Nichelle Nichols, who broke down barriers with her portrayal of translator and communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek TV series and later in its film franchise, died Saturday night in Silver City, N.M. She was 89 years old.
Nichols’ death was confirmed by Gilbert Bell, her talent manager and business partner of 15 years.
A popular part of the principal players on Star Trek, Nichols shared one of the first interracial kisses in television history with costar William Shatner.
Nichols also played Lt. Uhura by voicing her on “Star Trek: The Animated Series,” and appeared in the first six “Star Trek” films. She became a lieutenant commander in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and then a full commander in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” Throughout, she was a powerful symbol for African Americans and a fan favorite in the various projects.
NASA later employed Nichols as a spokesperson to encourage women and African Americans to become astronauts. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to fly aboard the Space Shuttle, cited “Star Trek” as an influence in her decision to join the space agency.
Nichols became the first African American woman to have her handprints immortalized at the TCL Chinese Theatre. The ceremony also included other members of the original “Star Trek” cast.
Born Grace Nichols in Robbins, Ill. on Dec. 28, 1932, Nichols sang with Duke Ellington in a ballet she created for one of his compositions. Later, she sang with his band.
Nichols appeared in Oscar Brown’s 1961 musical “Kicks and Co.,” in which she played campus queen Hazel Sharpe. The play attracted the attention of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, who booked her at his Chicago Playboy Club.
Nichols had an extensive theater run, also appearing in the role of Carmen for a Chicago stock company production of “Carmen Jones,” and performed in a New York production of “Porgy and Bess.”
She had small roles in the films “Made in Paris,” “Mr. Buddwing” and the Sandra Dee vehicle “Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding!” before she was cast on “Star Trek.”
In the early ’70s, the actress appeared in the 1974 blaxploitation film “Truck Turner,” starring Isaac Hayes. She appeared in a supporting role in a 1983 TV adaptation of “Antony and Cleopatra” that also featured her “Star Trek” costar Walter Koenig. And she starred with Maxwell Caulfield and Talia Balsam in the 1986 horror sci-fi feature, “The Supernaturals.”
Nichols voice work included the animated series “Gargoyles” and “Spider-Man.” She also voiced herself on “Futurama.”
The actress played the mother of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s lead character in 2002’s “Snow Dogs” and Miss Mable in the 2005 Ice Cube comedy “Are We There Yet?”
Nichols was married and divorced twice. She is survived by her son, Kyle Johnson.