Nichelle Nichols, the First Lady of Star Trek, Turns 87 Today

And to think she almost walked away from Star Trek.

Actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Animated Series, and six feature films turned 87 today.

Photo above: Nichelle Nichols at the UNBELIEVABLE!!!!! Premiere at the TCL Chinese 6 Theaters on September 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, CA. via Shutterstock

Born in Robbins, Illinois on December 28, 1932,  the singer, dancer, actress, and writer’s Star Trek character, Nyota Uhura, broke down many 1960s racial stereotypes and will forever have a special place in television and entertainment history.

Nichols’ character inspired millions of young Black men and women by portraying a  member of the command bridge crew of the iconic sci-fi series. Including the first Black Woman in space, NASA astronaut Mae Jemison.

 

Last year, Jemison told The San Francisco Chronicle said, ‘[Jemison] still seems in awe around Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek. “I used to get pissed off, Nichelle, when you weren’t put in charge” on the Starship Enterprise, Jemison says, turning to Nichols during an interview with The Chronicle.

Photo above: Actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek series, introduces NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison to an audience at the Silicon Valley Comic Con in San Jose, Calif. on Saturday, April 7, 2018. Photo credit: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

“So did I,” the actor says, not missing a beat.

“I was a big Star Trek fan,” Jemison says. “It was really an incredible science fiction adventure. It was using science as a character to allow us to examine so many issues in our world. … For me it was fabulous seeing Nichelle there. Lt. Uhura was incredible.”

Nichols’ role as communications officer Uhura was a groundbreaking moment in pop culture, where a woman of color was put in a position of science expertise. Nichols carried that spirit forward in real life, spending the late 1970s speaking at high schools and colleges “and any place else I might find a potential astronaut,” she says. The NASA recruitment class that followed Nichols’ tour included the first American woman in space, Sally Ride.

Jemison, 61, says she met Nichols face-to-face while she was training to be an astronaut, tracking her down at a Star Trek convention in Orlando, Fla. They’ve been friends since. When Jemison went into space from Sept. 12-20, 1992, she used Uhura’s trademark phrase “hailing frequencies open” to begin communication. In 1993, Jemison appeared as a guest on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

You can watch the interview here.

Photo above: Nichols along with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and her co-stars DeForest Kelley, George Takei, James Doohan, Leonard Nimoy and Walter Koenig with the Space Shuttle Enterprise in 1976.

In 2012, while visiting Washington D.C. in celebration of Black History Month, she had the opportunity to meet United States President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Nichelle later tweeted the photo of them both flashing a Vulcan salute along with the caption “A photo came to me in the mail that I’ve kept for myself for over a week, but now it’s time to share it with Trekkers everywhere.”

In 2015, Nichols sat down with TrekNews for an exclusive interview to discuss her life, career and the NASA SOFIA mission she was part of.

Photo above: Nichols with Star Trek: Discovery star Sonequa Martin-Green and Original Series star William Shatner (Courtesy of CBS).

According to Trek News, Nichols plans to retire from convention appearances, following her “Farewell Celebration” in Los Angeles next May.

The event will take place May 1–3, 2020, at the Marriot Burbank Hotel. In addition to the traditional photo ops and autograph signings, the event will also include a Friday night party and Saturday night banquet and Original Series luncheon with Nichols in attendance.

RELATED: Women In Star Trek: A Fraught Vision of the Future of Feminism—Documentary: WATCH

 

In an interview Nichols told #GAYNRD about how she almost left the series and stayed because of the urging of non-other than civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Nichols said then, “You have to understand we were in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, people were regularly being attacked by dogs, and marchers were being hosed on the television every night, real life things, and here I am in this futuristic thing on TV and he was so complimentary, he told me ‘I was so important and the way you have created this role,’ and I am just looking at him and looking at him and I remember I just kept hoping he’d never stop talking.”

Because his voice is just… you know the voice. And I finally just start saying, thank you so much Dr. King and I am shaking his hand and still shaking from nervousness and I said thank you so much and I am really going to miss my co-stars.

And at this his face totally changed, and he said ‘What are you talking about?!’ and so I told him I would be leaving the show, because; and that was as far as he let me go, and he said, ‘Stop! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role!’

And I am looking at him and looking at him and buzzing, and he said:

‘Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be! As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a woman, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you prove it, this man [Gene Rodenberry] proves and establishes a precedent that validates what we are marching for because three hundred years from today there we are, and there you are, in all our glory and all your glory! And you cannot leave!’

And I did not leave.

“It makes me feel that it’s worthy being in this business, because you can touch other people before you even meet them in good ways,” Nichols said to The Chronicle. “It’s an honor.”

Happy Birthday, Ms. Nichols!

 

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