Actress Nichelle Nichols is best known for her groundbreaking portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek television series.
Early Life and Career
Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Nichols on December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois. Her parents, Samuel Earl and Lishia (Parks) Nichols, encouraged her early interest in singing and acting. Nichols studied dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy and aspired to perform on Broadway; she admired African-American female vocalists such as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Mahalia Jackson.
In her early career, Nichols sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. She made her film debut in 1959, as an uncredited dancer in a film adaptation of the opera Porgy and Bess starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr.
Nichols also began to work in television, including an appearance on the series The Lieutenant in 1964. Her relationship with the series’ director, Gene Roddenberry, would lead to her most famous role.
When Roddenberry began casting a science-fiction television series to be set in outer space, he invited Nichols to audition. She was ultimately cast in the now-legendary series Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer for the Starship Enterprise. (The name “Uhura” was adapted from “uhuru,” the Swahili word for “freedom.”)
Nichols's groundbreaking television performance as an African-American woman in a confident, authoritative role drew immediate notice from Star Trek's audience. Nichols, still envisioning herself as a theater performer, considered leaving the series after the first season. However, a conversation with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., during which King encouraged her to remain in the role, changed her mind.
Nichols appeared throughout the run of Star Trek, from 1966 to 1969. As Uhura, she enacted television's first interracial kiss, with William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk in the 1968 episode “Plato's Stepchildren.”
Nichols also appeared in six Star Trek motion pictures released between 1979 and 1991.
Later Work and Other Projects
Nichols has added other movie credits to her resume, including the “blaxploitation” film Truck Turner in 1974, the Disney comedy Snow Dogs in 2002, and the family comedy Are We There Yet? in 2005. She appeared as a recurring character in several episodes of the television series Heroes in 2007.
She also made occasional returns to live performance, as in her one-woman show Reflections, a tribute to women of jazz and blues. She showcased her singing in two albums, Down to Earth and Out of This World.
Building on her name recognition from Star Trek, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Nichols participated in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's efforts to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program. She has written two science-fiction novels, Saturn's Child and Saturna's Quest. In 1994, she published the autobiography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories.
Nichols's marriage to the dancer Foster Johnson in 1951 ended in divorce within a year; she and Johnson have a son named Kyle. She was wed to songwriter Duke Mondy from 1967 until their divorce in 1972.
On June 3, 2015, the 82-year-old actress suffered a minor stroke and underwent inpatient rehabilitation. Following her hospitalization, she told Entertainment Tonight: “I am feeling the best that I felt in a very long time.”
December 28, 1932
- In the 1950s, while she was working as a theater actor, Nichols appeared in a production of Porgy and Bess, an American opera from the 1930s featuring a cast of characters who are mainly black. It would take too long to deal with the play’s impact or controversies, but what’s worth noting in Nichols’ case was that she also went on to appear in the 1959 film adaptation starring Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr., albeit in an uncredited role.
- Along with the rest of her Star Trek cast members, Nichols had her handprints set in the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. She was the first woman of color to achieve this form of immortality in Tinseltown.
- As a theater actor, Nichols first gained prominence when she appeared in the play Blues for Mister Charlie. Written in 1964 by critically acclaimed writer James Baldwin, Blues for Mister Charlie is a play which dealt with social issues of the 1960s faced by black people. The play was also dedicated to the family of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who had been murdered in 1963 outside his own home.
- Like her Star Trek co-stars, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, Nichols released music. Unlike the other two, she is a highly talented singer, so her work has received much more praise than the latter two’s work. Her first album, titled Down to Earth, was released in 1967, while her second album, Out of This World, was released in 1991—the same year that her last Star Trek film was released.
- In 2017, Nichols received her very first Emmy nomination. In case you’re curious, the nomination was for the category “Special Guest Performer in a Drama Series.” She was nominated for her performance in the series The Young and the Restless.