Nichelle Nichols (born Grace Dell Nichols on December 28, 1932) is an American actress, singer and voice artist. 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. Nichols’ Star Trek character, one of the first African American female characters on American television not portrayed as a servant.
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. 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. Nichols did occasional modelling 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.
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 abridge officer was unprecedented. During the first year of the series, Nichols was tempted to leave the series, 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.”
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.
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.
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