Nichelle Nichols (née Grace Dell Nichols on December 28, 1932) is an American actress, singer and voice artist. She sang with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before turning to acting. Her most famous role is that of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise in the popular Star Trek television series (1966-1969), as well as the succeeding motion pictures, where her character was eventually promoted in Starfleet to the rank of commander.
Nicholls' Star Trek character, one of the first African American female characters on American television not portrayed as a servant, was groundbreaking in U.S society at the time. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. personally praised her work on the show and asked her to remain when she was considering leaving the series.
Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, near Chicago, to Samuel Earl Nichols, a factory worker who was both the town mayor of Robbins and its chief magistrate, and his wife Lishia (Parks) Nichols. Later, the family moved into an apartment in Chicago.
She studied in Chicago as well as New York and Los Angeles. Her break came in an appearance in Kicks and Co., Oscar Brown's highly touted, but ill-fated 1961 musical. In a thinly veiled satire of Playboy magazine, she played Hazel Sharpe, a voluptuous campus queen who was being tempted by the devil and Orgy Magazine to become "Orgy Maiden of the Month". Although the play closed after its brief try-out in Chicago, in an ironic twist, she attracted the attention of Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, who was so impressed with her appearance that he booked her immediately at his Chicago Playboy Club. While still in Chicago, she performed at the "Blue Angel", and in New York, Nichols appeared at that city's Blue Angel as a dancer and singer. She also appeared in the role of Carmen for a Chicago stock company production of Carmen Jones and performed in a New York production of Porgy and Bess. Between acting and singing engagements, Nichols did occasional modeling work.
In January 1967, Nichols also was featured on the cover of Ebony magazine, and had two feature articles in the publication in five years.
Nichols toured the United States, Canada and Europe as a singer with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands. On the West Coast, she appeared in The Roar of the Greasepaint - The Smell of the Crowd, For My People, and garnered high praise for her performance in the James Baldwin play Blues for Mister Charlie. Prior to being cast as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, Nichols was a guest actress on television producer Gene Roddenberry's first series The Lieutenant (1964) in an episode, "To Set It Right," which dealt with racial prejudice.
On Star Trek, Nichols gained popular recognition by being one of the first black women featured in a major television series not portraying a servant; her prominent supporting role as a bridge officer was unprecedented. During the first year of the series, Nichols was tempted to leave the show, as she wanted to pursue a Broadway career; however, a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., changed her mind. She has said that King personally encouraged her to stay on the show, telling her that he was a big fan of the series. He said she "could not give up" because she was playing a vital role model for black children and young women across the country, as well as for other children who would see blacks appearing as equals. It is also often reported that Dr. King added that "Once that door is opened by someone, no one else can close it again."
Former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison has cited Nichols' role of Lieutenant Uhura as her inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut and Whoopi Goldberg has also spoken of Nichols' influence. Goldberg asked for a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the character of Guinan was specially created, while Jemison appeared in an episode of the series.
In her role as Lieutenant Uhura, Nichols famously kissed white actor William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the November 22, 1968, Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren". The episode is popularly cited as the first example of an interracial kiss on U.S. television. The Shatner-Nichols kiss was seen as groundbreaking, even though it was portrayed as having been forced by alien telekinesis. There was some praise and some protest. On page 197 of her 1994 autobiography Beyond Uhura, Star Trek and Other Memories, Nichols cites a letter from a white Southerner who wrote, "I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain't gonna fight it." During the Comedy Central Roast of Shatner on August 20, 2006, Nichols jokingly referred to the kiss and said, "Let's make TV history again--and you can kiss my black ass!"
Despite the cancellation of the series in 1969, Star Trek lived on in other ways, and continued to play a part in Nichols' life. She again provided the voice of Uhura in Star Trek: The Animated Series; in one episode, "The Lorelei Signal", Uhura assumes command of the Enterprise. Nichols noted in her autobiography her frustration that this never happened in the original series. Nichols has co-starred in six Star Trek motion pictures, the last one being Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
After the cancellation of Star Trek, Nichols volunteered her time in a special project with NASA to recruit minority and female personnel for the space agency. She began this work by making an affiliation between NASA and a company which she helped to run, Women in Motion.
The program was a success. Among those recruited were Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and United States Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, as well as Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair, who both flew successful missions during the Space Shuttle program before their deaths in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986. Recruits also included Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator, and Lori Garver, former Deputy Administrator.
An enthusiastic advocate of space exploration, Nichols has served since the mid-1980s on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, a nonprofit, educational space advocacy organization founded by Dr. Wernher von Braun.
Always interested in space travel, Nichols flew aboard NASA's C-141 Astronomy Observatory, which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn on an eight-hour, high-altitude mission. She was also a special guest at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on July 17, 1976, to view the Viking 1 soft landing on Mars. Along with the other cast members from the original Star Trek series, she attended the christening of the first space shuttle, Enterprise, at the North American Rockwell assembly facility in Palmdale, California.
On July 14, 2010, she toured the space shuttle simulator and Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center.
Other acting roles:
In 1994, Nichols published her autobiography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. In it, she claimed that the role of Peggy Fair in the television show Mannix was offered to her during the final season of Star Trek, but producer Gene Roddenberry refused to release her from her contract. Between the end of the original series and the Star Trek animated show and feature films, Nichols appeared in small TV and film roles. She portrayed a foul-mouthed madam in Truck Turner (1974) opposite Isaac Hayes, her only appearance in a blaxploitation film.
Nichols appeared in animated form as one of Al Gore's Vice Presidential Action Rangers in the "Anthology of Interest I" episode of Futurama, and she provided the voice of her own head in a glass dome in the episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before". She voiced the recurring role of Elisa Maza's mother Diane Maza in the animated series Gargoyles, and played Thoth-Kopeira in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. In 2004 she provided the voice for herself in The Simpsons episode "Simple Simpson".
In the 2002 comedy Snow Dogs, Nichols appeared as the mother of the male lead, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. In 2006, she appeared as the title character in the film Lady Magdalene's, the madam of a legal Nevada brothel in tax default. She also served as executive producer and choreographer, and sang three songs in the film, two of which she composed.
In addition to her acting skills, Nichols is an accomplished dancer and singer. She has twice been nominated for the Chicago theatrical Sarah Siddons Award for Best Actress. The first nomination was for her portrayal of Hazel Sharpe in Kicks and Co.; the second for her performance in The Blacks.
Nichols played a recurring role on the second season of the NBC drama Heroes. Her first appearance was on the episode "Kindred", which aired October 8, 2007. She portrayed Nana Dawson, the matriarch of a New Orleans family financially and personally devastated by Hurricane Katrina, who cares for her orphaned grandchildren and her great-nephew, series regular Micah Sanders.
In 2008, she starred in the film The Torturer, playing the role of a psychiatrist.
In 2009, she joined the cast of The Cabonauts, a sci-fi musical comedy that debuted on the Internet. Playing CJ, the CEO of the Cabonauts Inc, Nichols is also featured singing and dancing.
Nichols has released two music albums. Down to Earth is a collection of standards released in 1967, during the original run of Star Trek. Out of This World is more rock oriented and is themed around Star Trek and space exploration.
Nichols' brother, Thomas, was a member of the Heaven's Gate cult. He died on March 26, 1997 in the cult's mass suicide that purposely coincided with the passing of the Hale-Bopp comet. A member for eleven years, he left a final video message saying: "I'm the happiest person in the world."
In her autobiography, Nichols stated that she was involved in an extramarital affair with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry for several years in the 1960s, well before Star Trek began. She said the affair ended when she and Roddenberry realized he was in love with Majel Hudec, who coincidentally was an acquaintance of Nichols's. When Roddenberry's health was fading, Nichols co-wrote a song for him, entitled "Gene", which she sang at his funeral.
Nichols is an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Robert A. Heinlein in part dedicated his 1982 novel Friday to her. On June 8, 2010, Nichols received an honorary degree from Los Angeles Mission College.
Asteroid 68410 Nichols is named in her honor.
Porgy and Bess
The Lieutenant (TV)
Tarzan's Deadly Silence (TV)
starring Ron Ely
starring James Garner
Star Trek (TV)
Doctor, You've Got to Be Kidding!
starring Sandra Dee
Star Trek: The Animated Series (TV)
Lt. Uhura/Additional voices
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Lt. Cmdr. Uhura
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Antony and Cleopatra
Charmian - Maid of Honour
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Sgt. Leona Hawkins
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Star Trek: 25th Anniversary Enhanced (VG)
Guest star in four episodes through 1998
Batman: The Animated Series (TV)
Star Trek: Judgment Rites (VG)
Anthology of Interest I
Where No Fan Has Gone Before
Are We There Yet?
Escape from Heaven (announced)
Star Trek: Of Gods and Men
Lady Magdalene / Maggie
Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster
In 2009, Nichols and Zoe Saldana presented the Best Actress Award to Taraji Henson at the 9th Annual BET Awards.
Nichols, Nichelle; Bonanno, Margaret Wander (1996). Saturn's Child. New York: Ace Books. ISBN 0-441-00384-2. ,
Nichols, Nichelle (1995). Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. New York: Boulevard Books. ISBN 1-57297-011-1. ,
Nichols, Nichelle; Meechan, Jim (2002). Saturna's Quest. California: Planet X Publications. ISBN 0-9719154-0-7.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license