Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played the groundbreaking role of Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek series, has died at the age of 89.
Nichols’ son Kyle Johnson announced his mother’s death Sunday on her official website, writing that she died Saturday night from natural causes.
“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 wrote. “The light, however, like the ancient galaxies 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.”
We’re deeply saddened to report the passing of Nichelle Nichols – a trailblazer, an inspiration, and so much more. She will be deeply missed. https://t.co/iBwyOPaxTP
— Star Trek (@StarTrek) July 31, 2022
Nichols was one of the first African-American actresses to appear in a major primetime television role when she was cast to play the USS Enterprise’s chief communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek series in 1966; two years earlier, Nichols appeared in a guest role on The Lieutenant, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s first TV series.
“Lt. Uhura set the bar pretty high, and has the distinction of being a significant, integral black character at a time when that was virtually unheard in on television, let alone in sci-fi,” Rolling Stone wrote of Nichols’ character.
Nichols’ presence on television was so trailblazing and important that Martin Luther King, Jr. dissuaded the actress, who wanted to go back to musical theater, from quitting the show after its first season. “He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch,” Nichols said of her meeting with King, adding that he told her “for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing dance, and can go to space.”
Nichols remained a passenger on the USS Enterprise for the pioneering series’ entire three-season run, including an episode where her character kissed William Shatner’s Capt. James Kirk, a moment that marked one of the first interracial kisses on television.
After the show’s cancellation in 1969, Nichols remained in Star Trek’s orbit, appearing in the first six big-screen spinoffs of the franchise and voicing the Uhura character in a mid-Seventies animated series; the Uhura character was also featured in Star Trek‘s reboot, played by Zoe Saldana.
Fittingly, Nichols also became an ambassador for NASA, spearheading an effort to bring more women and minorities into the space program. “That legacy continues into the modern astronaut corps, where sex and color no longer matter… as it should be,” Nichols told StarTrek.com in 2012. “I continue to be proud to have been chosen to make those first women (including Dr. Sally Ride and Dr. Ronald McNair) and minorities a reality.”
In 2012, Nichols was invited to meet President Barack Obama at the White House. “Obama was quoted as saying that he’d had a crush on me when he was younger,” Nichols wrote after the meeting. “I asked about that & he proudly confirmed it! President Obama also confirmed for me that he was definitely a Trekker! How wonderful is that?!”
One of my most treasured photos – Godspeed to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior and tremendous actor. Her kindness and bravery lit the path for many. May she forever dwell among the stars. #RIPNichelle #Uhura pic.twitter.com/nFXHif8HEC
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) July 31, 2022
With Nichols’ death, William Shatner and George Takei are the only surviving members of the USS Enterprise’s original crew; actor Walter Koenig joined the cast in Star Trek‘s second season.