Nichelle Nichols dies: Pioneering Star Trek actor dies at age 89
Nichelle Nichols, the Star Trek actor whose on-screen role as a lieutenant on the bridge of a starship was an important example of representation of black Americans in Hollywood, died Saturday (July 30). She was 89 years old.
Her death was confirmed on Sunday (July 31) by the actor’s son Kyle Johnson on Instagram.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” he wrote. “However, her light, like the ancient galaxies now seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from and inspire.”
“She lived a life well and was a role model to us all,” Johnson added.
Nichols came to prominence playing Lt. Nyota Uhura, the ship’s communications officer, for the 1966 space adventure series Star Trek. The role was significant for several reasons: it was the first leading role for a black woman in a US television series, the first for a black woman in a military-style command role of any kind. Later one of the first on-screen kisses took place between a white actor, William Shatner, and a black co-star.
Her tenure in that role lasted only a few years, with the show being canceled in 1969, but her importance would last for decades. Eminent civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. persuaded her to remain in the role during the series’ short-lived run. Nichols would later reprise the role of Lt. Uhura in several Star Trek films, including The Search for Spock.
In conjunction with her Star Trek career, Nichols will partner with NASA, the US space agency, to recruit more women and people of color into its astronaut and science programs. This effort led to the recruitment of Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut.
During a 2012 interview with StarTrek.com, she talked about how her work on Star Trek expanded NASA’s efforts to recruit women.
“[My] legacy continues in the modern astronaut corps, where gender and color no longer matter… as it should,” she said. “I’m proud to be the first women and minorities chosen to make it a reality [in the space program].”
In her later years, she would go into semi-retirement attending fan conventions where she and other members of the original cast were treated like royalty.
She recently attended the 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con.