The actor and singer Nichelle Nichols, who has died aged 89, was one of the first black women to be featured on American television in a non-subservient role when she played the communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series (1966-69). She was also involved in the US’s first small-screen kiss between a black woman and a white man, Uhura and Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner), in 1968.
When Nichols considered leaving Star Trek at the end of the first run, a chance meeting with the civil rights leader Martin Luther King at a fundraising event changed her mind. “He said I had the first non-stereotypical role, I had a role with honour, dignity and intelligence,” she recalled in a 2011 television programme. “He said: ‘You simply cannot abdicate. This is an important role. This is why we are marching. We never thought we’d see this on TV.’”
Returning to the part that she had seen simply as a stepping stone to Broadway, Nichols took it more seriously and reprised it in the original Star Trek’s spin-off films. She saw Uhura – her name was based on uhuru, the Swahili for “freedom” – not only as a role model for black people, but also for women with ambitions to become astronauts or scientists.
Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, championed sexual and racial equality, and presented a hopeful vision of the future in the series. “The promise of that imaginary universe was real to me,” wrote Nichols in her 1994 autobiography, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. “I am still very proud of Uhura: proud of who she was (or will be) and what she represented, not only in her time but in ours.”
Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, the daughter of Samuel, a chemist who had just served as mayor of that town, and his wife, Lishia (nee Parks). Her paternal grandfather, a white southerner, had alienated his parents by marrying a black woman. After Nichols and her family moved to Chicago, she studied dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy from the age of 12.
Two years later her professional career began as a singer and dancer in the revue College Inn at the Sherman House hotel, Chicago. Later she toured the US, Canada and Europe with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton’s jazz bands (1950-51), appeared in the revue Calypso Carnival at the Blue Angel nightclub, Chicago, and performed as a solo singer and dancer across the US and Canada.
Moving to Los Angeles, Nichols was a principal dancer in the film version of Porgy and Bess (1959), which led to her being cast as the campus queen Hazel Sharpe in the original production of Kicks & Co at the Arie Crown theatre in Chicago (1961). Although the musical was a flop, Hugh Hefner saw Nichols and booked her to appear at his Chicago Playboy Club.
In 1964, she acted in an episode of Roddenberry’s first series, The Lieutenant, a drama about a marine corps. She then auditioned for Star Trek early the following year. With her character still to be developed, she read Spock’s lines and claimed to have impressed the producers so much that they checked whether Leonard Nimoy had yet signed his contract. When it was confirmed that he had, they began discussing Uhura, whose name came from the title of a novel about the fight for freedom in Africa that Nichols had with her at the audition.
In her autobiography, Nichols revealed that she had a relationship with Roddenberry – who was married and already dating the woman who became his second wife – before Star Trek began. She later wrote a song for him, Gene, which she sang at his funeral in 1991. She was also a regular at Trekkies’ fan conventions.
After Star Trek finished in 1969, she voiced Uhura in Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-74) and played the part in the first six spin-off films, beginning with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and ending with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). She played Uhura once again in the 2020 fan-produced film Star Trek: First Frontier, as well as appearing as Admiral Grace Jemison in the 2017 fans’ internet series Star Trek: Renegades.
Nichols was so associated with Uhura that she was only occasionally offered other screen roles, although she voiced half-a-dozen television cartoons. In the 1974 blaxploitation film Truck Turner, she was Dorinda, a foul-mouthed madam hiring a gangster to carry out revenge on the bounty hunters (played by Isaac Hayes and Alan Weeks) who killed her pimp boyfriend. She later played Nana Dawson, the matriarch of a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina, in the second series (2007) of the TV sci-fi drama Heroes.
In 1975, Nichols formed Women in Motion, which produced educational materials based around music. The initiative later expanded, with a Nasa grant, to become an astronaut recruitment project aimed at women and ethnic minorities. Among the thousands who applied were Sally Ride, who became the first American woman in space. Nichols won Nasa’s public service award in 1984.
As a singer, Nichols released three albums, Down to Earth (1967), Uhura Sings (1986) and Out of this World (1991). In 1990 she also staged a one-woman show, Reflections, a musical tribute to black performers such as Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt, at the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Nichols’s two marriages, to the dancer Foster Johnson in 1951 and the songwriter Duke Mondy in 1968, both ended in divorce. She is survived by Kyle, the son from her first marriage, who became an actor.