Star Trek Actress Nichelle Nichols Dead at 89: Remembering Her Life and Legacy

Nichelle Nichols, who played Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series and films, has passed away. She was 89. Find out more about her life, career and how she broke barriers.

By Corinne Heller Jul 31, 2022 9:06 PMTags
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The Star Trek universe has lost a legend.

Nichelle Nichols, the trailblazing actress who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the sci-fi franchise's original 1960s TV series and movies, has died. She was 89 years old.

The actress passed away on July 30 after a long battle with dementia. Her son, Kyle Johnson, her only child, announced her death on her website the following day.

"Dear Friends, Fans, Colleagues, World," the message said. "I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years. 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."

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The message 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. Live Long and Prosper, Kyle Johnson."

Nichols was born near Chicago in 1932 and began her career in musical theater. She was married twice, first to Kyle's father, her ex-husband Foster Johnson, and later to Duke Mondy, who she divorced in 1972.

Paramount Television/Kobal/Shutterstock

In addition to her Star Trek role, Nichelle also played Nana Dawson on Heroes and Lucinda Winters on The Young and the Restless and had small parts in films and TV movies such as Sharknado 5: Global Swarming in 2017. In recent years, she filmed a few projects that have yet to be released. Last December, she was honored at her final convention appearance by Star Trek fans at Comic-Con.

Nichelle is also known for her singing career and her work with NASA to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program.

Nichelle helped Star Trek break barriers. She was the first Black woman to have a continuing co-starring role on television, according to Smithsonian magazine. She also helped create one of the original series' most talked-about moments.

In a season three episode that aired in 1968, one year after the U.S. Supreme Court declared interracial marriage legal, the actress' character, the Starship Enterprise's communications officer, and William Shatner's main character, her boss Captain James T. Kirk, kiss each other (under orders from evil aliens).

"The first thing people want to talk about is the first interracial kiss and what it did for them," the actress told the Associated Press in 2010. "And they thought of the world differently, they thought of people differently."

Nichelle had almost quit Star Trek after the first season after receiving offers for Broadway roles—her dream. She told NPR that while mulling the decision over, she attended an NAACP fundraiser, where she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The actress told NPR that he told her, 'Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.'"

She continued, "He complimented me on the manner in which I'd created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you. He said, no, no, no. No, you don't understand. We don't need march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for."

Nichelle said she told the civil rights leader that she planned on leaving Star Trek. "He stopped me and said, 'You cannot do that...For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen." The actress also said he told her that Star Trek was the only show he and his wife Coretta allow their little children to stay up and watch.

Nichelle received similar comments from Whoopi Goldberg, who played Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation in the '80s. "She had told me when Star Trek came on she was 9 years old and she said she turned the TV on and saw me and ran through the house screaming, 'Come quick, come quick. There's a black lady on TV and she ain't no maid.' And that did something to my heart, so I knew that I had made the right decision, because as Dr. King said, you have been chosen."

In 2017, Sonequa Martin-Green, the lead star on Paramount+ series Star Trek: Discovery, crossed paths with Nichelle at the show's premiere. "She whispered to me, 'Enjoy this time. It's yours now.' What a blessing, what a woman. I stand on your shoulders Nichelle Nichols," Sonequa wrote on Instagram at the time.

She continued, "Thank you for heeding Dr. King's words and getting involved, for letting us see you be competent, strong and authoritative at such a pivotal time. And thank you for all you've contributed, to my life, to this country and to the world."

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