By ZOE SOTTILE, CHRIS BOYETTE and TODD LEOPOLD
Actress and singer Nichelle Nichols, best known for her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, has died at age 89, according to a statement from her son, Kyle Johnson.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. 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,” Johnson said in a statement shared to Nichols’ official site on Sunday. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Nichols died from natural causes, he said.
Nichols portrayed communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the Star Trek TV series and many of its film offshoots.
When Star Trek began in 1966, Nichols was a television rarity: a Black woman in a notable role on a prime-time television series. There had been African American women on TV before, but they often played domestic workers and had small roles; Nichols’ Uhura was an integral part of the multicultural Star Trek crew.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called it “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.”
Nichols is widely known for participating in one of the first interracial kisses on U.S. television when her character kissed James T. Kirk, portrayed by White Canadian actor William Shatner. In an interview with CNN in 2014, Nichols said the kiss scene “changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another.”
After Trek’s three-season run, Nichols dedicated herself to the space program. She helped NASA in making the agency more diverse, helping to recruit astronauts Sally Ride, Judith Resnik and Guion Bluford, among others.
George Takei, who portrayed the USS Enterprise’s helmsman Hikaru Sulu, posted a touching tribute to his co-star.
“I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89,” wrote Takei 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,” he added with a photo of the pair making the iconic Vulcan salute.
The National Air and Space Museum called Nichols “an inspiration to many, not just for her groundbreaking work on Star Trek but also through her work with NASA to recruit women and people of color to apply to become astronauts” on Twitter.
Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia, also posted a tribute to the actress. “Godspeed to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior and tremendous actor,” wrote Abrams on Twitter alongside a photo of herself with Nichols. “Her kindness and bravery lit the path for many. May she forever dwell among the stars.”
Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols near Chicago in 1932. Unhappy with the name Grace, she took the name Nichelle when she was a teenager. Her grandfather was a White Southerner who married a Black woman, causing a rift in his family.
Blessed with a four-octave vocal range, Nichols was performing in local clubs by the time she was 14. Among the performers she met was Duke Ellington, who later took her on tour. She also worked extensively in Chicago clubs and in theater.
She moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘60s and landed a role in a Gene Roddenberry series, The Lieutenant. A number of Star Trek veterans, including Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig and Majel Barrett, also worked on the show.
When Roddenberry was creating Trek, he remembered Nichols. She was in Europe when she got the call.
“[My agent said], ‘They’re doing Star Trek, and I didn’t know what a Star Trek was,” she said in an interview with the Television Academy.
Uhura wasn’t in the original script, and Nichols was responsible for the name. She was reading a book called Uhuru – meaning “freedom” in Swahili – and suggested her character take the name. Roddenberry thought it was too harsh.
“I said, ‘Well, why don’t you do an alteration of it, soften the end with an ‘A,’ and it’ll be Uhura?’” she recalled. “He said, ‘That’s it, that’s your name! You named it; it’s yours.’ “
Nichols is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.
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