Nichelle Nichols, Pioneering ‘Star Trek’ Actress, Dies at 89

She made history as one of the first Black women to appear in a leading role on television

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura
Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhura in “Star Trek” Photo by CBS via Getty Images

Nichelle Nichols, who captivated television audiences as Nyota Uhura in the original “Star Trek” series, died on July 30 at age 89.

“[A] great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” says her son, Kyle Johnson, in a statement. “Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. 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.”

He adds: “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”

Nichols left a lasting mark on television, science fiction and the field of science more broadly. She served as an inspiration “for young Black people whose dreams of space science and travel were emboldened by her character’s futuristic adventures,” as critic Gene Seymour writes for CNN.

Nichols' uniform
The red mini-dress Starfleet uniform that Nichols wore on “Star Trek” is now in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture's collection. Courtesy of National Museum of African American History and Culture

Grace Dell Nichols was born in a Chicago suburb in 1932. As a teenager fed up with being called Gracie, she adopted Nichelle as her first name. With an impressive four-octave vocal range and a love for ballet and musical theater, Nichols began performing in Chicago clubs when she was just 14 years old. She briefly worked as a dancer in Duke Ellington’s touring orchestra.

In the early 1960s, she moved to Los Angeles, where “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry took note of her acting skills. She landed a role in Roddenberry’s series “The Lieutenant”—and then, a few years later, she landed another one in “Star Trek.”

Amid the racial tensions of the civil rights movement, Nichols played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, a communications officer who was fourth in command of the Starship Enterprise. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that Uhura was the “first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” 

After a successful first season in 1966, Nichols decided to leave the show to pursue her musical theater dreams. While attending a fundraiser, however, she ran into King, who ultimately helped convince her to stay on the show.

“He said, ‘You cannot leave,’” Nichols told Smithsonian magazine’s Arcynta Ali Childs in 2011. “‘Don’t you see what this man [Roddenberry] has brought? He has changed the face of television forever, unless you leave.’”

King went on, Nichols recalled, to say that she had a “God-given opportunity to change the face of television, change the way we think.”

In 1968, during the show’s last season, Nichols and William Shatner (who played Captain Kirk) shared one of the first interracial kisses in television history. 

When the show ended after three seasons, Nichols continued to pave the way for women and people of color by working with NASA. With Nichols’ involvement, which included an appearance in a promotional recruitment video, the space agency began hiring more diverse astronauts, including Guion Bluford, the first Black American in space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

Nichelle Nichols - NASA Recruitment Film (1977)

“Nichelle’s advocacy transcended television and transformed NASA,” says NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “After Apollo 11, Nichelle made it her mission to inspire women and people of color to join this agency, change the face of STEM and explore the cosmos. Nichelle’s mission is NASA’s mission.”

To this day, the agency is still “guided by the legacy of Nichelle Nichols,” adds Nelson.

Nichols later reprised her role as Uhura in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and five movie sequels produced through 1991.

As news of Nichols’ death spread, friends, fans and colleagues began sharing tributes to the actress. George Takei, who acted alongside Nichols in “Star Trek” as Hikaru Sulu, the Entreprise’s helmsman, describes her as “trailblazing” and “incomparable.”

"For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend,” writes Takei on Twitter.

Television director Adam Nimoy, whose late father Leonard Nimoy played the stoic Vulcan Spock on the franchise for nearly 50 years, posted a photo on Twitter of the two actors on set, writing that it is his favorite photo of the pair. 

He adds, “The importance of Nichelle’s legacy cannot be over-emphasized.” 

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