Nichelle Nichols: From Uhura’s First Kiss to Last Dance
When the first season of Star Trek was drawing to a close, actress Nichelle Nichols had enough. She felt she had endured enough racist and misogynistic behavior at the studio and wanted to go back to her first love of musical theater. But things changed suddenly one weekend in early 1967.
Nichols had previously worked with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and shared his vision of a human future without the restrictions of outdated tribal prejudice. They even worked together on developing the character she played: Lt. Uhura, the name inspired by the Swahili word for “freedom.”
She later recalled Roddenberry telling her: “I really like the name ‘Uhuru.’ … I want to do something with it.” On being told it was a Swahili word, he asked, “But a lot of people speak it, right?” "There are a lot of languages in Africa but this is one that everyone can communicate with," she explained. He felt it was too “harsh” for a female name, so she suggested the slight adjustment to “Uhura.” He immediately responded: “That’s it – that’s your name. You named it, it’s yours – and I know exactly where your character comes from: the United States of Africa.” When she protested there was no such place, he told her, “There will be in 300 years!”
Star Trek’s ambitious illustration of the future started capturing the imagination from the very beginning. But back on 20th century Earth, where interracial marriage was only just becoming legal in the U.S., Nichols’ personal experiences were less positive. “Having grown up as I did, I could not tolerate racist comments and actions,” she wrote in her 1994 memoir Beyond Uhura. “I’d seen enough to know what people really meant, regardless of how they tried to disguise it. And, as always, actions speak louder than words. Blatant racism is obvious and stupid, but the evil of most racist actions and comments is in their veiled insidiousness.
"One day I arrived at work and was surprised when the security guard at the gate, who had shown a subtle dislike for me and whom I knew by name, refused to let me in. 'What are you talking about?’ I asked. ‘I work here!’ ‘Sorry, hon, your name isn’t on this list. Evidently, you don’t work here no more.’ When I reminded him that I'd been coming through this gate for weeks and reiterated who I was, he snorted, ‘I don’t give a damn who you are.’ Furious, I drove down to the next gate and had to walk back some distance to the set.”
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In another incident, a senior executive’s assistant spoke to her after Grace Lee Whitney was fired from the show. "[They] said bluntly to me, ‘If anyone was let go, it should have been you, not Grace Lee. Ten of you could never equal one blue-eyed blonde,'" Nichols said. "He fairly snarled as he walked past me. For a moment I shook with rage. Suddenly I understood the action of the guard. Was this merely one man’s opinion or something that had been voiced in the front office? Then an incident occurred that made the feelings of some at the studio painfully clear.”
Another telling moment came when she discovered the truth about her fan mail; she had been receiving only a small portion of it. The truth came out when she accidentally ran into two mailroom workers at the studio: “‘We think it’s such a dirty damn thing that’s happening to you,’ the second guy blurted. ‘We just think it’s so low.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘We’ve been ordered not to give you your fan mail,’ he explained. ‘What are you talking about? I get fan mail.’ ‘No,’ he insisted. ‘You don't get your fan mail. We have stacks – bags! – of letters for you.’”
Aware that they were risking their jobs by telling her, she agreed to keep quiet and arranged to visit the mailroom in secret. "Days later I saw for myself the boxes and bags of mail from all over the country, from adults and children, all colors, all races. To say I was stunned does not even begin to convey how I felt," she noted. "It was just fan mail, but to those who had ensured that I worked without a contract, who seemed at every turn to remind me that I was dispensable, this was the ultimate humiliation.”
In addition to those struggles, Nichols said she’d “grown weary of seeing my good scenes and lines being hacked away.” She joined the cast in the first place because it would make a good line on her resume while she pursued her theater career. So she decided to resign.
She went to Roddenberry at the end of the week and offered him a resignation letter. “And Gene says, ‘You can’t do that,’” Nichols remembered later. “‘Yes, I can!’ And he said, ‘Don’t you understand what I’m trying to achieve here?’ I said, ‘Gene, you’ve been wonderful and I really thank you … but my life is musical theater and I’m getting offers for all kinds of wonderful things where I want to be.’ … He looked at [the letter] and he said, ‘Take the weekend, Nichelle, and think about it … think about this. It’s more than you think it is.’”
Nichols stated that fate intervened that Saturday night, while she was attending a celebrity event and was told her “biggest fan” wanted to say hello. “I turn and instead of a fan, there’s this face the world knows, with this beautiful smile on it. I’m thinking, ‘Whoever the fan is is going to have to wait because Dr. King – Dr. Martin Luther King, my leader – is walking toward me! [He said,] ‘Yes Ms. Nichols, I am that fan; I am your best fan, your greatest fan, and my family are your greatest fans. As a matter of fact, this is the only show on television that my wife Coretta and I will allow to stay up and watch.’”
Speechless, Nichols eventually managed to tell King that she was going to miss her costars when she accepted her latest theater offer and left Star Trek. "He said, 'You cannot. You cannot,'" Nichols recalled. "'Don’t you understand what this man [Roddenberry] has achieved? 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 who can go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers. … We are in this day, and yet we don’t see it on television – until now.'"
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Nichols said she stood there in silence, “realizing that everything he was saying was the truth.” King said, “Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave that door can be closed because your role is not a Black role and it’s not a female role. He can fill it with anything, including an alien. ... At that moment the world tilted for me, and I knew then – I didn’t want to know it – but I knew that I was something else, that the world was not the same. Everything that he had said: ‘The world sees us for the first time as we should be seen.’”
She admitted her first emotion was anger as she wondered, “Why me? Why should I have to?” But by Monday morning, as she went to see Roddenberry, her mind was clear: “I told him what happened and I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.’ And he said: ‘God bless Dr. Martin Luther King – somebody knows where I am coming from!’ And he took out my resignation, which was torn into 100 pieces, and he handed me the pile. ... My life’s never been the same since, and I’ve never looked back and I’ve never regretted it. … We have choices … it was the right road for me.”
As Star Trek’s popularity increased, so too did Roddenberry’s desire to push his vision forward. One of the franchise’s biggest moments came in the Season 2 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” in which, unable to resist an alien race’s mind-control powers, Uhura and Capt. Kirk (William Shatner) are forced to kiss. Often referred to as the first interracial kiss on U.S. network TV, it wasn’t even the first interracial kiss on Star Trek. It’s become a resounding moment in cultural history nonetheless.
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“They saved it till the last day, till the end of the day,” Nichols said later, recalling how the director had yelled “cut” before the first take had played out. “You kissed her,” he muttered under his breath to Shatner. “Yes – isn’t that what the scene’s about?” The discussion continued as if she wasn’t there, so she went back to her dressing room. She told Roddenberry that he had to decide what to do, and with two studio executives who’d suddenly appeared in the background, he told the director to shoot two versions: one with the kiss and one without. That’s when Shatner’s playful disrespect came into play.
"Bill said, 'Let’s do the kiss first,'" Nichols recalled. "We break… Bill said, ‘Let’s do this one more time because I think she should be resisting more.’ And we’re laughing between cuts: ‘I told you I was gonna get you one day.’ ‘No you didn’t – you know better!’ We’ve done six more kisses with Bill asking for more takes. … The [assistant director] is saying [we have] six minutes.” Knowing they still had to do the scene without a kiss, “Bill turns me and bends me over, and looks up to the camera and crosses his eyes. He hasn’t kissed me; the director hasn’t seen what the cameraman has seen, and he goes, ‘There we go! That’s a take and that’s a wrap and thank you very much!’ I don’t know what Bill’s done – only the cameraman and the guys behind. And they’re smiling and I think they’re happy to be going home.”
Shatner himself recalled: “I mean, she’s beautiful … she’s beautiful now, but as a young lady she had the beauty of youth. So it wasn’t very hard to work up enthusiasm to kiss her.” But he argued the moment “lacked the drama of, ‘Oh, my God, a white guy’s kissing a Black girl on camera!’” because neither character was acting out of their “own volition.”
The next morning, Nichols said, many more people than usual attended the playback of the previous day’s takes. The studio execs appeared at the back of the room as everyone watched the kiss takes and the final take with no kiss but Shatner’s deliberate ruining of the scene. “And the suits said, 'Go with the kiss,'” she said. “And pandemonium broke out, laughter – except the director!”
“Plato’s Children” received a “hug response” from viewers, Nichols said. "We received one of the largest batches of fan mail ever, all of it very positive, with many addressed to me from girls wondering how it felt to kiss Capt. Kirk, and many to him from guys wondering the same thing about me. However, almost no one found the kiss offensive – except from a single mildly negative 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 Capt. Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it!’”
Star Trek was canceled after three seasons, but fan power, conventions and the rise of the science fiction genre ensured the original Enterprise crew’s return in a series of movies from 1979 to 1991, while the franchise continues to thrive across multiple media platforms. Nichols returned as Uhura, providing small but often key moments to the stories. She saved the day with her observation in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that “the thing’s gotta have a tailpipe” as Kirk took on a Klingon warship that could fire while cloaked. And when the initial script for that movie called for the original crew to be gathered from humble, obscure post-Starfleet careers, Nichols saved the dignity of the characters she and her colleagues had nurtured for a quarter of a century.
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“I often speculated that several of the crewmen would be captaining their own ships, Bones teaching medicine and Uhura heading Starfleet Command of all communications on Earth,” she wrote. “So I was appalled to read [the] first draft in which we were depicted as a bunch of down-and-out losers. He had Bones out vegetating in the countryside, Chekov idly playing chess somewhere and a bored Uhura hosting a trashy space-age radio talk show that appeared to be based on Howard Stern’s. ‘Absolutely not!’ I said. ‘To put forth the idea that heroes like these can just disintegrate sends a horrible message. They should be leaders, teachers, counselors, mentors. At least make me an intergalactic Oprah Winfrey!’ Gene and the rest of the cast agreed so that when we make our first appearance, at a classified, emergency Starfleet briefing, it’s clear that we are each being called away from other important duties.”
At the time Nichols was still smarting from the bad experience of the generally panned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. She’d been given a scene where she got to demonstrate her singing and dancing skills, as Uhura performs a sexy routine in a desert to distract the guards of a prison camp. She even offered Roddenberry one of her songs, “Hauntingly,” which everyone loved. Music director Jerry Goldsmith opted not to use it, which Nichols understood, but she also was under the impression that whatever was to be sung, she’d be singing it when recording time came.
“Since the time we finished shooting, I’d appeared at probably a dozen fan conventions,” she recounted. “All the fans knew that I sang, so they would be thrilled to learn that Uhura would be singing in the new film. I was careful not to say anything about this, however, until I checked with [producer] Harve [Bennett] to confirm that he still planned to have me sing. Several times I asked, and each time he answered yes. The first person I saw at the studio when I arrived to start looping was Bill. ‘Hi, baby!’ he said, smiling. ‘You know, it's really too bad about the music because you would have done just as good a job.’
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“It took only a few seconds before I realized that Bill had just let the cat out of the bag. When Harve came in, he was very upset, but only because he got caught with his pants down, so to speak. … ‘Gee, Nichelle, I should have called you,’ he said lamely. … I was crushed and felt that he had not been straight with me. Fighting back my tears, I said, ‘No! You have embarrassed me in front of the fans. I trusted you, and I will never forgive you, Harve. Never.’ ... The first time I saw the finished film, in which the singer from a rock group called Hiroshima sings my part, I thought I would die. To this day, many people still believe they are hearing my voice.”
Nichols was proud that her final outing as Uhura came in a movie as powerful and effective as Star Trek VI. “Just as the original series addressed current-day issues in a ‘safe’ futuristic setting, Star Trek VI examined how we respond to and redefined ourselves in the face of change,” she wrote. “The plot has so many fantastic twists … the film provided a fitting and satisfying end to the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.”
She continued to act, sing and dance, and became a volunteer advocate with NASA, encouraging women to join the space program and succeeding with the first-ever American female astronaut Sally Ride, the first Black American female astronaut Mae Jemison and countless ground team scientists, advisors and operators. She was an inspiration for many Black actresses, too, notably Whoopi Goldberg, who starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation and remembered yelling to her mom: “There's a Black lady on television and she ain't no maid!“
Nichelle Nichols died on July 30, 2022, at 89 after a long struggle with dementia. Capt. Nyota Uhura retired after a distinguished Starfleet career in 2333.
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