While she might not be the first person you think of when you think of Star Trek, there is no denying the important role which Nichelle Nichols played within it. Although her role was initially very small and was constantly overshadowed by the likes of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Nichols would be among the pioneering women of color to break their stereotypical portrayals onscreen up to that point. But of course, anyone who would limit her legacy to just Star Trek would be deeply mistaken. Here are 42 groundbreaking facts about Nichelle Nichols.
Born in the town of Robbins, Illinois, on December 28, 1932, Grace Dell Nichols was the daughter of Samuel and Lishia Nichols. Her father worked in a factory until he was elected mayor of Robbins. He was also elected to be the chief magistrate of the town. Honestly, it leaves us asking “Where’s the movie about his life?”
During her education, Nichols traveled from Chicago to New York to Los Angeles. No doubt she is resentful over the frequent flyer miles she missed out on back then.
In the 1950s, while she was working as a theater actor, Nichols appeared in a production of Porgy and Bess, an American opera from the 1930s featuring a cast of characters who are mainly black. It would take too long to deal with the play’s impact or controversies, but what’s worth noting in Nichols’ case was that she also went on to appear in the 1959 film adaptation starring Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr., albeit in an uncredited role.
When Nichols was a teenager, she began singing in big bands, including ones run by Lionel Hampton and the legendary Duke Ellington. Nichols would tour the US, Canada, and Europe with these bands, meaning that even before she ever heard of Star Trek, she had a more impressive career than most people obtain in a lifetime!
Duke Ellington and band
Along with the rest of her Star Trek cast members, Nichols had her handprints set in the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. She was the first woman of color to achieve this form of immortality in Tinseltown.
Nichols’ first credited role came when she was cast in an anthology series produced by CBS. The segment she was in was titled “Great Getting’ Up Mornin’,” and followed an African-American family preparing to send their kids to school on the first day of racial integration. Nichols was around 32 when this role kicked off her TV acting career.
As a theater actor, Nichols first gained prominence when she appeared in the play Blues for Mister Charlie. Written in 1964 by critically acclaimed writer James Baldwin, Blues for Mister Charlie is a play which dealt with social issues of the 1960s faced by black people. The play was also dedicated to the family of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who had been slain in 1963 outside his own home.
Like her Star Trek co-stars, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, Nichols released music. Unlike the other two, she is a highly talented singer, so her work has received much more praise than the latter two’s work. Her first album, titled Down to Earth, was released in 1967, while her second album, Out of This World, was released in 1991—the same year that her last Star Trek film was released.
In 2017, Nichols received her very first Emmy nomination. In case you’re curious, the nomination was for the category “Special Guest Performer in a Drama Series". She was nominated for her performance in the series The Young and the Restless.
When Nichols was 18 years old, in 1951, she got married to Foster Johnson, a dancer who was 15 years older than her. Their son, Kyle Johnson, is Nichols’ only child.
Nichols remarried in 1967 to a man named Duke Mondy. Nichols and Mondy would go on to divorce in 1972.
Interestingly, Nichols was childhood friends with another iconic star of American television. Marla Gibbs grew up near Nichols in Chicago, and like Nichols, she was drawn to the world of acting. Among her many credits include, of course, The Jeffersons.
Interestingly, Nichols shared a bond with her co-star DeForrest Kelly (known to Trekkies everywhere as Doctor McCoy). Kelly and Nichols both made their debuts and exits from the world of Star Trek through the same mediums. Their first appearances were in the iconic episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” (which you might know featured the green alien Balok, who was later in the end credits of every subsequent Star Trek episode).
Both Kelly and Nichols would both retire from Star Trek with the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Nichols was actually the person who gave Uhura her name, though it was partly through a complete coincidence. When she met Gene Roddenberry to audition for Star Trek, Nichols was carrying a book titled Uhuru. Roddenberry took a liking to the book’s title, which was the Swahili word for “freedom,” and intended to use it to name one of his characters. It was Nichols who suggested that he add an “a” at the end of the name.
As well as Star Trek, Nichols was part of another iconic franchise, albeit in a much smaller role. In 1994, Nichols took part in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. She voice-acted the role of Thoth Kepera in the episode “Avatar".
The fandom of Star Trek has long been made to suffer scorn and mockery for their nerdiness, but one aspect which we can honestly say has been overblown is the internal argument that fans have had on whether they are “Trekkies” or “Trekkers". It would take too long to go over every aspect of this rift, but for what it’s worth, Nichols uses the term “Trekker” to describe fans of the show.
At the age of 82, when most of us would be lamenting the new music of the day while sitting in an armchair, Nichols was going into the upper stratosphere! On September 15, 2015, Nichols accompanied the SOFIA telescope on a NASA mission. Even in retirement, Nichols is grabbing life by the horns!
Despite leaving the film and television series with her appearance in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nichols did reprise her role of Uhura for two video games. In 1992, she provided voice work for Star Trek: 25th Anniversary Enhanced, and in 1994, she acted as Uhura in Star Trek: Judgment Rites.
As everyone knows, the success of the original Star Trek series led to a franchise of films being made, with the first one released in 1979 as Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Going from TV to a movie naturally led to an update on all the props and costumes. In fact, only one prop from the TV show made it into the film, and that was only done at Nichols’ insistence.
The prop was the earpiece which Uhura frequently wore while performing her duties as the communications officer.
Incredibly, before she ever worked on Star Trek, Nichols had been in a love affair with its creator, Gene Roddenberry. We can only assume that this played no part in the decision of her casting, nor do we doubt her obvious talents as an actress regardless of her personal life.
It’s impossible to name all the people whom Nichols inspired by portraying Uhura on Star Trek, but one of the most noteworthy examples was none other than Whoopi Goldberg. Aside from her well-known and critically acclaimed film career, as well as her current career as a talk-show host, Goldberg is also familiar to Trekkies for her role as Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
On January 9, 1992, Nichols received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You can find it at 6633 Hollywood Boulevard.
When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was first being developed in the late 1970s, the costumes which had defined the original 1960s show seemed very outdated, and there was strong concern that the miniskirts worn by the female crew of the Enterprise would be seen as chauvinistic. As a result, unisex uniforms were developed, which were also made with more muted colors because it was determined that the bright uniforms of the show wouldn’t look good.
Ironically, Nichols was staunchly opposed to the new look, finding them too drab.
During the filming of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, there is a scene where Uhura and other crew members, deprived of the universal translator, comb through old dictionaries to understand the Klingon language. Nichols, however, objected to the idea that the communications officer wouldn’t already know how to speak Klingon.
Sadly, this creative suggestion was overruled the film’s writer, Nicholas Meyer.
Nichols provided voice acting for three episodes of the Disney show Gargoyles. Produced in the 90s, the show remains a cult favorite for its dark themes, fleshed out characters, and creative use of mythological figures. Nichols voiced Diane Maza, the mother of Elisa Maza, one of the show’s main characters.
Due to her dancing and singing careers, it wasn’t difficult at all for Nichols to do her famous song and dance number which she performs in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. However, Nichols was later furious when she found out that her singing was dubbed over during post-production without anyone mentioning it to her. To be fair, if that’s what made her angry about that scene, then William Shatner can rest easy!
According to Nichols, she was offered the supporting role of Peggy Fair, the secretary to Joe Mannix of the detective series Mannix. She was unable to take the role, however, because of her schedule filming Star Trek, and because Gene Roddenberry refused to release her from her contract.
Despite the dispute over contracts, we’re confident that there were no hard feelings between Nichols and Gene Roddenberry. Nichols was one of the many people in attendance at Roddenberry’s funeral, and even sang a song in tribute to him at the event.
Nichols’ son, Kyle Johnson, would follow his mother into the acting business. His career as an actor lasted 30 years, until the late 1990s. Unfortunately for Trekkies, he did not appear as Uhura’s son in any version of Star Trek yet made.
In 2001, an asteroid was discovered in the main belt of our Solar System which takes more than four years to travel around the sun. This asteroid bears the name 68410 Nichols.
Interestingly, Gargoyles also served as a unifying force when it came to Star Trek actors. Not only was Nichols on the show, but so were Jonathan Frakes, Matt Frewer, Michael Dorn, Brent Spiner, Marina Sirtis (all of whom were on Star Trek: Next Generation), Michael Bell, Salli Richardson-Whitfield (who both acted in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), and Kate Mulgrew (from Star Trek: Voyager). Imagine the geeky showdowns that must have happened in that recording studio!
One interesting aspect of the kiss between Captain Kirk and Uhura on Star Trek was the fact that despite both participating in the shoot, the two actors who performed the kiss disagree on how it went down. William Shatner maintained that their lips never touched due to a camera trick, while Nichols insisted that they kissed for real.
In 2002, Nichols famously parodied herself in the Futurama episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” in which the main characters interact with the actors of the original Star Trek. Also joining Nichols in this good-natured pastiche of Star Trek were her co-stars Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, George Takei, and Walter Koenig, with Jonathan Frakes also making a humorous appearance.
According to Nichols, Gene Roddenberry left his producers in the dark on his casting Nichols in a supporting role. Roddenberry was allegedly confronted when they saw her in the first episodes of Star Trek, but he refused to budge from his casting choice.
Star Trek wasn’t the only way that Nichols has been involved with space. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was hired by NASA to be a recruiter. The hope on NASA’s part was to encourage more racial diversity within its roster of astronauts. Nichols would bring in Sally Ride and Guion Buford. For anyone who isn’t aware, Ride and Buford the first American woman and first Black man, respectively, to go into space.
Additionally, Nichols’ work with NASA led her to recruit Charles Bolden, a pilot with the Marine Corps. Bolden would not only serve as an astronaut with NASA, but he would go on to be its 23rd administrator, retiring in 2017.
Speaking of Nichols’ work as a recruiter for NASA, she was caught up in the great tragedy that was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. Seven astronauts lost their lives when the space ship exploded after launch. Four of those astronauts had been initially recruited by Nichols. That same year, Nichols’ movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was released in the cinema, and the film included a dedication at the end to the astronauts who had died.
During the first season of Star Trek, Nichols actually considering leaving the show. There are multiple rumored reasons for this: she wanted a career on Broadway, she was fed up with racist harassment or because the departure of co-star Grace Lee Whitney made her think that she was also going to be pink-slipped—or it could be a combination of both those reasons. However, Nichols was persuaded to stay with the show by none other than Martin Luther King Jr.!
He met her in a chance meeting and told her all about what a role model her character was on television for his children. Naturally, Nichols was convinced to stick with the show after all!
Nichols had already worked with Gene Roddenberry before he ever created the series Star Trek. Earlier in the 1960s, Roddenberry was had been in charge of his first ever television series, titled The Lieutenant. Starring Gary Lockwood and Robert Vaughn, the series was based around characters in the US army stationed at Camp Pendleton. Nichols appeared in the 21st episode, “To Set It Right".
Sadly for Nichols, and for everyone else involved with The Lieutenant, the attempt by “To Set It Right” to address racial issues in the US led to a severe backlash, especially by the Pentagon, who was providing support for the production. Gene Roddenberry attempted to rally support for the episode, but the episode was never aired on television.
The Pentagon also backed off the show and it was canceled after just one season. It wasn’t all bad news, though; nearly everyone would go on to bigger and better things. Robert Vaughn would become the star of a new TV series titled The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Roddenberry and Nichols would go on to make Star Trek, while Gary Lockwood appeared in Star Trek’s pilot as well as in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Nichols’ brother, Thomas Alva, strayed down a very dark path in his life, leading him to become a member of the cult known as Heaven’s Gate. In March 1997, Thomas was one of 39 other cult members who took their own lives.
The 10th episode of the third season of Star Trek featured a scene where Captain Kirk and Uhura kiss onscreen. While this seems normal now, it was a big deal in 1968. In fact, it was allegedly the first instance of a scripted interracial kiss in an American television program. Despite fears of angry reprisals, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Both William Shatner and Nichols got lots of fan mail over the scene. Apparently, the majority of writers to Nichols asked what it had been like to kiss Kirk, while fans of Shatner wanted to know what it had been like to kiss a black woman.
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