Nichelle Nichols, the original actor of Star Trek’s Nyota Uhura, has passed away on Saturday, July 30. The news broke on the actor’s Instagram account, as announced by her son, Kyle Johnson.
“I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years. Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” wrote Johnson. “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. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Nichols was born December 28, 1932 as the third of six children. Following her acting debut in playwright Oscar Brown’s 1961 musical Kicks & Co., she would go on to do acting and modeling work. She would also go on to pen two feature articles for Ebony Magazine, which she featured on the cover for in January 1967. In the years prior to Star Trek, she would be a singer in the bands for jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, in addition to performing in the James Baldwin play Blues for Mister Charlie and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd.
As Uhura, Nichols was one of the first black women to be featured in a major TV series, and she was initially tempted to leave the show during its first season to pursue a career in Broadway. But Martin Luther King, Jr., convinced her to stay on the show, both because he was a fan of the series, and because he viewed Uhura as a role model for black children across the United States. The impact of Nichols’ casting on that show, and for black women in general, just cannot be overstated: even beyond her kiss with William Shatner’s James Kirk in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” being cited as the first interracial kiss on scripted TV, astronaut Mae Jemison and actor Whoopi Goldberg have both said Uhura inspired them in their respective fields. Both women would go on to play characters in the sequel series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
After Star Trek was canceled and subsequently revived, Nichols would continue acting. She played Dorienda in Truck Turner, a 1974 Blaxploitation film starring Isaac Hayes that would be her first and only appearance in the genre. She also did voice acting, playing herself in the Futurama episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” in addition to being in Gargoyles as Elisa Maza’s mother, Diane. During her life, she also had a short solo career in music, releasing two albums in 1967 and 1991, the latter of which was based around Star Trek and space exploration. She would sing in two episodes of the show—1966’s “Charlie X” and “The Conscience of the King.”
During her life, Nichols also created the NASA program, Women in Motion, which was made to recruit women and minority personnel. That program’s recruits included Dr. Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, and Air Force colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut. She and the rest of the Star Trek cast attended the christening of the Enterprise, the first space shuttle, in 1976, and she flew aboard NASA’s SOFIA aircraft in 2015.
Towards the end of her life, Nichols was in the middle of a three-way court battle for conservatorship involving her son Johnson, her manager/caretaker Gilbert Bell, and her friend Angelique Fawcette. Johnson filed for conservatorship of his mother in 2018, saying that Bell, her former manager, was taking control of Nichols’ assets and misappropriating her income as her health continued to deteriorate.
Fawcette, who came to view Nichols as family, was working with an attorney to gain visitation rights as of last year. “She’s not getting the life that she wished for,” said Fawcette to the LA Times. “She’s getting the life that other people have chosen for her.” Prior to her passing, Nichols lived in New Mexico with Johnson, who served as her primary caregiver.
Our thoughts go out to Nichols’ loved ones and family at this time.
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