Star Trek Trailblazer Nichelle Nichols Dies, Aged 89

Nichelle Nichols

by James White |
Published on

Some sad news for fans of Star Trek in particular: Nichelle Nichols, who played the trailblazing Lt. Uhura on the original series and its six spin-off movies, has died. She was 89.

Born Grace Nichols in Illinois in 1932, she began her career singing rather than acting, and at the age of 16, she sang with Duke Ellington in a ballet she created for one of his compositions. She also performed with his band.

After studying in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, she landed an appearance in a 1961 musical called Kicks And Co. After roles in Carmen Jones and Porgy And Bess (she made her film debut uncredited as a dancer in the movie version), she had small roles in films including Made In Paris, Mr. Buddwing and Doctor, You've Got To Be Kidding!

Yet it was Star Trek that proved to be the landmark role of her career, and a vital one in science fiction history. As the communications officer aboard the USS Enterprise in the series that ran for three years from 1966, she was one of the first African American actors to play such a part on TV.

Yet Nichols considered leaving the show after the first season to return to her Broadway career. She was dissuaded by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a fan of the series. “‘You cannot, you cannot… for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers,'” Nichols recalled King saying to her in a 2013 interview. “‘If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a black role, and is not a female role, he can fill it with anybody even an alien.'”


Nichols would go on to appear in the movies featuring the main original cast, and cemented her status as a pop culture icon. She had a variety of roles in the years since the show, doing a lot of voice-over work (including famously, as herself in a couple of Futurama episodes alongside her Trek cast mates). Other movies included Snow Dogs, Tru Loved, Are We There Yet? and White Orchid.

In real life, she was also an inspiration, employed by NASA to encourage women and African-Americans to enter STEAM education and become astronauts.

“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” her son, Kyle Johnson’s statement read on her official Facebook page. “Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all."

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