February 2016 - Cover Story: THE VERY THOUGHT OF NICHELLE NICHOLS
I’m not a Trekkie and never have been. When I watched Star Trek as a child it was because I saw someone like me. Lieutenant Uhura, played by actress Nichelle Nichols, broke ground as one of the first, prominent, African-American characters on TV at the time (the mid- to late-sixties) who wasn’t a servant. When I had the opportunity to interview Nichols at Albuquerque’s Comic Con this past January, she told me she knew when she took on the role of Lieutenant Uhura that the show would be something big. Now 83, Nichols was a wonder to watch as she handled her fans with poise and grace, signing autographs and listening to the stories shared by excited individuals. She made an impact on Star Trek, a sci-fi show still popular more than forty-five years after its cancellation, which I planned to talk to her about, but I started with another detail from her early career that I discovered while researching Nichols for my interview. Nichols, a then-established vocal performer, caught the eye of band leader Duke Ellington. Ellington had seen Nichols before in a club and wanted her as a singer and performer in his band. It was an experience that Nichols remembers quite fondly. “I was just a kid starting in business and he saw me in a club. I called my mother and father because they are huge fans, and I told her, ‘Guess who I’m performing with?’ I told them who and my mother said, ‘The hell you preach!’ When we met to talk about the show [Duke] asked ‘Where’s your mother?’ thinking she was going to attend the meeting. I got her on the phone and he talked with mom for 15 minutes while I was signing autographs for people. He was a wonderful man.”
During the Harlem Renaissance, when African Americans were expressing themselves through music, dance, and art, many people in the community found that they needed to work twice as hard to prove their talent. Nichols was no different. A skilled dancer, singer, and actor, Nichols is proud of her accomplishments. “I’m an actor. I was a professional ballerina and did all kinds of dancing in shows. I was a singer – I have a two-octave range. I’m a writer. I just have fun with what I got!”
In addition to working with Duke Ellington, Nichols was nominated twice for the Sarah Siddons Award for best actress in The Blacks and Kicks and Company and worked with Sammy Davis Jr. in Porgy and Bess, but it was the role of a Lieutenant on a starship that led to Nichols creating a series of first-time moments. Nichols’ role as Lieutenant Uhura was one that could have been played by an actor of any race or gender, but the decision to cast Nichols made her the first African-American to be in a role that was not the stereotypical standard, i.e. a maid, chauffeur, or servant. The cultural impact of her role in Star Trek was made apparent to Nichols when, after debating whether she should leave the show to take advantage of several opportunities to appear in other projects, Martin Luther King, Jr., met her and shared with her the importance of her staying on cast and continuing to be a strong black role model in the community.
Nichols also created another first when she locked lips with her co-star, William Shatner, on the show, making it the first interracial kiss on television. About the experience, Nichols said, “We received such a positive response when that episode aired, but the station almost did not air the episode. When we explained the importance of this episode and you could be the first to do it, they sign that contract so fast that it wasn’t even funny!” When asked if she expected Star Trek to become such an iconic show, Nichols was not surprised by the response that Star Trek received and the global phenomenon it became. “If you were there during that time, there was only one thing that would stop it and that was the stations. We were first. There was no one that looked like me on T.V., and when [Gene] threatened to take the show somewhere else, they changed their minds real quick! I just knew this would be an incredible opportunity and experience.”
Nichols has become an icon, a warrior, and a pioneer in a time that Blacks struggled to find a place in the spotlight. When it comes to her legacy, Nichols was very clear, “I want to be remembered for all of it! I want them to say, ‘She came, she saw, she ran with it.’” As history looks back at this stunning woman, there will be no argument that she has left a lasting imprint on this world.