Welcome to Star Trek: Age of Discovery. Today, Addell and I wanted to take a moment to pay our respects and reflect on the passing of Nichelle Nichols. She was an important fixture in both of our lives.
Actress Nichelle Nichols, the original Lt. Nyota Uhura, passed away on the evening of July 30, 2022. Gary and Addell took a moment to examine the remarkable life of this amazing woman. This special tribute episode of Age of Discovery will include an overview of Nichols’ formative years; her early career as a dancer, singer, and actor; the state of television during the 1960s; the impact of her portrayal of Uhura; her life after Star Trek, and finally, her legacy.
- Formative Years and Early Career
Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols to Samuel Earl and Lishia Mae Nichols in the predominantly Black community of Robbins, IL, on Dec. 28, 1932. Her paternal grandfather was a white Southerner who had married a Black woman, causing a rift within his wealthy family. Nichelle was the third of six children. Her father, a factory worker, was elected the mayor and chief magistrate of Robbins in 1929. Despite his success, the Nichols family would eventually move to an apartment in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago.
From a young age, Grace knew she wanted to be an entertainer and directed shows with the kids in her neighborhood. Initially, she set her sights on being a ballerina. Her parents paid for lessons with dance schools within her community. However, when she reached the age of 14, her teachers felt she needed a more challenging venue her father arranged for her to audition for the prestigious the Chicago Ballet Academy. When she arrived, the Academy’s Director told her father – a light skinned Black man – that they did not know his daughter was Black. If he had known, he would not have scheduled the audition because they did not accept Black students since they were more suitable for jazz and tap dancing. Despite the indignity heaped upon himself and his daughter, her father convinced the Director to give his daughter an audition. Despite the rigorous test, Nichols won a place at the Academy. She studied ballet for two years, while also learning Afro-Cuban dance styles from neighborhood teachers.
While still a student at Englewood High School at the age of 14 she began performing in local Chicago clubs due to her four-octave vocal range. She meets jazz legend Duke Ellington who gives her a chance to tour with his orchestra. She signed with a manager who gave her the stage name of Lynn Mayfair. Six months later, dissatisfied with the name, she asked her mother for her advice for a replacement. Her mother suggested she call herself Nichelle Nichols.
The year, 1951 proved to be a pivotal year in her life. Shortly after her 18th birthday, she married her dancing partner, Foster Johnson, a man 15 years her senior. The marriage ended quickly, but not before she became pregnant with her son – Kyle Johnson, born on August 14. She graduated from Chicago’s Englewood High School, then resumed touring extensively through the U.S., Canada, and Europe with Ellington’s band and the Lionel Hampton Band as a singer and dancer. Later she performed in various theatrical productions in Chicago and New York. The stage performances included the title role in “Carmen Jones” and a supporting appearance in “Kicks and Company,” a highly anticipated musical by civil rights activist Oscar Brown, Jr. The latter show was scheduled to go to Broadway but closed out of town in Chicago. Still, for “Kicks & Company” she received her first nomination for Best Actress from the prestigious Sarah Siddons Society. The second nomination came when she joined the company of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks: A Clown Show.”
After moving to Los Angeles in the late 1950s, Nichols supplemented her income with occasional modeling job. The attractive entertainer made her feature film debut with a brief appearance as a dancer in the musical “Porgy & Bess” (1959), starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis, Jr. She continued working on the stage, including “The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd,” “For My People,” and James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mr. Charlie.” In 1962, she returned to New York to serve as understudy to Diahann Carroll’s lead role in the Richard Rodgers musical, “No Strings.”
- The State of 1960s Television
In 1963, Nichols returned to Los Angeles looking for work in film and TV. This was the year that she first met Gene Roddenberry. However, before we get to the story of the meeting between Nichols and Roddenberry, we need to place it in its proper context by examining the conditions a Black woman pursuing an entertainment career would have had to endure in the 1960s.
During the politically restless decade, broadcast television attempted to shift from perpetuating racial stereotypes. In 1961, African-American actors were largely marginalized into one-dimensional roles, nearly always playing servants, providing comedic relief, or both. Eddie Anderson, who played Jack Benny’s manservant “Rochester” on “The Jack Benny Show,” is a perfect example of this tradition. However, most Black actors had to settle for guest appearances in a single episode.
Gradually, throughout the decade, a small band of Black actors acquired recurring, supporting roles in a few shows. Cicely Tyson made history as the first African-American female star of a television drama with her role as secretary Jane Foster in “East Side/West Side.” The short-lived series lasted one season. It would be three years before another tv production would make another attempt.
All of the other television series that had reoccurring Black actors were male, Ivan Dixon in “Hogan’s Heroes,” Bill Cosby in “I Spy,” Greg Morris in “Mission Impossible,” Hari Rhodes in “Daktari,” Robert Hooks in “N.Y.P.D.,” Don Mitchell in “Ironside,” and Clarence Williams III in “The Mod Squad.”
In the fall of 1968, actress Gail Fisher made her first appeared in the CBS detective series, “Mannix” during the second season. She played receptionist Peggy Fair when Mannix left a detective agency and sets up shop as a private investigator. She became the second African American woman after Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek to show prominently on weekly television.
Prior to joining the cast of Star Trek, Nichols’ continued to seeking a breakout opportunity. In 1964, she made a professional connection that would redirect the rest of her career. She was preparing to make her TV debut in an episode of “The Lieutenant,” an hourlong drama featuring Gary Lockwood as the title character, Second Lieutenant William Tiberius Rice. Created by Gene Roddenberry, “The Lieutenant” explored the lives of enlisted Marines and officers at Camp Pendleton, the West Coast base of the U.S. Marine Corps.
In the 21st episode, entitled “To Set It Right,” she was cast as the fiancée of a Black Marine who had an ongoing riff with a white peer. The friction was racially motivated. Lt. Rice attempts to play peacemaker between the two platoon members. The Pentagon, who had been an unpaid advisor to the show from the beginning, objected to the tone of the episode. They demanded that it not air. Roddenberry tried to get the NAACP to pressure the network into showing it. Eventually, the Pentagon cut all ties with the series. A week later, NBC the cancelled show. Even though the episode never aired, film historian Donald Bogle observed to the quality of Nichols performance. He praised the interactions between Lockwood as Rice and Nichols as Norma. Bogle said that this was a better articulation of the problems faced by a Black Marine than those explained by the actual character.
Although, this happened in the early 1960s, it shouldn’t lead anyone to believe that this type of self-censorship by a network is a thing of the past. A similar situation occurred in 2018 around an episode of the ABC comedy “blackish.” The episode, entitled “Please, Baby, Please” — took aim at Donald Trump. It referenced the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally held in Charleston, Virginia and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence. Both subjects made network executives uncomfortable and they declined to air it.
- Nichelle Nichols impact on Star Trek canon
On September 8, 1966, when Star Trek first premiered, Nichelle was the only Black woman on television as a series regular that wasn’t playing a domestic or some other subservient role. She would hold that distinction for two full seasons before she was joined by others.
Nevertheless, it can’t be over emphasized the importance of her playing Lieutenant Uhura, Chief Communications Officer on the U. S. S. Enterprise, the flagship of Starfleet. As such, she was the nerve center of the ship. She handled all inter- and intra-ship communications including the captain’s orders from Starfleet, and his imperatives to the rest of the ship’s crew. Putting it plainly, Uhura was a senior department head with a high-level security clearance to handle sensitive communications.
It can be argued that Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura is the legacy character that most embodies the progressive, inclusive and hopeful spirit that many have attributed to “Star Trek” for 56 years. Throughout the original series we saw numerous examples where neither her race or gender inhibited her opportunities. Uhura was the only consistent female character over the three seasons of TOS. Yeoman Rand, who was ill-defined as a presence on the ship, lasted only one season. Nurse Chapel had far fewer total episodes where she was prominent. By process of elimination, Uhura is the prototypical Star Trek female. We will go into greater depth on this point in a minute.
Also, Uhura was the most prominent person of color aboard the Enterprise. She wasn’t the only one. Besides Sulu, there were individual Black, Asian and Latino crew members who would periodically pop up on an episode. But Uhura served as a department head, whereas none of the others, including Sulu, didn’t. As stated earlier, Uhura was fourth in command after Kirk, Spock, and Scotty. Although she never took command on TOS, she did do so on an episode of TAS, using her position in the chain of command to justify taking the center seat.
Much is made of the story of Nichelle Nichols meeting her biggest fan, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the main point the encounter with Dr. King highlighted is the importance of Uhura being seen weekly in American living rooms. Lt. Uhura held symbolic importance for both Black and white audience members. In its original broadcast and later in reruns, she was able inspired the audiences of the 1960s and 1970s that the present racial strife and inequality in opportunities could be overcome, eventually. Although she was a fictional character on a science fiction series that was lasted three seasons, Uhura was evidence that the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement weren’t in vain. Her presence on the bridge every week gave witness to something to hope for in the face of the disturbing violence and tensions of the day.
Whoopi Goldberg told of how she, as a young viewer, was influenced by Lt. Uhura on her:
“Not only was Uhura proof that Black folks would actually make it into the future – and that was very important for us to believe back in the ‘60s – she was beautiful, smart and had power. People listened to her…Watching Nichelle Nichols made me confident that I could make it, too.”Whoopie Goldberg
Nichols’ performance as the highly intelligent, very sociable, and multi-talented Uhura was something white America needed to witness as well. She was recognized by her Starfleet peers as an extremely competent, professional Black woman who tolerated no nonsense. On more than one occasion, Spock would state that she was the most appropriate person for the complex task that she had been assigned. If whites could get comfortable with the possibility that this could be the case with their Black coworkers, it could improve employment opportunities for POC and workplace relationships. This was why Dr. King had placed so much importance on Nichols staying on the series.
But it wasn’t easy. In her autobiography Nichols stated that many of her scenes were left on the cutting room floor, her subplots altered or rewritten entirely to omit her. She’s quoted by Daniel Bernardi in his book, “Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future.”
“I’d get the first draft, the white pages, and see what Uhura had to do this week, and maybe it was a halfway decent scene or two, sometimes more, and then invariably the next draft would come in on blue pages and I’d find that Uhura’s presence in the show had been cut way down. The pink pages came next and she’d suffer some more cuts, then yellow, more cuts, and it finally got to the point where I had really had it. I mean I just decided that I didn’t need to read the FUCKING SCRIPT! I mean I know how to say “hailing frequencies open…”Nichelle Nichols, as quoted in “Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future,” by Daniel Bernardi
Her fan mail was withheld from her by order of the network, and studio officials made racists comments directly to her face. In spite of having much of her dialogue reduced to “Yes Sir,” “No Sir” or other superfluous statements, Uhura more than held her own with Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and all the other Starfleet officers on the bridge of the Enterprise.
In several episodes, Uhura revealed insights and observations that escape the others. She is the only female character that regularly interacted with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.
Finally, it’s obvious to see how Nichelle Nichols’ performance inspired the other Black female characters that followed, such as Guinan, Captain Michael Burnham, Raffi Musiker, even Ensign Beckett Mariner and her mother Captain Freeman of Lower Decks. But a case can be made for Uhura setting the table for other female characters. Not just as a personal counselor before Deanna Troi, or as an attractive, competent member of the crew similar to Seven of Nine, or T’Pol, but also a commanding leader Captain Kathryn Janeway, As we said earlier, Lt. Uhura is prototypical Star Trek female character. More of her DNA resides in female characters in the sequels series than any other. Uhura is the only female character from TOS who displayed authority and experienced adventures. Her insightful observations broadened the awareness of the ship’s science officer and captain on more than one occasion. Uhura’s professionalism and sense of command proved that a woman could convey authority without the need to imitate a man.
Uhura’s Most Importance Star Trek Episodes
Ep. 1 The Man Trap – In one of the first episodes of Star Trek, a shape-shifting alien changed into a new form and began talking to her in another language which a young Lieutenant Uhura delightedly recognized as Swahili. This episode is the first incident presenting Uhura as a multi-lingual Kenyan woman, which was not the kind of representation that was typically seen on-screen in the 60s. This episode was presented Uhura as an educated Black woman who was in touch with her cultural heritage and remaining true to her identity.
Ep. 2 Charlie X – Uhura serenaded her crewmates with her angelic rendition of the song “Oh, On The Starship Enterprise” as Commander Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, accompanied her on the Vulcan lute. Uhura’s musical ability was a recurring character trait throughout the show, as she could often be found humming to herself at any moment.
Ep. 4 The Naked Time – When the Enterprise crew was intoxicated by a ship-wide contagion, Lieutenant Sulu became a topless swashbuckler. Sulu attempted a romantic display for Uhura by grabbing her and declaring his intention to save the “fair maiden”. In her iconic reply, Uhura exclaimed “sorry, neither!” Uhura’s rejection of this antiquated term with racist and misogynistic undertones was extremely important. The passion with which Nichols delivered this line shows that Uhura’s value as a character wasn’t dependent on the “fairness” of her skin or her status as a “maiden”, with its outdated implications of chastity.
Ep. 17 The Squire of Gothos – Uhura doesn’t get a whole lot to do in this episode – in which a petulant superbeing toys with the crew of the Enterprise until his parents show up and scold him – but it at least gets her off the bridge for a few minutes. At one point, Trelane (William Campbell) transports the entire bridge crew down to his castle on the planet Gothos, where he gives Uhura the ability to play the harpsichord so that Trelane can dance with a female yeoman. Uhura seems to actually having this newfound ability – cementing the character’s longstanding relationship with music – but she’s all business once Kirk (briefly) gets the upper hand on Trelane and manages to get the crew back to the ship.
- Season Two
Ep. 3 The Changeling – When the psychopathic space probe Nomad comes aboard the Enterprise (a plot later reused in Star Trek: The Motion Picture), it hears Uhura singing and does not understand it, so it zaps her brain looking for information – wiping her memory and reverting her mind back to that of a child. Since her mind has been erased, Uhura’s only memory is of speaking Swahili – and a linguist was reportedly brought to the set to write a few lines in the language for Nichols to say. She is shown recovering slowly in Sickbay, and we’re happy to report that she’s back to college level by the end of the episode – and apparently back to normal in time for the next episode and her big role there.
Ep. 4 Mirror, Mirror – When Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura were sent into a mirror dimension, they encountered alternate versions of their crewmates including a particularly flirtatious Lieutenant Sulu. Uhura was tasked with distracting Sulu while the Captain put his plan into action. Uhura seduced Sulu on her own terms and then confidently rejected him. This was an extremely empowering moment for women on TV who would often have been viewed as the objects of men’s sexual advances without room to express their sexualities on their own terms. This was the first of many Star Trek mirror-dimension episodes in which alternate versions of the crew acted completely opposite to their normal character. Yet, even in this new environment, Uhura was able to stay true to herself.
Ep. 15 The Trouble With Tribbles – In one of the most iconic Star Trek episodes, the Enterprise was overrun by a hoard of cute fluffy alien creatures called Tribbles. Lieutenant Uhura was the one responsible for bringing the infestation on board after she bought the first Tribble in an alien bar. She then handed out more Tribbles to her crewmates who were comforted by the creatures’ persistent purr— the fluffy little aliens soothed even Spock’s emotions. But this was one of the few episodes where Uhura was shown to have interests and desires outside of her role as Chief Communications Officer, proving that she was more than just a two-dimensional side character.
Ep. 16 The Gamesters of Triskelion – Another (somewhat inexplicably) popular episode, this one finds Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov captured by a group of disembodied aliens called the Providers, who stage gladiatorial contests among various humanoid “Thralls” on their planet as a way to amuse themselves. Our three Starfleet officers of course resist their confinement and training, although they must eventually fight for their lives. This one found Uhura again in the heart of the action, although both she and Chekov get to do considerably less fighting than good old Kirk (we wonder if Shatner counted the fight scenes). Uhura also must fend off an attempted rape by another Thrall, which fortunately occurs offscreen and which she is able to successfully beat back.
- Season Three
Ep. 9 The Tholian Web – One of the better third season episodes finds Kirk trapped aboard a starship that has slipped into an interdimensional void, while the Enterprise must fend off an attack from an aggressive race called the Tholians as they wait for Kirk to re-emerge. Not a lot of Uhura in this one besides her usual duties, but there is one striking scene late in the episode in which we see her in her quarters for the first time in civilian clothing – in this case, a long, flowing gown and ceremonial necklace. Nichols told author David Gerrold in his book The World of Star Trek that this was one of her favorite episodes: “I enjoyed anything that I was able to get out of uniform.”
Ep. 10 Plato’s Stepchildren – Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner made history together by performing one of the first televised interracial kisses in this episode. Although Kira and Uhura weren’t acting under their own willpower at the time, it was Uhura’s declaration before the famous kiss that made this such a trailblazing moment. Uhura told Kirk “I am not afraid” implying that she was not afraid of the backlash that Star Trek: The Original Series was sure to receive following this moment. Through Uhura, Nichols once again remained true to her own open-minded values and laid the path for future actors to be able to do the same.
Star Trek: The Animated Series
Ep. 4 The Lorelie Signal – Although Uhura was supposed to be fourth in command of the Enterprise, after Kirk, Spock, and Scotty, she was never shown doing so in the live-action show (indeed, Sulu and recurring redshirt Lt. Leslie even got to sit in the chair, but not Uhura!). That changed, however, in this animated series episode, in which a race of beautiful alien women lures the male members of the Enterprise crew to their planet, in order to drain their life force. With the entire male crew incapacitated by the alien women, Uhura assumes command of the ship for the first time in its televised history as she and Nurse Chapel search for a way to free the men. According to Andy Mangels’ Star Trek: The Animated Series, Nichols reportedly exclaimed during the script’s table read, “What, you’re kidding? I actually get to run the Enterprise? Really?”
- After the cancellation of Star Trek, Nichols became involved in a special project with NASA to recruit minority and female personnel for the space agency. She began this work by making an affiliation between NASA and a company which she helped to run, Women in Motion.
The program was a success. Among those recruited were Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and United States Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, as well as Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair, who both flew successful missions during the Space Shuttle program before their deaths in the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster on January 28, 1986. Recruits also included Charles Bolden, the former NASA administrator and veteran of four shuttle missions, Frederick D. Gregory, former deputy administrator and a veteran of three shuttle missions and Lori Garver, former deputy administrator. An enthusiastic advocate of space exploration, Nichols served from the mid-1980s on the board of governors of the National Space Institute (today’s National Space Society), a nonprofit, educational space advocacy organization.
You can learn more about Nichols’ involvement with the space program by watching the documentary, “Woman in Motion,” available on the Paramount Plus streaming service.
Post-Star Trek Acting Opportunities
In the early ’70s, the actress made a few guest appearances on TV and appeared in the 1974 Blaxploitation film “Truck Turner” starring Isaac Hayes. She appeared in a supporting role in a 1983 TV adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra” that also featured her “Star Trek” co-star Walter Koenig. She starred with Maxwell Caulfield and Talia Balsam in the 1986 horror sci-fi feature “The Supernaturals.”
The actress played the mother of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s lead character in 2002’s “Snow Dogs” and Miss Mable in the 2005 Ice Cube comedy “Are We There Yet?”’ In 2007, Nichols recurred on the second season of the NBC drama “Heroes” as Nana Dawson, matriarch of a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina who cares for her orphaned grandchildren and great-nephew, Micah Sanders (series regular Noah Gray-Cabey). The following year she appeared in the films “Tru Loved” and “The Torturer.”
In 2017, she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for the category, “Outstanding Special Guest Performer in a Drama Series” for her role as Lucinda Winters in the daytime soap, The Young and the Restless. In addition, Nichols began to do voice work, lending her talent to the animated series “Gargoyles” and “Spider-Man.” She also voiced herself on “Futurama.”
Nichelle Nichols – Addell’s Personal Perspective – As a child in the 1960’s I lived in blue collar suburb of Detroit with my parents and 4 sisters. We had always enjoyed watching classic scifi films, such as Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still; as well as series, The Outer Limits and Lost in Space. However, as a young African American girl, you never saw anyone who looked like you who would be part of the imagined future. That was until we saw Star Trek . . .
It’s hard for me to describe the joy my sisters and I experienced of seeing Nichelle Nichols embody the role of Lt. Uhura in the first episode that aired, “Man Trap.” Brown skin and beautiful. Although supposedly set in the future, her hair style, make up, drop earrings, and swagger were culturally akin to what was popular in the Black community of the 1960s. And, she could speak Swahili – a gateway language to millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. She wasn’t anyone’s servant and held a respected position as a senior bridge officer.
Little did we know that for most subsequent shows, her dialogue would be reduced to such lines as, “Hailing frequencies are open sir.” But that didn’t matter to us. Each week, we anxiously waited for her appearance and any words she was given to say. Through the reruns, we memorized her lines, her movements, and gestures. Through Uhura, we could fantasize being part of Starfleet assured of our place in the future. In 1967, my sisters and I fought over Ebony magazine when she was featured on the cover with a prominent article about her inside. Of course at the time, I had no idea she would have left the show if it had not been for the intervention of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, if she had left, we would have been devastated. For I have no illusion she would have been replaced by another Black woman or another person of color. Even in those episodes where Nichelle Nichols did not appear, she was often replaced with a white woman.
In high school in the 1970s, I took advantage of an opportunity to see Ms. Nichols at one of the earliest Star Trek Conventions at Michigan State University, where my oldest sister was attending college. Beautifully dressed in a white pantsuit and sporting a modest Afro, she appeared with other TOS members, William Shatner, Deforrest Kelly, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and James Doohan. I believe all of the regular cast members were there but Leonard Nimoy. Ms. Nichols did not disappoint and held her own against the men. My sisters and I hung on to her every word.
I continued to closely follow her life and career after her Star Trek days. While the roles offered to her only rarely suited her immense talent, I knew for me – she would always be thought of as the most beautiful, intelligent, resourceful and dynamic Star Trek Queen.