Nichelle Nichols, Uhura on ‘Star Trek’, dead at 89

Nichelle Nichols, best known for her groundbreaking role as Lt. Uhura on Star Trekhas died at the age of 89.

The actress’ passing was confirmed by her son, Kyle Johnson.

“Last night my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” Johnson wrote in a message sent to Nichols’ official website. “However, her light, like the ancient galaxies now seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and draw inspiration from. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”

Born Dec. 28, 1932, Grace Dell Nichols grew up in the Chicago area. Her acting career began on stage, including roles in Porgy and Bess and the short-lived 1961 Broadway musical Kicks and Co. A talented singer, Nichols also toured with musical luminaries such as Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton.

Still, it was the role of Lt. Nyota Uhura, who brought Nichols to a worldwide audience. When Star Trek debuted in 1966, television series rarely featured black women in major roles. As a prominent part of the Starship Enterprise crew, Uhura broke from the norm.

Towards the end of the show’s first season, Nichols was offered another role on Broadway. She initially accepted and even gave series creator Gene Roddenberry her resignation letter. However, the actress had a change of heart after meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’m your best fan. Your biggest fan. And my family are your biggest fans,” Nichols recalled said the civil rights leader. “Actually, [Star Trek] is the only television program that my wife Coretta and I will allow our young children to watch.”

When the actress revealed she planned to leave the show, King was shocked. “You can’t. You can’t,” he insisted. “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we must be seen every day. Like intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing, dance – but who can go into space. Who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors. WHO isin this state, and yet you don’t see it on television until now.”

Recognize the impact of her Star Trek role, Nichols chose to stay on the show. She would portray Uhura across the three seasons of the original series, which included a historic interracial kiss between Uhura and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in 1968. Nicholas reprized his famous role for six Star Trek films from 1979 to 1991.

Outside of acting, Nichols worked with NASA in an effort to make the agency more diverse. Among those she helped recruit was Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut.

George Takei, who played Lt. Sulu on Star Trek, recalled his teammate thus: “I want to say more about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed away today at the age of 89. For today my heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars you now rest among, my dear friend.”

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