Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols

Born Grace Nichols in Robbins, IL, to parents Samuel Earl, a factory worker and local civic leader, and Lishia, she grew up in Chicago, where she studied dance from an early age. Given the nickname "Nichelle" by a dance instructor who was impressed by the youngster's exceptional grace, Nichols was later discovered by the great Duke Ellington at the age of 14. Touring extensively with Ellington and the Lionel Hampton Band as a singer and dancer, she also began performing in various theatrical productions in Chicago and New York. Acclaimed 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. Supplementing her income with the occasional modeling job, the attractive entertainer made her feature film debut with a small appearance in the musical "Porgy & Bess" (1959), starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis, Jr. After a few more years of stage work, Nichols made the move to Hollywood, where she picked up several guest spots on a number of television series. One of these included a turn on the police procedural "The Lieutenant" (NBC, 1963-64), an ambitious, albeit short-lived series created by writer-producer Gene Roddenberry. While the role did little to increase Nichols' profile, her introduction to Roddenberry would change not only the course of her career, but her life in ways she could never have imagined.Following a small role in the James Garner drama "Mister Buddwing" (1966) and more minor turns on such television fare as "Tarzan" (NBC, 1966-68), Nichols was enlisted by Roddenberry - with whom it was later revealed she was having an affair with at the time - to join the multicultural cast of his new science-fiction adventure series. Cast as communications officer Lt. Uhura on "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69), Nichols first appeared on the groundbreaking series in the season one inaugural episode "The Man Trap." Quickly established as the sole woman to occupy a regular seat on the bridge of the starship Enterprise, the actress was less aware of the fact that she was making television history. By the time the first season of "Star Trek" had come to an end, Nichols, frustrated with her character's lack of development, was ready to leave the program. When she said as much to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during a fundraiser, the civil rights leader urged her to reconsider, convincing her that her portrayal of a competent and non-stereotypical member of the cast was a revolutionary development on American television, and that Uhura served as a role model for African-Americans, both male and female. It was a door, he said, that she had helped to open and could never be closed. Nichols stayed with the series and proved the good doctor correct when in a scene from the third season episode "Plato's Stepchildren," Uhura was telekinetically forced to lock lips with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) by alien puppet masters. Widely cited as the first scripted, interracial kiss on American television, the episode reportedly elicited a massive amount of fan mail, nearly all of it positive, according to Nichols.Although the ratings-challenged show had escaped cancelation after season two, thanks to a well-orchestrated fan letter writing campaign, "Star Trek" was given the proverbial ax one year later. Like many of her co-stars, Nichols found it difficult to land worthwhile roles after leaving the Enterprise. What work there was included reprising her role as Lt. Uhura - in voice only - for the animated version of "Star Trek" (NBC, 1973-74), a surprisingly well-made continuation of the adventures of the Enterprise crew. Also experiencing a dearth of job offers were her former co-stars, Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, George Takei and James Doohan, who reprised their characters for the cartoon, as well. Pretty, petite and eloquent as Uhura, Nichols took audiences by surprise when she played the cold-blooded, foul-mouthed madam, Dorinda, in the blaxploitation movie "Truck Turner" (1974), starring recording artist-actor Isaac Hayes. Despite the lack of momentum in her acting career, Nichols pushed forward with other ventures outside the entertainment industry. In the late 1970s, she established the non-profit organization Women in Motion, Inc., a consultation firm which contracted with NASA to start a diversity recruitment campaign aimed at attracting qualified women and minorities to the predominantly white male space agency. The program proved exceptionally successful, later boasting such recruits as Dr. Sally Ride and Col. Guion Bluford, the first female and African-American astronauts, respectively.To the surprise of many, "Star Trek" had become a massive pop culture hit in syndication in the years after the series cancellation. With the unparalleled success of "Star Wars" (1977) and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), Paramount Pictures - who owned the rights to "Star Trek" - were reassured that science fiction adventure films were making a comeback. Ten years after the original series was cancelled, Nichols and the entire cast were called back into service for the long-awaited return of the Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979). Directed by Academy Award-winner Robert Wise, the feature film was a lavish, big-budget spectacular that saw Kirk, Spock and the crew facing an immensely powerful artificial intelligence on a collision course with Earth. Although the laconic pace of the movie was not quite the rousing space adventure most fans had hoped for, it proved profitable enough for the studio to greenlight a sequel. With an emphasis on adventure, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982) pitted Uhura and her crewmates against an old adversary first seen on the original series - the genetically-engineered Khan (Ricardo Montalbán). A hit with audiences, "Khan" ensured a bright future for the sci-fi franchise and at least intermittent work for Nichols and her fellow cast mates. In the meantime, she made a rare departure from "Trek" with a turn as Charmain in the made-for-television adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" (1983), co-starring Lynn Redgrave and Timothy Dalton.Nichols' primary exposure continued to be in the ongoing adventures of the famous starship. She aided Kirk and the crew in bringing their deceased Vulcan friend back from the great beyond in the second sequel, "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" (1984), then took time for another diversion when she starred with Maxwell Caulfield in the schlocky creepiest "The Supernaturals" (1986). Nichols joined the crew of the Enterprise three more times in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986), "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1989) and the final adventure of the original cast in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" (1991). Shortly thereafter, she became the first African-American to place her handprints in front of Hollywood's Chinese Theatre, along with the rest of the original "Star Trek" crew. Her memoir, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories was published in 1994. In addition to her ongoing work with her non-profit organization and NASA, the actress provided voice work for animated genre series such as "Batman" (Fox, 1992-95), "Gargoyles" (syndicated, 1994-97) and "Spider-Man" (Fox, 1994-98). It was around this time when Nichols and her family were dealt a tragic blow after they received news that her brother, Thomas, had killed himself along with 38 other members of the Heaven's Gate religious cult in a San Diego suburb. Believing that their souls would be taken aboard an alien spacecraft hidden in the tail of the Hale-Bopp Comet - passing Earths' orbit at the time - the group committed mass suicide by ingesting a combination of cyanide and arsenic in March of 1997. Nichols later delighted fans when she voiced herself, along with most of her other shipmates from the Enterprise, for a hilarious episode of the animated sci-fi comedy series "Futurama" (Fox, 1999-2003/Comedy Central, 2008-13). Titled "Where No Fan Has Gone Before," the installment featured the reanimated crew forced to endure a Star Trek fan convention for all of eternity. A playful and loving tribute to "Trek," it went on to be regarded as one of the best episodes in the show's history. Continuing to work periodically in film, she appeared as Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s mother in the Disney family feature "Snow Dogs" (2002) and opposite rapper-actor Ice Cube in the comedy "Are We There Yet?" (2005). In 2007, Nichols took on a recurring role as Nana Dawson, the great-aunt of gifted young "technopath" Micah Sanders (Noah Gray-Cabey), on the fantasy adventure series "Heroes" (NBC, 2006-2010). Other late-decade work included turns in the feature films "Lady Magdalene's" (2008), "Tru Loved" (2008) and "The Torturer" (2008). Then, 40 years after she helped create the character, Uhura was reinterpreted by actress Zoe Saldana in the immensely popular franchise reboot "Star Trek" (2009), directed by J.J. Abrams. During filming, Nichols met with the younger actress and graciously gave Saldana a tutorial on Uhura's background and provided anecdotes as to how she went about creating the character for the original series. Nichelle Nichols died on July 30, 2022 at the age of 89.


Guest Appearances