Nickel Nichols, the actress revered by “Star Trek” fans everywhere for her role as Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer on the starship USS Enterprise, died Saturday in Silver City, NM. She was 89 years old.
The cause was heart failure, said Skye Conway, a writer and a filmmaker, who was asked by Kyle Johnson, Ms Nichols’ son, to speak for the family.
Ms. Nichols had a long career as an entertainer, starting as a teen supper-club singer and dancer in Chicago, and later appearing on television.
But he will always be remembered for his work on “Star Trek,” the cult-inspired space adventure series that aired from 1966 to 1969 and starred William Shatner as Captain Kirk, the heroic leader of the starship crew ; Leonard Nimoy (who died in 2015) as his science officer and advisor, Mr. Spock, an ultralogical humanoid from the planet Vulcan; and DeForest Kelly (who died in 1999) as Dr. McCoy, aka Bones, the ship’s physician.
An enchanting beauty, Ms. Nichols provided a frisson of sensuality at the bridge of the enterprise. She was usually wearing a pretty red doublet and black tights; Ebony magazine called her “the most heavenly body in Star Trek” on its 1967 cover. However, his role was substantial and historically significant.
Uhura was an officer and a highly educated and well-trained technician who maintained a professional demeanor while performing her high-minded duties. Ms Nichols was among the first black women to have a leading role in a network television series, making her an anomaly on the small screen, which by that time had rarely portrayed black women in anything other than subordinate roles .
In a November 1968 episode, during the show’s third and final season, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura are forced to embrace by the inhabitants of a strange planet, resulting in what is widely believed to be the first interracial kiss in television history. Is.
Ms. Nichols’ first appearance on “Star Trek” was preceded by the 1968 sitcom “Julia”, playing Diehan Carroll, a widowed mother who works as a nurse, a non-profit in a network series. Became the first black woman to star in a stereotypical role. ,
(A series called “The Beulah”, also known as “The Beulah Show” starring Ethel Waters – and later Louise Beaver and Hattie McDaniel – as the maid for a white family, aired on ABC in the early 1950s and was later cited by civil rights activists for derogatory pictures of black people.)
But Uhura’s influence extended far beyond television. In 1977, Ms. Nichols began a collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, contracting as a delegate and speaker to help recruit female and minority candidates for spaceflight training; The following year the astronauts were the first to include women and members of minority groups in the candidates’ class.
In later years, Ms. Nichols publicly performed and recorded public service announcements on behalf of the agency. In 2012, when she was the keynote speaker at Goddard Space Center during the celebration of African American History Month, a NASA news release about the event commended her help in the cause of diversity in space exploration.
“Nicholas’ role as one of television’s first black characters is more than just a stereotype and one of the first women in positions of authority (she was the fourth in command of the enterprise) inspired thousands of applications from women and minorities. ,” the release said. “Among them: Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Judith Resnick, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.”
Grace Dale Nichols was born on December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Ill. (some sources give a later year), and grew up in Chicago. Her father was, for a time, the mayor of Robbins and a chemist. At age 13 or 14, tired of being called Gracie by her friends, she requested a different name from her mother, who preferred Michelle but recommended Nickel to alliteration.
She was a ballet dancer as a child and naturally had a singing voice with a wide range—more than four octaves, she later said. While attending Englewood High School, he landed his first professional gig at a revue at the College Inn, a famous nightspot in Chicago.
There she was noticed by Duke Ellington, who hired her a year or two later as a dancer in one of his jazz suites with his touring orchestra.
Ms. Nichols appeared in several musical theater productions across the country during the 1950s. In an interview with the Archives of American Television, she recalled performing at the Playboy Club in New York City while serving as a student for Ms. Carroll in the Broadway musical “No Strings” (though she never played).
In 1959, she was a dancer in Otto Preminger’s film version of “Porgy and Bess”. He made his television debut in 1963 in an episode of “The Lieutenant”, a short-lived dramatic series about Marines at Camp Pendleton created by Gene Roddenberry, who went on to make “Star Trek”.
Ms Nichols has appeared in other television shows over the years – among them “Peyton Place” (1966), “Head of the Class” (1988) and “Heroes” (2007). She has also occasionally appeared on stage in Los Angeles, including a one-woman show in which she featured and paid tribute to black female entertainers including Lena Horn, Pearl Bailey, and Eartha Kitt.
But Uhura was to become her legacy: A decade after “Star Trek” closed, Nichols reprized the role in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and she appeared as Uhura, a commander by then, five. Film sequels later through 1991.
In addition to a son, his survivors include two sisters, Marion Smothers and Diane Robinson.
Ms Nichols was married and divorced twice. In his 1995 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories”, he revealed that he and Roddenberry, who died in 1991, were romantically involved for a time. In a 2010 interview for the Archive of American Television, she said that she had little to do with her casting in “Star Trek”, but defended her when studio executives wanted to replace her.
When she took on the role of Uhura, Ms. Nichols said, she only thought of it at the time as a job that was as valuable as enhancing a resume; She fully intended to return to the stage, as she wanted a career on Broadway. Indeed, she threatened to leave the show after the first season and submitted her resignation to Roddenberry. He asked her to reflect on it for a few days.
In one story she often told, that Saturday night she was a guest at an event in Beverly Hills, Calif. — “I believe it was an NAACP fund-raiser,” she recalled in an archive interview — where the organizer introduced her to someone she described as “your biggest fan.”
“He’s looking forward to meeting you,” she recalled telling the organizer.
The fan, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., introduces himself.
“They said, ‘We admire you so much, you know,'” Ms. Nichols said, and he thanked her and told her she was about to leave the show. “They said, ‘You can’t. You can’t.'”
Dr. King told him that his role as an iconic, authoritative figure on a popular show was very important to him because of his civil rights. As Ms Nichols recalled it, she said, “For the first time, we will be seen on television the way we should be seen every day.”
On Monday morning, she returned to Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened.
“And I said, ‘If you still want me to be, I will. I have to.'”
Eduardo Medina contributed reporting.