Nichelle Nichols, who broke barriers for Black women in Hollywood when she played communications officer Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek television series, has died at 89. Her son Kyle Johnson said Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico, of natural causes, the AP reports. "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," he posted on Facebook. Her role in the 1966-69 series as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifelong position of honor with the series' fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies. It also earned her accolades for breaking stereotypes that had limited Black women to acting roles as servants. And it led to an interracial onscreen kiss with co-star William Shatner, who is white, that was nearly unheard of at the time.
Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14. She moved on to New York nightclubs and working for a time with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands before coming to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959's Porgy and Bess, the first of several small film and TV roles. On the set of Star Trek, Nichols was known as being unafraid to stand up to Shatner when others complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time. Her most famous moment on the show was in 1968, when other beings force Uhura and Captain Kirk into a passionate kiss. The two actors considered the scene a watershed with much opposition at NBC. At the time, per the Washington Post, the kiss drew little public notice, possibly because the show's ratings were low or because films had already shattered the taboo.
Nichols later appeared in six film versions spun off from the TV series and attended Star Trek conventions until, when she was in her 80s, her son announced that she had advanced dementia. She had decided to leave the series after the first season, then met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a civil rights event in 1967, per the AP. She told him she was quitting, and he talked her out of it. "You've changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you've changed the minds of people," she recalled King saying. "That foresight Dr. King had was a lightning bolt in my life," Nichols later said. (Read more obituary stories.)