Nichelle Nichols, Groundbreaking ‘Star Trek’ Actress, Dead at 89

Nichelle Nichols Star Trek
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Kyle Johnson, son of the beloved actress, broke the news on Facebook Sunday. 

Nichelle Nichols, the actress who broke barriers on television with her portrayal of Lt. Nyota Uhura on Star Trek, has died at the age of 89. 

Her son, Kyle Johnson, broke the news on Facebook. Nichols’ longtime manager Zachery McGinnis confirmed the death of the beloved Star Trek actress.

Of his mother’s passing, Johnson wrote, “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,” before asking the public to grant their family privacy during this time.

Nichols soared to galactic levels of fame when she was cast and starred in the original Star Trek series as Lt. Nyota Uhura in the 1960s. Uhura was among the first prominent roles for Black women on American television. 

Nichols considered leaving Star Trek after being offered a role on Broadway, but was convinced to remain on The Enterprise after a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Nichols decided to stay, realizing she could serve as an inspiration for countless generations of Black children and families.

Her role as Uhura eventually was written to become a love interest of Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner. In 1968 they shared a kiss on the show – marking the first time in American television history that an interracial kiss aired.

Shatner weighed in later Sunday afternoon, tweeting, “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. I will certainly miss her. Sending my love and condolences to her family.”

After the original Star Trek series ended in 1969, Nichols played Uhura in an animated Star Trek series and in numerous feature films. 

On Twitter former co-star George Takei tweeted about the loss of the legend. “I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89. For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”

Nichols’ reach stretched beyond television, especially when she started working with NASA, helping to recruit women of color into the agency. She did so through a collaboration with the governmental agency and her own company, Women in Motion.

The agency also paid tribute to Nichols, tweeting, “We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible. She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”

During a 2012 visit to the White House with then-President Barack Obama, Nichols tweeted, “Months ago, [President] Obama was quoted as saying that he'd had a crush on me when he was younger. I asked about that and he proudly confirmed it! President Obama also confirmed for me that he was definitely a Trekker! How wonderful is that?!”

Born Grace Dell Nichols on December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois, to a factory worker-turned-mayor and chief magistrate Lishia Parks Nichols, Nichols caught the acting bug at a young age, getting her big break on the stage in the 1961 musical, Kicks and Co. 

Her younger brother, Thomas, was part of the Heaven’s Gate cult and died in the group’s mass suicide in 1997. The group believed they would turn into aliens upon rejecting their human state and going to heaven. Thomas often used his relation to his famous sister to promote their message. 

In 2015 Nichols suffered a stroke. Three years later, she was diagnosed with dementia. That diagnosis led to a nasty legal battle and conservatorship between her son and a friend of Nichols, Angelique Fawcett, who at one point lived in Nichols’ guest house. 

Nichols received numerous accolades, including an honorary degree from Los Angeles Mission College. She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.