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.