As Lt. Uhura, the communications officer on “Star Trek,” Nichelle Nichols had boldly gone were so few actresses of color had gone before—especially on the small screen on the 1960s. Uhura (the name was inspired by “uhuru,” Swahili for freedom) was strikingly beautiful, impressively smart and in an enviable position of authority aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. While Nichols truly transcends Uhura—she was a dance prodigy as a child, became an accomplished singer who toured with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, and has authored two-science fiction novels—she’s admittedly a huge fan of the sci-fi genre and a loyal space enthusiast. ESSENCE.com meets with the still energetic 75-year-old actress to chat about that kiss with Captain Kirk, how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., convinced her not to quit “Star Trek,” and why she’s thrilled with the selection of the next Uhura.
ESSENCE.COM: Before your role on “Star Trek,” you had a thing for the outer limits. Where did you inherit your passion for space travel?
NICHELLE NICHOLS: My father had this incredible mind, and no matter what you asked him, he didn’t think it was stupid. I asked him one day, “Do people on other planets look, think and feel like us?” And he said, “Well, I would think so,” as opposed to saying there’s nobody on other planets. I remember my father saying, “If we believe in God, can we believe that God was limited and only experimented with one planet and one intelligent life form?” It made so much sense to me as a 5-year-old girl. I grew up knowing that we were a species in transition and developing.
ESSENCE.COM: Unfortunately, your father died before you landed your role on “Star Trek.” What would he have thought had he still been alive?
NICHOLS: I think he would’ve applauded and seen it as a natural extension of his little daughter’s brilliant mind. My mother lived long enough and she thought it was the most marvelous thing in the world. But she thought all of her kids were marvelous—and we are.
ESSENCE.COM: Your “Star Trek” role was one of the first Black female TV characters that wasn’t a maid or servant. Did you feel a lot of pressure setting such a precedent?
NICHOLS: Not at the time. That’s because I was just delighted to have that opportunity, and I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in being a television actress or even a movie star. I wanted to star on Broadway. I grew up in musical theater—singing, dancing, acting, building sets, writing scripts. I thought film [and television] would be a lovely adjunct to my résumé. Little did I know it would change my life.
ESSENCE.COM: There was a moment you planned to leave the show, but a talk with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., changed your mind. What were his magic words?
NICHOLS: It was at an NAACP fund-raiser. One of the organizers came up to me and said, “Somebody wants to meet you. He’s a big fan of yours.” I turn around and I see Dr. King and my brain is going, That fan is going to have to wait! My God, that’s Dr. King! And he laughed and said, “I am that fan.” I had just told Gene Roddenberry that I was leaving the show and [Dr. King] said, “You can’t do that.” He told me how wonderful and important the show was and how it presented humankind in the future and gave a format for us to see how we’re supposed to be. He said I was part of history and that television was the greatest form of education there is and for the first time people are seeing us the way we should be seen—as equals, as powerful, as intelligent. I never even thought of it in those terms. He was so captivating. I stayed because of that.
ESSENCE.COM: All “Star Trek” fans remember Uhura kissing Captain Kirk and the fuss it caused. Were you surprised by all the hoopla?
NICHOLS: (Laughs.) I thought Captain Kirk kissed Uhura. He was forced to kiss her! Out of the thousands of letters Paramount got, [there was one from a man in Georgia who wrote that he] did not believe in the mixing of the races, but anytime a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk got a beautiful gal in his arms that looked like Uhura, he wasn’t going to fight it! I thought, My God, if that’s the case, Dr. King was right on and we are changing the way people think. But Bill Shatner got some mild death threats [and letters saying], “You’re kissing my girl!”
ESSENCE.COM: So, can William Shatner kiss?
NICHELLE NICHOLS: (Laughs hard) I don’t kiss and tell.
ESSENCE.COM: Zoe Saldana is playing Uhura in the upcoming “Star Trek” film. She spoke highly of you and said she hopes she’ll do you proud. How do you think she’ll measure up?
NICHOLS: She is gorgeous. I went to the studio and [director] J.J. [Abrams] invited me to lunch to pick my brain. I told him, “This is your vision of `Star Trek,’ but I can’t wait to see it. Saldana had just come in to do one scene and she didn’t know [I would be there]. She was looking for the hairdresser, she turned and [saw me] and said, “Oh my God! No way!” J.J. came over with a devilish little grin on his face. The look on her face was priceless.