Nichelle Nichols, groundbreaking ‘Star Trek’ actor, dead at 89

Nichelle Nichols, the groundbreaking actor who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the original “Star Trek” series, has died.

She was 89.

Nichols’ death was confirmed on Sunday by her son, Kyle Johnson, on her website. Johnson said his mother died of natural causes.

“Her light, however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration,” Johnson said in a statement posted to the website.

Johnson said his mother’s life was “well-lived and as such a model for” everyone. He asked for privacy for the family.

Nichols and her “Star Trek” character Uhura broke barriers as one of the first Black female leads on television.

Rod Roddenberry, executive producer of the current iterations of “Star Trek” and son of the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry mourned Nichols’ passing on Sunday.

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura in the “Journey to Babel” episode of Star Trek in 1967.CBS via Getty Images

“It is with great sorrow that we report the passing on the legendary icon Nichelle Nichols,” he tweeted. “No words.”

Nichols, was born in Illinois as Grace Nichols. She was discovered in Chicago by composer and musician Duke Ellington as a teenager while working as a dancer and choreographer, according to the National Space Society, for which Nichols was on the board of governors.

“As I learned to believe in my talent, my voice, myself, I learned that I could make others believe as well,” Nichols wrote on her website.

Prior to appearing in “Star Trek,” Nichols was an accomplished dancer but only had a handful of acting roles.

Nichols appeared on “Star Trek” in its debut season in 1966. Initially, she considered leaving the show, feeling her character lacked depth. However, after meeting Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a fan of the show, she decided to stay.

It was then she worked alongside Roddenberry to give Uhura revolutionary authority and dominance, something not seen prior in that era of television.

“When I was on those wonderful sets with all of the cast members, the universe of Star Trek began to feel not so much a fantasy but an opportunity to lay the groundwork for what we might actually achieve by the 23rd Century … a bold aspiration and an affirmation of Uhura as we eagerly await her arrival,” Nichols wrote on her website.

One moment that broke boundaries, in 1968, was a kiss between Nichols’ Uhura and and William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk on the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” The episode helped to re-shape what viewers thought of as acceptable on television and was an early statement about the acceptance of interracial marriages.

After the original “Star Trek” ended, Nichols became a spokesperson for NASA, according to her website. She helped to recruit astronauts and appeared in PSAs.

NASA credited Nichols with helping to recruit Sally Ride and Frederick Gregory, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“In motivating them as others once did me, it’s as if my life had come back, full circle, to where the dreams of a young woman began,” she wrote about the experience on her website.

On Sunday NASA memorialized Nichols as a global inspiration who helped it evolve.

“We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible,” the agency tweeted. “She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”

In her autobiography, she wrote that she loved attending “Star Trek” conventions, the LA Times reported.

Following news of her death, co-stars and admirers alike mourned her loss.

“I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89. For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend,” tweeted George Takei, who played alongside Nichols as “Star Trek” helmsman Hikaru Sulu.

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., praised Nichols for her representation.

“Representation matters. Excellence in representation matters even more. Thank you, #NichelleNichols,” she wrote. “Rest well, ancestor.”


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