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Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ has died at 89

Actor Nichelle Nichols speaks during the Creation Entertainment's Official Star Trek Convention at The Westin O'Hare in Rosemont, Ill., Sunday, June 8, 2014. Nichols, who gained fame as Lt. Ntoya Uhura on the original "Star Trek" television series, died Saturday, July 30, 2022, her family said. She was 89.

Relatives say Sunday that Nichelle Nichols, who broke ground for Black women acting on television as the beautiful, no-nonsense communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original “Star Trek” TV series, has died at the age of 89.

Her role in the 1966-69 series as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifelong position of honor with the series’ rabid fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies.

She often recalled how Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the show and praised her role. She met him at a civil rights gathering in 1967, at a time when she had decided not to return for the show’s second season.

“When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and I was leaving the show, he became very serious and said, ‘You cannot do that,’” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview.

“‘You’ve changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you’ve changed the minds of people,’” she said the civil rights leader told her.

“That foresight Dr. King had was a lightning bolt in my life,” Nichols said.

FILE – Members of the “Star Trek” crew, from left, James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, George Takei, Leonard Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols, toast the newest “Star Trek” film during a news conference at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, Dec. 28, 1988. Nichols, who gained fame as Lt. Ntoya Uhura on the original “Star Trek” television series, died Saturday, July 30, 2022, at age 89. (AP Photo/Bob Galbraith, File) AP

During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Capt. James Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to be broadcast on a U.S. television series. In the episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” their characters, who always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced into the kiss by aliens who were controlling their actions.

The kiss “suggested that there was a future where these issues were not such a big deal,” Eric Deggans, a television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018. “The characters themselves were not freaking out because a Black woman was kissing a white man … In this utopian-like future, we solved this issue. We’re beyond it. That was a wonderful message to send.”

Worried about reaction from Southern television stations, showrunners wanted to film a second take of the scene where the kiss happened off-screen. But Nichols said in her book, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” that she and Shatner deliberately flubbed lines to force the original take to be used.

Despite concerns, the episode aired without blowback. In fact, it got the most “fan mail that Paramount had ever gotten on ‘Star Trek’ for one episode,” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.

Shatner tweeted Sunday: “I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. 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.”

Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called “Gracie,” which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. When she was a teen her mother told her she had wanted to name her Michelle, but thought she ought to have alliterative initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence, “Nichelle.”

Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14, moving 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 that led up to her “Star Trek” stardom.

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