African-American actress Nichelle Nichols was born on December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois. After an early career as a vocalist and dancer for live jazz orchestras, she began to act in film and television. She is best known for playing Lieutenant Uhura on the classic science-fiction television series Star Trek from 1966 to '69. In addition to acting, she has recorded albums, written a memoir and science-fiction novels, and worked to recruit women and minorities to NASA.
Early Life and Career
Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Nichols on December 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois. Her parents, Samuel Earl and Lishia (Parks) Nichols, encouraged her early interest in singing and acting. Nichols studied dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy and aspired to perform on Broadway; she admired African-American female vocalists such as Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Mahalia Jackson.
In her early career, Nichols sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. She made her film debut in 1959, as an uncredited dancer in a film adaptation of the opera Porgy and Bess starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr.
Nichols also began to work in television, including an appearance on the series The Lieutenant in 1964. Her relationship with the series' director, Gene Roddenberry, would lead to her most famous role.
When Roddenberry began casting a science-fiction television series to be set in outer space, he invited Nichols to audition. She was ultimately cast in the now-legendary series Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer for the Starship Enterprise. (The name "Uhura" was adapted from "uhuru," the Swahili word for "freedom.")
Nichols's groundbreaking television performance as an African-American woman in a confident, authoritative role drew immediate notice from Star Trek's audience. Nichols, still envisioning herself as a theater performer, considered leaving the series after the first season. However, a conversation with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., during which King encouraged her to remain in the role, changed her mind.
Nichols appeared throughout the run of Star Trek, from 1966 to 1969. As Uhura, she enacted television's first interracial kiss, with William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk in the 1968 episode "Plato's Stepchildren."
Nichols also appeared in six Star Trek motion pictures released between 1979 and 1991.
Later Work and Other Projects
Nichols has added other movie credits to her resume, including the "blaxploitation" film Truck Turner in 1974, the Disney comedy Snow Dogs in 2002, and the family comedy Are We There Yet? in 2005. She appeared as a recurring character in several episodes of the television series Heroes in 2007.
She also made occasional returns to live performance, as in her one-woman show Reflections, a tribute to women of jazz and blues. She showcased her singing in two albums, Down to Earth and Out of This World.
Building on her name recognition from Star Trek, in the late 1970s and 1980s Nichols participated in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's efforts to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program. She has written two science-fiction novels, Saturn's Child and Saturna's Quest. In 1994 she published the autobiography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories.
Nichols's marriage to the dancer Foster Johnson in 1951 ended in divorce within a year; she and Johnson have a son named Kyle. She was wed to songwriter Duke Mondy from 1967 until their divorce in 1972.
On June 3, 2015, the 82-year-old actress suffered a minor stroke and underwent inpatient rehabilitation. Following her hospitalization, she told Entertainment Tonight: "I am feeling the best that I felt in a very long time."
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