Fact Hero: In Memory of Nichelle Nichols

by | Jul 31, 2022 | Fact Heroes

Actress Nichelle Nichols, known for her most famous role as communications officer Lieutenant Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise in the popular Star Trek television series, displays her Lego astronaut ring. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Fact Hero: In Memory of Nichelle Nichols

by | Jul 31, 2022 | Fact Heroes

Actress Nichelle Nichols, known for her most famous role as communications officer Lieutenant Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise in the popular Star Trek television series, displays her Lego astronaut ring. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Nichelle Nichols almost left Star Trek during the original seasons due to racist harassment at the studio. But a fan, Dr. Martin Luther King, saying that Star Trek was the only TV show he approved of—because of her role—convinced her to stay.

Today marked the passing of Nichelle Nichols, an American actress, singer, and dancer best known for her portrayal of Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, and its film sequels. Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura was ground-breaking for African American actresses on American television.

Various tributes to Nichols have been filling the net, but one that was particularly important was one from a group on Facebook called Crew Stories which has a large database of behind-the-scenes stories from entertainment history. Here is what Crew Stories admin Diego Mariscal published about Nichelle Nichols:

It’s with a heavy heart we’ve just learned of the passing of actress and Icon Nichelle Nichols, our sincere condolences to all who knew and are inspired by her. Now let’s take a moment and celebrate this wonderful woman’s life.

Nichelle Nichols began her show business career at age 16 as a singer with Duke Ellington in a ballet she created for one of his compositions and later sang with his band. Her film debut found her dancing with Sammy Davis Jr. in “Porgy and Bess” (1959).

Her role as Uhura on “Star Trek” was one of the first times that an African-American actress was portrayed in a non-stereotypical role. Previously, African-American actresses were depicted as maids or housekeepers, and Nichols’ role broke the stereotype barrier among African-American actresses. Like Sidney Poitier, whose characters were three-dimensional (e.g., Detective Virgil Tibbs), Nichols portrayed a character that was non-stereotypical.

However, frustrated with the racist harassment, culminating with her learning that the studio was withholding her fan mail, Nichols submitted her resignation from “Star Trek” after consulting with series creator Gene Roddenberry. She stated in several interviews that the harassment made her go back to work in theater until attending an NAACP fundraiser. The fundraiser was where a “Star Trek” fan was about to meet her for the first time and, to her astonishment, the fan turned out to be Dr. Martin Luther King. King stated that his wife and children had seen “Star Trek” on TV and it was the only television series that he had approved of. He said that her role as the fourth in command of the USS Enterprise became a positive role model for African-Americans. She withdrew her resignation from the series when King personally convinced her that her role was too important as a breakthrough to leave.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner and Lt. Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) made history and gave us the most famous interracial kiss on U.S Television! Although not the first that seems to have occurred almost 10 years earlier on British television on February 1, 1959, in the UK on the ITV Armchair Theatre adaptation of Ted Willis’s play Hot Summer Night.

William Shatner recalls in Star Trek Memories that NBC insisted their lips never touch (the technique of turning their heads away from the camera was used to conceal this). However, Nichelle Nichols insists in her autobiography Beyond Uhura (written in 1994 after Shatner’s book) that the kiss was real, even during takes in which her head obscures their lips.

When NBC executives learned of the kiss they became concerned it would anger TV stations in the Deep South. Earlier in 1968, NBC had expressed similar concern over a musical sequence in a Petula Clark special in which she touched Harry Belafonte’s arm, a moment cited as the first occasion of direct physical contact on American television between a man and woman of different races. At one point during negotiations, the idea was brought up of having Spock kiss Uhura instead (as Spock was half Vulcan), but William Shatner insisted that they stick with the original script. NBC finally ordered that two versions of the scene be shot—one in which Kirk and Uhura kissed and one in which they did not. Having successfully recorded the former version of the scene, Shatner and Nichelle Nichols deliberately flubbed every take of the latter version, thus forcing the episode to go out with the kiss intact.

As Nichelle Nichols writes:

“Knowing that Gene was determined to air the real kiss, Bill shook me and hissed menacingly in his best ham-fisted Kirkian staccato delivery, “I! WON’T! KISS! YOU! I! WON’T! KISS! YOU!”

“It was absolutely awful, and we were hysterical and ecstatic. The director was beside himself, and still determined to get the kissless shot. So we did it again, and it seemed to be fine. “Cut! Print! That’s a wrap!”

“The next day they screened the dailies, and although I rarely attended them, I couldn’t miss this one. Everyone watched as Kirk and Uhura kissed and kissed and kissed. And I’d like to set the record straight: Although Kirk and Uhura fought it, they did kiss in every single scene. When the non-kissing scene came on, everyone in the room cracked up. The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable. The only alternative was to cut out the scene altogether, but that was impossible to do without ruining the entire episode. Finally, the guys in charge relented: “To hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss.” I guess they figured we were going to be cancelled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.”

From the late 1970s until 1987, Nichols was employed by NASA and in charge of astronaut recruits and hopefuls. Most of the recruits she launched were minority candidates of different races and/or ethnicities, as well as gender, like Guion Bluford (the first African-American male astronaut), Sally Ride (the first American female astronaut), Judith A. Resnik (one of the original female astronauts recruited by NASA, who perished during the launch of the Challenger on January 28, 1986), and Ron McNair (another victim of the Challenger disaster). She resided in Houston, Texas during her years as a Johnson Space Center employee.

Rest In Peace Nichelle Nichols.

(Diego/Crew Stories/IMDb)

Marty Kassowitz

Marty Kassowitz

Marty Kassowitz is co-founder of Factkeepers. He is a writer, designer, editor and long time observer of the ill-logic demonstrated by too many members of the species known as Mankind. After a long history of somewhat private commentary on a subject he totally hates: politics, Marty was encouraged to build this site and put up his own analyses as well as curate relevant content from other sources.

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