Nichelle Nichols, a groundbreaking figure in both Star Trek and America’s real-life space program and one of the most important and iconic women in sci-fi history, has died (according to Variety). Nichols played communications officer Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek and later used her status and influence to work with NASA to help the organizations recruit more women and people of color. A specific cause of death has not been given, though she had various health problems over the last few years (including a stroke in 2015). Nichols was 89.
Born in Illinois as Grace Dell Nichols in 1932, Nichols’ started her show business career as a theater actor. Her first acting break came from an appearance in Oscar Brown’s Kicks And Co., which earned her a nomination for Chicago’s Sarah Siddons theatrical acting award and brought her to the attention of Hugh Hefner—as the show involved a thinly veiled parody of Playboy. Hefner booked Nichols, who was also a singer and a dancer, to his Chicago Playboy Club.
Nichols’ first TV show appearance was in one episode Gene Roddenberry’s The Lieutenant, and she revealed later in life that the two of them had been in a relationship years before he cast her on Star Trek (as the story goes, Nichols broke up with him after realizing he was in love with Majel Barrett, his future wife and Star Trek’s future Nurse Christine Chapel).
But it was Nichols’ own role in Star Trek that went on to define her career and made her an iconic figure in pop culture. Lt. Uhura was not only a prominent Black TV character in an era when that was unusual, but she was in a position of power—an officer on a spaceship—and clearly commanded a lot of authority on the bridge of the Enterprise.
On Star Trek, Nichols and her co-star William Shatner also had one of the very first interracial kisses on American television (even if they were being controlled by aliens at the time), with Nichols and Shatner later saying that alternate takes without a kiss were planned but that they purposefully flubbed them so the kiss would have to be shown. Also, while the kiss is thought of as a controversial moment, Variety notes that Nichols maintained that the mail she received about it was “overwhelmingly positive and supportive.”
In another famous story from Nichols’ life, she had planned to quit Star Trek after its first year so she could go back to performing onstage, but Martin Luther King Jr. himself personally convinced her to stay after talking to her about how important it was to see a Black woman like Uhura on TV. That obviously meant a lot to Nichols, who started working with NASA after Star Trek ended specifically to try and find more minorities who could be astronauts. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to ride on the Space Shuttle, said that Star Trek had inspired her to join NASA.
Nichols continued working in TV after Star Trek, often popping up as a voice actor. She also reprised her role as Uhura in various Star Trek projects, including movies and the animated series, and she pulled double-duty (sort of) as both herself and Uhura in Futurama’s Star Trek reunion “Where No Fan Has Gone Before.”
Nichols is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.