Actress, singer, and activist Nichelle Nichols, who had the groundbreaking role of bridge officer Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, died on Saturday, July 30, 2022. Her son, Kyle Johnson, announced her passing on Nichols’ website, stating that she died of natural causes. Nichols was 89 years old.
She was born Grace Dell Nichols on December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois. Having developed a four-octave vocal range in her early teens, Nichols started performing in local clubs by the time she was 14 years old. Her career took off in Oscar Brown’s play Kicks and Co. and playing Carmen in a Chicago production of Carmen Jones. During the late 1960s and early ‘70s she toured as a singer with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. Back on stage, she performed in The Roar of the Greasepaint and in James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie.
One of her earliest onscreen roles was in 1964 on an episode of Gene Roddenberry’s first series The Lieutenant. Two years later she joined his series of space exploration, Star Trek, as one of the first Black women to star in a major TV series. It wasn’t just a small or stereotyped part like most Black actresses were getting at the time. She had a prominent role on the ship as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the specialist in linguistics, cryptography, and philology, working as a translator and communications officer. Nichols also participated in another milestone when she and William Shatner (as Captain Kirk) shared the first interracial kiss on television.
Her tour on the Enterprise almost ended after the first season, if not for the advice of a prominent figure. Nichols started to feel that her role was both repetitive and smaller than she wanted, so when the chance to perform on Broadway came up, Nichols told Roddenberry that she planned to leave. He asked her to reconsider her decision, and while doing that she attended an NAACP event where she met Star Trek fan Martin Luther King Jr. When she told him about her plans to leave, he convinced her to stay to be a role model for Black people and to keep the door open for other Black performers to have roles as scientists, professors, and other professionals. Nichols went on to star in all three seasons of Star Trek from 1966 to 1969, becoming a role model for women and black performers and paving the way for new opportunities.
Though Star Trek wrapped in ’69, she continued playing Uhura throughout the franchise. She voiced Uhura for Star Trek: The Animated Series in the early ‘70s and later for video games. Nichols and the other primary actors from the series reprised their roles in 1979 for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was followed by five sequels filmed throughout the ‘80s, with the last one in ’91.
During this period, Nichols was also in Insight, The D.A., Truck Turner, Antony and Cleopatra, The Supernaturals, and Head of the Class. In the ‘90s she did voice work in Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, and Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Over the next decade, she was in Snow Dogs, voiced herself in Futurama and The Simpsons, and was in Are We There Yet?, several episodes of Heroes, and Lady Magdalene’s. Her recent work was in This Bitter Earth, episodes of The Young and the Restless, played Admiral Grace Jemison in Star Trek: Renegades, and she played Uhura in Star Trek First Frontier.
Outside of acting, Nichols was an active supporter of NASA, helping recruit minorities and women. Her efforts included recruiting the likes of Dr. Sally Ride (the first female astronaut) and US Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford (the first African-American astronaut). Nichols served on the board of governors on the National Space Society since the mid-1980s to support space exploration.
Nichols was also active on the convention scene for much of her career meeting long lines of Star Trek fans until she was well into her 80s.
Many people from the Star Trek franchise and beyond have shared their thoughts on Nichols’ passing via social media posts.
“I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who share the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89,” her former Star Trek costar George Takei wrote on Twitter. “For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend. We lived long and prospered together.”
“I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world,” Shatner tweeted. “I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family. Bill”
Kate Mulgrew, who played Star Trek’s first female captain in a leading role on Star Trek: Voyager, tweeted, “Nichelle Nichols was The First. She was a trailblazer who navigated a very challenging trail with grit, grace, and a gorgeous fire we are not likely to see again. May she Rest in Peace.”
Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter tweeted, “Many actors become stars, but few stars can move a nation. Nichelle Nichols showed us the extraordinary power of Black women and paved the way for a better future for all women in media. Thank you Nichelle. We will miss you.”
NASA released a statement saying, “We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible. She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”