Arguably no player of fictional roles did more to further science and the future than Nichelle Nichols. The actress who played Star Trek crew member Uhura for 54 years in the original series, six movies, and fan films passed away today at age 89. I first met her in San Francisco in the 1990s and later at other events, and she always was gracious, embraced fans, and was always laughing, smiling, and enjoying her time recounting her personal story. She probably has the most familiar story of any science fiction actor, as she became an icon of television, science fiction, and science fact.
Her greatest story was recounting how she had decided to leave the Star Trek series until she had a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr., who informed her just how important it was that a black woman was being seen by an entire nation on television. She was an equal crew member serving in a prime-time network series, and would go on to help expand the boundaries of race relations, participating in the first on-screen inter-racial kiss, with co-star William Shatner’s Captain Kirk.
She famously recounted how she created the name of her bridge officer in her interview meetings with creator Gene Roddenberry–Uhura was a twist on uhuru, a Swahili word for freedom. Later NASA would enlist her help to recruit new astronauts, engineers, and other scientists, and she was frequently one of the public faces of NASA, joining most of her former co-stars at the unveiling of the space shuttle Enterprise. Countless astronauts and scientists since have credited her with inspiring them to enter STEM fields.
She was one of a handful of Star Trek actors to answer the call to fans making their own Star Trek adventures, returning to her role as Uhura for years after her last official film, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Another high point was returning to Prime Time in 2007 as Nana Dawson on the genre hit show Heroes, and she acted, sang, and danced in several other projects over the years.
She was a frequent guest on the convention circuit, demonstrating in her 80s she could still have an active life after Alzheimer’s disease would affect her memory. One of the most significant demonstrations of her impact can be seen in Washington, DC. One of her red Starfleet uniforms worn on the original Star Trek series is on display at the Smithsonian Institution, which issued a memorial message about her today.
She will be missed by a legion of her fans.
C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg