Nichelle Nichols is dead at age 89. The Star Trek actress died on Saturday, July 30, in Silver City, New Mexico.
Her son, Kyle Johnson, confirmed her death on Sunday, July 31. “I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” Johnson’s post on Nichols’ official Facebook page announced. “Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. 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. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Johnson, 70, continued: “I, and the rest of our family, would appreciate your patience and forbearance as we grieve her loss until we can recover sufficiently to speak further. Her services will be for family members and the closest of her friends and we request that her and our privacy be respected.”
Nichols’ official cause of death was heart failure, according to the New York Times.
Born in December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols grew up in the Chicago suburb with father Samuel, the town mayor, and her mother Lishia, but she left at just 15 to start her career when she joined Duke Ellington’s tour as a singer and dancer. Porgy and Bess was her first onscreen role as a dancer in 1959. She made her way to Peyton Place and the TV series Tarzan before landing on Star Trek as Lt. Uhura in 1966.
The actress famously tried to quit the sci-fi series after just one season, intending to return to Broadway. She handed in her resignation to showrunner Gene Roddenberry and was told to take the weekend to think about her decision before he would agree to let her go. She changed her mind after meeting one particular fan — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“That weekend, I went to what I remember as a NAACP fundraiser, though it could have been something else,” Nichols recalled to StarTrek.com in 2010. “Whatever it was, I was in Beverly Hills. I was being seated at the dais as other notables were coming to join us. One of the organizers came over to me and said, ‘Ms. Nichols, I hate to bother you just as you’re sitting down to dinner, but there’s someone here who wants very much to meet you. And he said to tell you that he is your biggest fan.’ I said, “Oh, certainly.’ I stood up and turned around and who comes walking over towards me from about 10 or 15 feet, smiling that rare smile of his, is Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember saying to myself, ‘Whoever that fan is, whoever that Trekkie is, it’ll have to wait because I have to meet Dr. Martin Luther King.’ And he walks up to me and says, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ You know I can talk, but all my mouth could do was open and close, open and close; I was so stunned.”
King told Nichols that Star Trek was the only show that he and his wife, Coretta Scott King, allowed their young children to stay up and watch. Nichols was touched and said she’d really miss her costars, and the activist discouraged her from quitting.
“He said, ‘You cannot,’ and so help me, this man practically repeated verbatim what Gene said. He said, ‘Don’t you see what this man is doing, who has written this? This is the future. He has established us as we should be seen. Three hundred years from now, we are here. We are marching, and this is the first step. When we see you, we see ourselves, and we see ourselves as intelligent and beautiful and proud.’ He goes on and I’m looking at him and my knees are buckling,” she explained. “And he said, ‘You turn on your television and the news comes on and you see us marching and peaceful, you see the peaceful civil disobedience, and you see the dogs and see the fire hoses, and we all know they cannot destroy us because we are there in the 23rd Century.'”
She concluded, “That’s all it took.” She remained with the original Star Trek through 1969, appearing in 69 of the show’s 80 episodes. She returned as Uhura in the first six Star Trek movies and voiced the lieutenant in Star Trek: The Animated Series in the mid-1970s.
Breaking barriers was a theme throughout Nichols’ career. Uhura and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) shared the first interracial kiss on broadcast television in 1968. “I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle,” Shatner tweeted on Sunday. “She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world. I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family.”
In 1992, she received a star Hollywood Walk of Fame and became the first Black actress to place her handprints in front of Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Nichols helped inspire many young women to become astronauts, not only as her fictional character but also as a member of the Board of Directors for the National Space Institute (now the National Space Society) and her work with the Space Cadets of America. NASA awarded her a Public Service Award in 1984 for her help diversifying the field.
“We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible,” NASA shared via Twitter on Sunday. “She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”
Her final TV roles were on The Young and the Restless in 2016 and Sharknado 5: Global Swarming the following year. Her last film was the 2020 Star Trek parody Unbelievable.
Nichols was briefly married to Forest Johnson in 1951, with whom she shared Kyle, now 70. The pair divorced later that year, and the Illinois native was married to Duke Mondy from 1968 to 1972. After a 2015 stroke and a 2018 dementia diagnosis, Kyle filed for conservatorship in 2018, which is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit .