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Nichelle Nichols ‘boldly went’ where no one had before

Nichelle Nichols (267815)
Nichelle Nichols

“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away.”

—Kyle Johnson, on his mother’s official Facebook page ( July 31.

Science fiction, “SF,” “Sci-Fi”, or speculative fiction in its simplest form, involves fictional narratives based on elements that do not exist in reality. Dismissed by many as mindless fluff only fit for idle pastimes, it none-the-less has proven to be a fertile think tank for artists, inventions, scientists, and writers, and an accelerator for social change.

For Grace Dell Nichols, (better known as Nichelle Nichols), a performer trained in the theatrical traditions of 20th Century entertainment, Sci-Fi became a gateway of possibility and liberation.

Born in Robbins, Ill. (circa 1932), and raised in South Side Chicago, Nichols was a trained dancer and singer who cut her teeth touring with the likes of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. Making ends meet by modeling and performing in stage plays, she caught the eye of emerging entrepreneur Hugh M. Hefner, who employed her at his Chicago Playboy Club.

Segueing to television, she garnered a guest role on “The Lieutenant,” a 1964 series by fledgling producer Gene Roddenberry (Nichols and Roddenberry had a brief affair during and immediately after the production of “The Lieutenant”). Shortly afterwards, Roddenberry pitched an idea to NBC for another show he categorized as “Wagon Train to the stars.”

A Cultural Milestone

“I just saw a Black woman on television; and she ain’t no maid!”

—Whoopi Goldberg recalling her memories of seeing “Star Trek”as a child (she later became a cast member of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”)

Roddenberry envisioned it as a sophisticated entry geared towards adults, inspired by “The Twilight Zone” and the BBC “Quatermass” science fiction series of radio and television.

Decades later it is difficult to understand how groundbreaking “Star Trek” was. Fortuitously airing in the midst of the cultural turmoil of the 1960s, it provided timely commentary on the injustices and societal ills of the era. Set in the USS Enterprise, a state-of-the-art starship dedicated to deep space exploration, it featured a disparate crew including an Asian helmsman and physicist, Lt. Sulu (George Takei); the Russian-Jewish navigator, Ensign Pavel Andreievich Chekov (Walter Koening); and Nichols as communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura.

Perhaps most telling was the casting of Leonard Nimoy as executive officer Spock, of mixed heritage (human and Vulcan) and a precursor to the interracial populace so common in the present millennium.

Nichols became the first African-American actress to have a lead role on a TV show. During its brief (1966-69) tenure, “Star Trek” broke new ground by stepping outside the well-worn sitcom template developed in the 1950s.

Prime examples include an episode on the futility of racism in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” and a Vietnam allegory in “A Private Little War” (wherein the Enterprise visits the planet Neural, populated by formerly peaceful, indigenous, primitive people who are caught up in a proxy war with weapons provided by the Klingon superpower.

Surprisingly, this iconoclastic program did not receive positive reviews after its initial season, and Nichols, a seasoned crooner and hoofer, yearned for the bright lights of Broadway. She said as much in a one on one with Roddenberry. Pleading in vain for her to reconsider, he convinced her to take the weekend off to think it over.

At a banquet, she crossed paths with one of the most admired (and despised) men in America, the Rev. Martin Luther King, who revealed that he was a “Trekkie” and waxed eloquently about her show being the only one his wife allowed their children stay up to watch. When she revealed her plans to leave the series, he urged her to refrain in the majestic baritone that had enthralled the nation.

“You can’t. You’re part of history,” King implored. “Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color. You are important there because of your color.”

He emphasized that she was crusading in her own way just as he was marching in the midst of hostile crowds intent on halting the progress of integration.

“…you’re not just a role model for little Black children. You’re more important for people who don’t look like us,” King said. “For the first time, the world sees us as should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people—as we should be.”

And so it was that Nichelle Nichols returned to the set, and history was made.

The lip-lock the shocked the airways

Among the milestones was the first interracial kiss between Nichols and lead actor William Shatner. Studio brass were understandably apprehensive about how this intimate encounter would be accepted by audiences below the Mason–Dixon line, so they mandated that two versions of the scene be shot. One would be filmed without their lips touching (for consumption in the Deep South), another with their mouths intertwined in full embrace.

Afterward, rumors circulated that the actors deliberately ruined every non-kissing take in order to force the network to present this full display of amorous affection. In any event, “the full Monty” was broadcast just one year after the Supreme Court affirmed the legality of interracial marriage.

A flawed Utopia

In hindsight, feminist sensibilities would question the fetishized uniforms of the female crew members, although Uhura’s popularity was undoubtedly boosted by the miniskirts and high heeled boots which showcased her dancer’s physique.

Paradoxically, in spite of the mandate to project a vision of 23rd century utopia, the 20th century bugaboo of racism was an ever present hindrance. The real problems came, in Nichols’ view, from the front office, which thought that White audiences weren’t ready to see more of Uhura. Simultaneously, the studio withheld her fan mail, possibly to prevent her from using it as leverage in negotiating a higher salary.

A lasting legacy

“All art is but imitation of nature.”

— Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca

This quote from the peak of the Roman Empire, has been consolidated to mean “art imitates life.” By 1889 the dramatist Oscar Wild contradicted this philosophical notion to insist that “…life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

The influence of “Star Trek” on show business and the world is impossible to measure. Apple Computer founder Steve Wozniak has cited it as a major motivation for the conception and execution of the personal computer, and scores of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been inspired by this fictionalized glimpse into the future. Such modern day conveniences as the cell phone and other handheld electronics may be traced back to the communicator and tablets used by Capt. Kirk’s crew.

Nichelle Nichols opened a window of possibilities for girls of color beyond the constraints imposed by society. As noted, her achievements emboldened Whoopi Goldberg’s transition from a New York housing project to a celebrated showbiz career. She inspired Mae Jemison’s aspirations, leading her to become a doctor, engineer, and NASA astronaut. In a nutshell, for Nichols, life did imitate art.

After her demise, fans draped her star with flowers and other tokens of adoration on the Walk of Fame at 6635 Hollywood Boulevard.