Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original “Star Trek,” has died at the age of 89, her son Kyle Johnson announced on her official Facebook page.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” Johnson’s statement read. “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. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
“Today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend,” Nichols’ co-star George Takei tweeted.
As Uhura, Nichols was one of the first Black women ever to play a main cast role on a television series, as “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry wanted the crew of the USS Enterprise to come from many diverse backgrounds. Uhura, whose surname came from the Swahili word for “freedom,” was the ship’s communications officer with expertise in linguistics.
After the show’s first season wrapped in 1966, Nichols planned to leave “Star Trek” to pursue roles on Broadway despite Roddenberry’s pleas to stay. But she changed her mind after an unexpected meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at an NAACP event, where the civil rights leader told her that his entire family watched “Trek” together. When Nichols told Dr. King she was going to leave the show, he urged her to reconsider.
“‘You cannot, you cannot…for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers,’” Nichols recalled King saying to her in a 2013 interview. “‘If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a black role, and is not a female role, he can fill it with anybody even an alien.’”
Nichols stayed for all three seasons of “Trek,” with arguably her most famous scene coming in the 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” where the Enterprise crew are held hostage by a telekinetic race called the Platonians and forced via mind control into humiliating situations. In one such situation, Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, was forced to kiss Uhura. While not the first, it was the most prominent instance at the time of an interracial kiss on American television.
After “Trek” ended in 1969, Nichols played Uhura again on “Star Trek: The Animated Series” in 1973 and 1974, with her most famous performance being in the episode “The Lorelei Signal” in which Uhura takes command of the Enterprise. She also starred alongside the rest of the “Trek” cast in six feature films, with Uhura being promoted to commander in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”
Off the set, Nichols used her “Trek” fame to call on NASA to expand its astronaut program to women and people of color. This led to a partnership between NASA and Nichols’ new science foundation, Women in Motion, to bring diversity to the space program. Thanks in large part to this program, Sally Ride became the first woman in space in 1983, while Air Force Col. Guion Bluford became the first Black astronaut that same year. A documentary about Nichols work with Women in Motion was released in 2019.
Nichols made her final public appearance at Los Angeles Comic Con this past December. She is survived by her son, Kyle.