Nichelle Nichols (born Grace Nichols on December 28, 1932) is an American singer, actress, and voice actress. She sang with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before turning to acting. Her most famous role may be that of communications officer Lieutenant Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise in the popular Star Trek television series, as well as the succeeding motion picture spinoffs, where her character was eventually promoted in Starfleet to the rank of commander. In 2006, she added executive producer to her resume.
Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, near Chicago, to Lishia Parks and Samuel Earl Nichols, a factory worker who was both the town mayor of Robbins and its chief magistrate. She studied in Chicago as well as New York and Los Angeles. During her time in New York, Nichols appeared at the famous "Blue Angel" and Playboy Clubs, as a singer. She also appeared in the role of Carmen for a Chicago stock company production of Carmen Jones. Between acting and singing engagements, Nichols did occasional modeling work. She posed in a 1960 catalog for Hollywood fetish clothing seller Fine Craft, Inc. She also did a provocative layout in the December 1960 issue of the men's magazine Escapade. And in January 1967 she was featured on the cover of Ebony magazine.
Visit Nichelle Nichol's official website, uhura.com.
Nichols toured the United States, Canada and Europe as a singer with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands. On the West Coast, she appeared in The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd, For My People, and garnered high praise for her performance in the James Baldwin play, Blues for Mister Charlie. Prior to being cast as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek, Nichols was a guest actress on television producer Gene Roddenberry's first series, The Lieutenant.
However, it was in Star Trek that Nichols gained popularity by being one of the first black women to be featured in a major television series. During the first year of the series, Nichols was tempted to leave the show, as she felt her role lacked significance, but a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed her mind. Dr. King personally encouraged her to stay on the show, telling her that he was a big fan of the series and told her she "could not give up"... since she was playing a vital role model for young black children and women across the country. It is also often reported that Dr. King additionally added that "Once that door is opened by someone, no one else can close it again." Accounts of this conversation vary: In Beyond Uhura, Nichols says they spoke at a civil-rights rally.
Former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison has cited Nichols' role of Lt. Uhura as her inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut and Whoopi Goldberg has also spoken of Nichols' influence. Goldberg herself eventually landed a recurring role in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Guinan, while Jemison appeared in an episode of the series.
In her role as Lt. Uhura, she participated in the first kiss in a U.S. television drama series between fictional interracial characters with Canadian actor William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the 1968 Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren". However this milestone took place after Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nancy Sinatra had openly kissed on the variety program Movin' With Nancy in December 1967, and after Shatner had kissed an alien played by Vietnamese-American actor France Nuyen in the episode Elaan of Troyius, which was screened earlier that season.
The scene provoked protest and was seen as groundbreaking, even though the kiss was portrayed as having been forced by alien mind control. Despite a smattering of protest, the majority of the feedback of the incident was positive. Even Southern viewers weren't as hostile as feared. In her 1994 autobiography, Beyond Uhura, Star Trek and Other Memories page 197, Nichols cites a letter from one white Southerner who wrote: "I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain't gonna fight it." During the Comedy Central roast of Shatner on August 20, 2006, she referred to the incident and said, "Let's make TV history again ... and you can kiss my black ass!"
Despite the cancellation of the series in 1969, Star Trek lived on in other ways, and continued to play a part in Nichols's life. She again provided the voice of Uhura in Star Trek: The Animated Series, in one episode of which, "The Lorelei Signal", Uhura assumes command of the Enterprise. Nichols noted in her autobiography her frustration over this never occurring in the original episodes. Also, Nichols has costarred in six Star Trek films, her last being Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
NASA work and other post-Trek activities
After the cancellation of Star Trek, Nichols volunteered her time in a special project with NASA to recruit minority and female personnel for the space agency, which proved to be a success. They include Dr. Sally K. Ride, the first American female astronaut and United States Air Force Col. Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, as well as Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair, who both flew successful missions during the space shuttle program before their deaths in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986.
An enthusiastic advocate of space exploration, Nichols has served since the mid-1980s on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, a nonprofit, educational space advocacy organization founded by Dr. Wernher von Braun.
Always interested in space travel, Nichelle flew aboard NASA's C-141 Astronomy Observatory, which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn on an eight hour, high-altitude mission. She was also a special guest at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California on July 17, 1976 to view the Viking 1 soft landing on Mars. Along with the other cast members from the original Star Trek series, Nichelle attended the christening of the first space shuttle, Enterprise, at the North American Rockwell assembly facility in Palmdale, California.
In 1994, she published her autobiography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. In it she states that she had a lengthy love affair with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. In her autobiography, Nichols also claimed that the role of Peggy Fair from the television show Mannix was offered to her during the final season of Star Trek but producer Gene Roddenberry refused to release her from her contract.
Between the end of the original series and the Star Trek animated show and feature films, Nichols starred in minor roles in film and TV. She portrayed a foul-mouthed madam in Truck Turner (1974) opposite Isaac Hayes. She appeared as one of Al Gore's Vice Presidential Action Rangers in the "Anthology of Interest I" episode of the animated series Futurama, and provided the voice of her own head in a jar in the episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before". She also played the recurring role of Diane Maza in the animated series Gargoyles and played the role of Thoth-Kopeira in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series.
In 2006 Nichelle Nichols appeared as the title character in the film Lady Magdalene's, the madam of a legal Nevada brothel in tax default. She also served as executive producer, choreographer, and sang three songs in the film, two of which she composed.
She has twice been nominated for the Sarah Siddons Award as best actress and is an accomplished dancer and singer. Her first Siddons nomination was for her portrayal of Hazel Sharp in Kicks and Co., and the second for her performance in The Blacks.
She has most recently been cast in a recurring role on the second season of the NBC drama Heroes. Her first appearance was on the episode Kindred which aired on October 8, 2007. Nichols portrays Nana Dawson, the matriarch of a New Orleans family financially and personally devastated by Hurricane Katrina. She cares for her orphaned grandchildren and her great-nephew, series regular Micah Sanders.