 

Last Saturday, Nichelle Nichols – who broke barriers as Lt. Uhara on the 1960s series Star Trek, died of natural causes at the age of 89 in her New Mexico home.

Nicholls was born in south suburban Robbins on Dec. 28, 1932 and later moved to Chicago and attended Englewood High School and studied dance at the Chicago Ballet and later performed with Duke Ellington. She headed out west to Hollywood where she had guest stints on several shows including an unaired episode of NBC’s The Lieutenant, a show Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry worked on (the episode in question – about racial issues- was later shown in the 1990s on TNT.). He remembered her when he casted the show in 1966, hiring Nichols as coincidentally, Lt. Uhara, becoming one of the few Black women to appear on a major role in a drama series of the era. She and William Shatner also made history by participating in an interracial kiss, a landmark moment in television (not to mention raising the ire of many Southern NBC affiliates.) She also voiced the Uhara character on Star Trek: The Animated Series, which ran on NBC’s Saturday morning lineup from 1973 to 1975.

As Star Trek remained popular through syndicated reruns in the 1970s, Nicholls and the original cast returned in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, and appeared in five more Star Trek movies. Her role as Uhara led to an consulting role with NASA to recruit more women and minorities to the space program. She was also credited for inspiring more women to enter the STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.)

Back in 2010, I wrote about Ms. Nichols’ appearance at the TCA Press Tour (though I didn’t attend), promoting PBS’ mini-series Pioneers of Television and her encounter in the 1960s with her “number one fan” from Star Trek. I received word she liked my write-up, which I greatly appreciated. Below, here’s part of the post, edited for space, originally published on August 10, 2010 (special thanks to Marc Berman for letting me use his quote.) Nichelle Nichols was truly a pioneer of television.

‘TCA: PBS and The Pioneers Of Television’ 

It was PBS’ turn at the mic at the annual TCA Press tour on Thursday, which focused mainly on the second edition of their miniseries Pioneers of Television, whose panel of classic TV stars featured two Chicago natives: Robert Conrad (Wild, Wild WestBlack Sheep Squadron) Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek), who hails from southwest suburban Robbins.

The panel also featured Mike Conners (Mannix), Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible), and Linda Evans (The Big ValleyDyansty).

But the most interesting part came when Nichelle Nichols told the story of when she nearly left Star Trek and was persuaded to stay by her “number one fan” (the quote is directly from Marc Berman’s Programming Insider newsletter:)

Nichelle Nichols at the “Star Trek: Discovery” premiere. (AP)

“It was rather interesting to me to be cast in Star Trek because I came up in musical theater, and somehow I was really on my way to break through and do all of the things that I really wanted to do on Broadway. And I took Star Trek because I thought it would be a nice adjunct to my resume, and I’d get to Broadway quicker and as a star. And I kind of got stuck there.

As a matter of fact, I even tried to leave after the first year, the first season, because I thought, ‘Oh, this is going nowhere for me.’ And I told Gene Roddenberry I was going to leave the show on a Friday evening. And Saturday, that next day, he said, “Please don’t leave. Don’t you see what I’m trying to do here?” And that next evening, as fate would have it, I was being one of the guest celebrities at an NAACP fund raiser. And one of the fund raisers came up to the dais and said, “Ms. Nichols, there’s a fan. There’s a person here who says he’s a big, big fan of yours. He’s your biggest fan.” And I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, “Sure.” And I stood up, and I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. And he reached out to me and said, “Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.” And he said that — that “Star Trek” was the only show that he and his wife, Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch, because while they were marching, every night you could see people who looked like me being hosed down with a fire hose and dogs jumping on them because they wanted to eat in a restaurant. And I think it was just an encounter that started out. But the marches began and here I was playing an astronaut in the 23rd century.

So I went back and told Gene Roddenberry on Monday, because he’d asked me to think about it over the weekend, and if I still wanted to leave he — I would have his blessings. And I went back, and I told him about Dr. Martin Luther King. And Gene Roddenberry was a 6-foot-3 guy with muscles. He was a big hack-nosed guy. And he sat there with tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Thank God that someone knows what I’m trying to do. Thank God for Dr. Martin Luther King.’ And I told him if he still wanted me, I would stay. I’ve never looked back. I’m glad I did.”

That was some number one fan. Amazing.

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