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Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ Dies at 89


Nichelle Nichols, the actress revered by “Star Trek” fans for her role as Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer on the starship U.S.S. Enterprise, died on Saturday in Silver City, N.M. She was 89.

The cause was heart failure, said Sky Conway, a author and a movie producer who said he had been asked by Kyle Johnson, Ms. Nichols’s son, to talk for the family.

Ms. Nichols had a protracted profession as an entertainer, starting as a teenage supper-club singer and dancer in Chicago, her hometown, and later appearing on television.

But she’s going to eternally be best remembered for her work on “Star Trek,” the cult-inspiring space adventure series that aired from 1966 to 1969 and starred William Shatner as Captain Kirk, the heroic leader of the starship crew; Leonard Nimoy as his science officer and adviser, Mr. Spock, an ultralogical humanoid from the planet Vulcan; and DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy, a.k.a. Bones, the ship’s physician.

A striking beauty, Ms. Nichols provided a frisson of sexiness on the bridge of the Enterprise. She was generally clad in a comfortable red doublet and black tights; Ebony magazine called her the “most heavenly body in ‘Star Trek’” on its 1967 cover. Her role, nevertheless, was each substantial and historically significant.

Uhura was an officer and a highly educated and well-trained technician who maintained a businesslike demeanor while performing her high-minded duties. Ms. Nichols was among the many first Black women to have a number one role on a network television series, making her an anomaly on the small screen, which until that point had rarely depicted Black women in anything aside from subservient roles.

In a November 1968 episode, in the course of the show’s third and final season, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura are forced to embrace by the inhabitants of a wierd planet, leading to what’s widely considered the primary interracial kiss in television history.

Ms. Nichols’s first appearances on “Star Trek” predated the 1968 sitcom “Julia,” by which Diahann Carroll, playing a widowed mother who works as a nurse, became the primary Black woman to star in a non-stereotypical role in a network series.

(A series called “Beulah,” also called “The Beulah Show,” starring Ethel Waters — and later Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel — because the maid for a white family, was broadcast on ABC within the early Fifties and subsequently cited by civil rights activists for its demeaning portraits of Black people.)

But Uhura’s influence reached far beyond television. In 1977, Ms. Nichols began an association with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, contracting as a representative and speaker to assist recruit female and minority candidates for spaceflight training; the next yr’s class of astronaut candidates was the primary to incorporate women and members of minority groups.

In subsequent years, Ms. Nichols made public appearances and recorded public service announcements on behalf of the agency. In 2012, after she was the keynote speaker on the Goddard Space Center during a celebration of African American History Month, a NASA news release in regards to the event lauded her help for the reason behind diversity in space exploration.

“Nichols’s role as considered one of television’s first Black characters to be greater than only a stereotype and considered one of the primary women ready of authority (she was fourth in charge of the Enterprise) inspired 1000’s of applications from women and minorities,” the discharge said. “Amongst them: Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Judith Resnik, first American woman in space Sally Ride and current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.”

Grace Dell Nichols was born in Robbins, Ailing., on Dec. 28, 1932 (some sources give a later yr), and grew up in Chicago. Her father, a chemist, was the mayor of Robbins for a time. At 13 or 14, uninterested in being called Gracie by her friends, she requested a unique name from her mother, who liked Michelle but suggested Nichelle for the alliteration.

Ms. Nichols was a ballet dancer as a toddler and had a singing voice with a naturally wide selection — greater than 4 octaves, she later said. While attending Englewood High School in Chicago she landed her first skilled gig, in a revue on the College Inn, a widely known nightspot in the town.

There she was seen by Duke Ellington, who employed her a yr or two later along with his touring orchestra as a dancer in considered one of his jazz suites.

Ms. Nichols appeared in several musical theater productions across the country in the course of the Fifties. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, she recalled acting at the Playboy Club in Recent York City while serving as an understudy for Ms. Carroll within the Broadway musical “No Strings” (though she never went on).

In 1959, she was a dancer in Otto Preminger’s film version of “Porgy and Bess.” She made her television debut in 1963 in an episode of “The Lieutenant,” a short-lived dramatic series, created by Gene Roddenberry, about Marines at Camp Pendleton. Mr. Roddenberry went on to create “Star Trek.”

Ms. Nichols appeared on other television shows over time — amongst them “Peyton Place” (1966), “Head of the Class” (1988) and “Heroes” (2007). She also appeared onstage in Los Angeles, including in a one-woman show by which she did impressions of, and paid homage to, Black female entertainers who preceded her, including Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt.

But Uhura was to be her legacy. A decade after “Star Trek” went off the air, Ms. Nichols reprised the role in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and he or she appeared as Uhura, by then a commander, in five subsequent movie sequels through 1991.

Besides her son, her survivors include two sisters, Marian Smothers and Diane Robinson.

Ms. Nichols was married and divorced twice. In her 1995 autobiography, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” she disclosed that she and Mr. Roddenberry, who died in 1991, had been romantically involved for a time. In an interview in 2010 for the Archive of American Television, she said that he had little to do together with her casting in “Star Trek” but that he defended her when studio executives wanted to switch her.

When she took the role of Uhura, Ms. Nichols said, she considered it as a mere job on the time, beneficial as a résumé enhancer; she fully intended to return to the stage, as she wanted a profession on Broadway. Indeed, she threatened to go away the show after its first season and submitted her resignation to Mr. Roddenberry. He told her to think it over for a couple of days.

In a story she often told, she was a guest that Saturday night at an event in Beverly Hills, Calif. — “I feel it was an N.A.A.C.P. fund-raiser,” she recalled within the Archive interview — where the organizer introduced her to someone he described as “your biggest fan.”

“He’s desperate to fulfill you,” she recalled the organizer saying.

The fan, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., introduced himself.

“He said, ‘We admire you greatly, you already know,’ ” Ms. Nichols said, and he or she thanked him and told him that she was about to go away the show. “He said, ‘You can’t. You can’t.’”

Dr. King told her that her role as a dignified, authoritative figure in a well-liked show was too essential to the reason behind civil rights for her to forgo. As Ms. Nichols recalled it, he said, “For the primary time, we might be seen on television the way in which we must always be seen day-after-day.”

On Monday morning, she returned to Mr. Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened.

“And I said, ‘If you happen to still want me to remain, I’ll stay. I even have to.’”

Eduardo Medina contributed reporting.

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