Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek Actress & NASA Recruiter
Nichelle Nichols on her groundbreaking 'Star Trek' role, a vital encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. and NASA recruitment.
Star Trek Actress & NASA Recruiter
Nichelle Nichols on her groundbreaking Star Trek role, a vital encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. and NASA recruitment.
Nichelle Nichols is an American actress and singer. As Lieutenant Uhura on the legendary television series Star Trek, Nichols played, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a black woman in television history." At the tender age of 14, Nichols began her professional singing and dancing career in her hometown of Chicago. As a teenager, she was discovered by Duke Ellington, who hired her to choreograph and perform a ballet for one of his musical suites. She finished the tour as his lead singer. She continued to work as an actress, singer, and dancer in a series of plays and musicals in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles and toured with Lionel Hampton’s band in the U.S. and Europe.
When Nichols was cast in Star Trek as Enterprise communications officer Lt. Uhura, she made history not only as one of the first black women featured in a major television series in a non-servant character role, but for breaking a major interracial taboo when she shared a kiss with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in 1968. Though the series was cancelled in 1969, its impact on television history was indelible and Nichols went on to reprise her role in six blockbuster Star Trek movies and to voice Uhura in the animated series.
Thanks to her popularity with Star Trek, Nichols also began volunteering her time with NASA, in a highly effective campaign to recruit minority and female personnel for the space agency. She served on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, a nonprofit, educational space advocacy organization. She has continued to appear in various television and film roles, returned to singing, and in 1994, she published her autobiography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. She was awarded her much deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992.
NICHELLE NICHOLS: We would rehearse, and it would be a beautiful scene. And then they'd bring down the rewrites, and I had less to say. What would start out to be a beautiful participation became yes sir, no sir, and I can't reach Starfleet Command, sir.
I get a phone call from my agent. They want you down at the audition. They gave me the script. I had no idea what it's about. It was three characters, somebody named Bones, somebody named Kirk, somebody named Spock. I looked at it and, oh, really good scene.
Uhura was an interesting character to me, and I fell in love with her. She will take no nonsense from anyone. And she is a professional. The character was so strong, people from the south have told me that they were forbidden to watch the show because it was integrated.
There was a scene that changed the face of television forever. We were being forced by these people who had tremendous kinetic powers to do their bidding. And the scene culminated in them forcing Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura to kiss.
Bill Shatner was just delighted. He said, I knew I'd get you in my arms one day. And so we did eight takes because Bill kept saying, it doesn't feel right. I think-- maybe I'm holding her-- are you getting a good shot? That is how the first interracial kiss happened on TV.
So I was thinking about leaving the show. As fate would have it, I had been invited as a celebrity guest. I believe it was an NAACP fundraiser. And so I had just sat down at the dais when one of the promoters-- organizers came over and said, Miss Nichols, there's someone who wants to meet you. He says he's your greatest fan. And I'm thinking it's a Trekker.
So I went to turn around and look straight in the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, who has this beautiful smile on his face. He said, Uhura is more than just a communications officer. You're a symbol. The work you are doing, you may not know how important it is, but we who are fighting the good fight stop and watch you on Thursday night when you're on.
I went everywhere to recruit. I went to universities that had strong science and engineering programs. I was a guest at NORAD where no civilian had gone before. They were all Trekkers. They let me in.
At the end of the recruitment, NASA had so many qualified people-- highly qualified. They took six women. They took three African American men. It was a very fulfilling accomplishment for me.
NICHELLE NICHOLS: In "The Next Generation," something very interesting happened to Gene Roddenberry. He told me the story, and he wrote about it in one of the fan magazines. He got a call from an agent who represented Whoopi Goldberg. And he said, she insists that I call you. She would like an interview with you-- with you.
And he said, well, of course, that-- she's one of my favorite comedians-- "Purple." He said, what is it about? She wants to work on your new show, "Star Trek."
So she comes in to see him, and she's nervous. She later told me how nervous she was. And she says, she's going to meet Gene Roddenberry, and you know, "Star Trek," and she-- nobody knew she was, like, a big "Star Trek," nut, you know-- nutty over Star Trek.
And he said, I'm just going to ask you one question. You tell me why. Why do you want to be on this show while you're on the big screen? This is the small screen.
She said-- and this is Gene told me-- she said, it's all Nichelle Nichols' fault. She said, well, see, when she first came on the-- on the screen, I was 9 years old. And she said, I thought she was the most beautiful thing that ever happened on television or anywhere else. And she was a black woman playing in the future. And I knew we had a future.
And I remember, when she came, I said, [GASPS]. I ran through the house, screaming, hey, come quick! Come quick, everybody! There's a black lady on television, and she ain't no maid.
Gene sat and said, like, she said, and I knew that I could be anything that I wanted to be. So it's Nichelle's fault and yours.
NICHELLE NICHOLS: When I was 16, I did indeed wind up traveling with Duke Ellington, as a dancer for one of his suites. One day we were almost at the end of the tour, and Mr. Ellington called me into his dressing room and he says, sing something for me.
And I looked around and I said, there's no piano. And he said, you don't need a piano. We can all sing, we all got rhythm, don't we? And so that was a challenge. And so I sang everything I heard the lead singer sing. And that was all his music. When I finished, he said, do you still have that little gold dress? You wore it before we left the party we gave, before we left. And I said, oh yes, I even have the shoes. [LAUGHS] The gold shoes.
He said, you're going to have to go on tonight. And I said, but, but, and he said, the band singer fell deathly ill, very, very ill, and she had to go home. And I thought this was my big chance-- after I got through with the chills and the nerves, nervousness.
And so I went on. And the great Duke Ellington is playing for me. You can't-- it's like being on a cloud, floating on a cloud, you can do no wrong. And I found myself just loving it. And he finally came to me afterwards, he said, you were wonderful, but please let that microphone go and be yourself. He says, she holds on to the microphone because she's so nervous. [LAUGHS] She can't-- she'd should fall down if she couldn't, that's why she holds on to the mic. Be yourself, and that's the best advice I ever got.
NICHELLE NICHOLS: School came rather easy for me. Anything I was interested in was easy. So I was interested in everything. I was the only one that got good marks in science because girls weren't supposed to like science, you know. I thought science was fun. [CHUCKLES]
NICHELLE NICHOLS: I was a dancer. And I wanted to do theater, wanted to to do plays, but there was there was hardly anything in Chicago. But there were supper clubs in downtown. And this guy saw me, saw my work and headlined me in a Calypso show. Which lasted a year and a half. Which pleased me no end, because I could stay home with my son, do my work that I love to do. And he discovered I could sing.
So when they were-- I was singing, and he advised me that the [? L'Alliance Francaise ?] chapter-- the Chicago chapter was in the audience. So I sang La Vie en Rose. And afterwards they all came up to me, and chattering away in French, and I didn't understand a word they were saying. And when they found out that I didn't speak French they said, Oh, but no! And I loved that. And I knew-- that's when that I think is when I really knew showbiz was for me.
NICHELLE NICHOLS: I think the value of Star Trek was it was every man. When you see yourself for who you are, you can measure yourself by looking at Star Trek. And measure yourself, what what are you doing with your life, with others? How are you relating? Where are your prejudices? Because we all have wondrous qualities and strengths and we all have weaknesses. And some of them are very ugly. And we let some of our worst traits for one reason or another dominate our lives. And we decide that one person is not worthy or we can do without them. We can take away their security because mine is more important before you put a mirror up to someone else, put it up to yourself.