Actress Nichelle Nichols, ‘Star Trek’ Pioneer Uhura, Dies at 89 | Lifestyle

(Reuters) — Nichelle Nichols, whose portrayal of starship communications officer Lieutenant Uhura in the 1960s sci-fi television series “Star Trek” and subsequent films broke color barriers and helped redefine roles of black actors, died at 89, his family said.

Nichols, whose admirers included Martin Luther King Jr. and a young Barack Obama, “succumbed to natural causes and passed away” on Saturday night, his son, Kyle Johnson, wrote on Facebook.

“Yet its light, like ancient galaxies now seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and inspire,” Johnson wrote.

The series, which became a pop culture phenomenon, broke stereotypes common on American television at the time by casting black and minority actors in high-profile roles on the show.

In 1968, she and “Star Trek” star William Shatner broke a cultural barrier when they engaged in the first interracial kiss on American television.

She had planned to leave “Star Trek” after one season, but King, the civil rights leader of the 1960s, convinced her to stay because it was so revolutionary to have a black woman play an important member of the high school team. level at a time when blacks were struggling. for equality in American society.

Nichols also helped break down racial barriers at NASA, whose leaders were “Star Trek” fans. After she criticized the space agency for not choosing qualified women and minorities as astronauts, she hired Nichols in the 1970s to help recruit.

His efforts helped attract, among others, the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride; the first black female astronaut, Mae Jemison; and the first black head of NASA, Charlie Bolden.

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Nichols “symbolized for so many what was possible” and “inspired generations to reach for the stars,” NASA said on Twitter.

Nichols’ portrayal of the competent and no-nonsense Uhura also helped inspire future black actors, including Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg. Nichols recalled Goldberg telling her that she watched “Star Trek” when she was 9 years old, saw her play Uhura, and yelled at her mother, “Come quick! There’s a black woman on TV and she’s not a black woman.” maid!”. “

The original “Star Trek” series, which follows the adventures of the crew of the USS Enterprise starship in the 23rd century, ran for just three seasons on NBC from 1966 to 1969. But it became wildly popular in syndication. in the 1970s, inspiring first an animated series that reunited the cast from 1973 to 1975 and then a succession of feature films and shows.

Nichols appeared in six “Star Trek” movies, ending with “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” in 1991.

Uhura skillfully managed the starship Enterprise’s communications with allied starships and alien races while interacting with Captain James T. Kirk (Shatner), the Vulcan first officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and the starship’s helmsman. , Sulu (George Takei).

Takei wrote on Twitter that he and Nichols “lived long and prospered together”, describing her as pioneering and incomparable. “(My) heart is heavy, my eyes shine like the stars among which you now rest.”

Nichols’ best-known scene featured the first scripted interracial kiss on American television, though it was not romantic. In an episode called “Plato’s Stepchildren”, Uhura and Kirk were telekinetically forced to kiss by aliens playing with the weak humans. In real life, Nichols disliked Shatner, whom he considered arrogant.

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“She was a beautiful woman and played an admirable character who did so much to redefine social issues both here in America and around the world,” Shatner said on Twitter.

She felt differently about “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, who cast her after she had acted on a previous show he produced. Nichols had an affair with him in the 1960s and sang a song called “Gene” at her funeral in 1991.

Visit to the White House

Obama, the first black US president, who was 5 years old when the “Star Trek” series premiered, was also a fan. Nichols visited him at the White House in 2012 and posed for a photo in the Oval Office, with the president smiling and putting his hand on his shoulder as they both made a Vulcan hand gesture from “Star Trek” meaning “long live and prosperity”.

In a 2011 interview with Smithsonian magazine, Nichols recalled meeting King at a fundraiser for a civil rights group.

Nichols said one of the event’s promoters came up to her and said, “There’s someone who wants to meet you and says he’s your biggest fan, so I’m thinking of a little boy. I turn around and stand on the other side.” from the room. Walking towards me was Dr. Martin Luther King with a big smile on his face.”

After Nichols told King he planned to leave “Star Trek,” he said he implored her to stay.

She said King told her, “This is a God-given opportunity to change the face of television, change the way we think. We’re not second-class or third-class citizens anymore. He (Roddenberry) had to do it in the 20th century.” 23, but it’s the 20th century that’s looking. She rescinded her resignation.

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Like other “Star Trek” cast members, he had difficulty finding work due to typecasting after the original series ended. It was during this time that she played a foul-mouthed madam in the film “Truck Turner” (1974) starring Isaac Hayes. She was a recurring character on the television show “Heroes” in 2007.

Born December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois, she trained as a singer and dancer and toured with jazz greats Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before her acting career took off.

Nichols, who was married twice and had a son, suffered a minor stroke in June 2015.