Beloved Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols has died at the age of 89. The actor played communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series and starred in the first six Star Trek films. She also voiced Uhura in Star Trek: The Animated Series.
Nichols died on the evening of Saturday, July 30 in Silver City, New Mexico, her talent manager and business partner of 15 years, Gilbert Bell, confirmed, per Variety. A cause of death has not been disclosed.
Nichols’ Uhura (a name that means “freedom” in Swahili) was a landmark character in television history. She was one of the first African American women featured as a fully realized character. Nichols and co-star William Shatner also shared one of the first interracial kisses in television history. The episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” aired in 1968. In it, aliens capable of controlling the actions of humans made Uhura and Captain Kirk kiss.
The kiss was a risky move at the time. The show feared the network’s reaction, so they filmed different versions of the scene. Some showed the two kissing, others didn’t. But in Nichols’ 1994 biography, Beyond Uhura, she said she and Shatner intentionally messed up the non-kissing scenes to force the network’s hand in airing the moment.
Uhura was a seminal character in on-screen history outside of the kiss. Nichols’ translator was independent, skilled, and intelligent, making her one of the only Black women on TV portrayed as such. Nichols considered leaving Star Trek after Season 1, but Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. personally convinced her to stay on because of what her presence on the popular series meant for Black viewers and actors, she told Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview for the Archive of American Television.
NASA employed Nichols as a spokesperson encouraging women and African Americans to pursue careers as astronauts. She stayed involved with the program for decades. In 1978, NASA Astronaut Group 8 featured the first women and ethnic minorities ever recruited for the organization. This group included three Black recruits, one of whom — engineer Dr. Mae Jemison — cited Star Trek as her inspiration to pursue the career. Jemison was the first Black woman to fly in the Space Shuttle.
Nichols became the first Black person to have their handprints and name immortalized at the TCL Chinese Theatre in 1991. Her handprints were included with other Star Trek cast members.