Nichelle Nichols being cast in a prominent supporting role in the massively successful Star Trek series was a groundbreaking moment. But she almost quit after the very first season.
What changed her mind? A chat with a very special Star Trek fan: Martin Luther King Jr. himself.
Early life and career
Nichols was born in the Robbins suburb of Chicago, Illinois, on December 28, 1932. Her father was a factory worker who was both town mayor and chief magistrate of Robbins.
Starting out in theater and musicals, Nichols was cast as Hazel Sharpe in Kicks and Co (1961), a satirical musical based on Playboy magazine. As well as starring in the theater, she also did modeling work. In fact, Hugh Hefner was so impressed by her portrayal of Hazel Sharpe that he actually booked her for his Chicago Playboy Club.
As a singer, she toured the United States, Canada, and Europe with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton.
She worked with Roddenberry before Star Trek
Before he set out to stun the world with his iconic sci-fi series, Gene Roddenberry created a show called The Lieutenant. One of MGM’s most successful in-house productions of that decade, the show ran from 1963 to 1964 and explored the lives of Marines and officers during the Cold War.
Many guest stars on The Lieutenant would go on to be involved with Star Trek: Majel Barrett, Leonard Nimoy, Water Koenig, and Ricardo Montalbán. Nichols’s episode was entitled ‘To Set It Right’ and dealt with racial prejudice.
The origins of Star Trek
Although the actors and crew on Star Trek: The Original Series didn’t know it when they started out, the show would become groundbreaking and spawn a whole franchise that is still alive today.
Roddenberry had experience writing series about the Old West, and he pitched his show as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Certainly, the show followed the style of Wagon Train in that each episode had a self-contained story set in the broader context of the ongoing mission.
The character of Kirk was influenced by Horatio Hornblower from C. S. Forester’s books where a “daring sea captain … exercises broad discretionary authority on distant sea missions of a noble purpose.” Roddenberry has been known to describe Kirk as “Horatio Hornblower in space.”
When Roddenberry was ready to pitch his idea in April 1964, he took it to Desilu Productions, an independent company headed by Lucille Ball.
Nichols hands in her resignation letter
The first season of Star Trek ran from 1966 to 1967, and while Nichols enjoyed the experience, she missed acting in the theater. When she was offered a role in an upcoming theater production, she accepted it and went to hand in her notice to Gene Roddenberry.
Nichols has spoken several times over the years about what happened after that. In an interview for Emmy TV Legends, she explained how she went to tell Roddenberry that she was going to take the theater role and he said: “You can’t do that … Don’t you understand what I’m trying to achieve here?” Nichols held out, saying that her life was in musical theater and she was getting offers for “all sorts of wonderful things.”
When she handed him her resignation letter, he told her to take the weekend to think about it, and if she still wanted to go on Monday, she could do so with his blessings. Nichols thinks what happened next was fate.
Uhura’s biggest fan
At a fundraising event that weekend, the organizer approached Nichols to say that someone wanted to speak to her, someone claiming to be her biggest fan. She was more than happy to meet him.
Speaking to NPR in 2011, she explained what happened next: “And I’m thinking a Trekker, you know. And I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking toward me. And he started laughing. By the time he reached me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.”
The only show that Martin Luther King’s children were allowed to stay up and watch
Nichols thanked him for the immense compliment then added that she was going to miss her co-stars. When he asked her why, she started to explain about the theater job and he interrupted her to say: “You cannot do that.” Nichols described her feelings at the time: “I was stunned. He said, don’t you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. He says, do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our children to stay up and watch? I was speechless.”
He went on to elaborate: “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 – but who can go into space, who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors – who are in this state and yet you don’t see it on television – until now.”
“Your role is not a black role and it’s not a female role”
Nichols explained that she could say nothing in the face of such a momentous speech. But Dr. King wasn’t finished yet with his efforts to convince her to stay.
“If you leave the show,” he continued, “Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed because, you see, your role is not a black role and it’s not a female role. He can fill it with anything including an alien.”
Nichols was stunned
It was intimidating enough when she found out that a man she referred to as “my leader” was her biggest fan, but Nichols was shocked to hear that he had a special purpose in mind for her.
“And at that moment, the world tilted for me, and I knew then – I didn’t want to know it because I was going to go through some more turmoil for the rest of the week – but I knew that I was something else, that the world was not the same. And that’s all I could think of, as Dr. King – everything that he had said – the world sees us for the first time as we should be seen.”
An important legacy
According to an interview she gave in 2014, when she told Roddenberry she’d changed her mind and wanted to keep her role, Roddenberry produced her resignation letter, which he had already torn up.
Nichols’s decision not to quit meant that for many years, a young black woman appeared on a prime-time TV show providing a vital role model for children and young women across the country. Although her kiss with co-star William Shatner in a 1968 episode was billed as the first interracial kiss on scripted US television, earlier examples do exist. However, it is this passionate moment on an alien planet that TV audiences the world over always remember.
A direct inspiration for Guinan and a nine-year-old Whoopi Goldberg
In her NPR interview, Nichols spoke about meeting Whoopi Goldberg, who went on to play Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation – a role that Goldberg requested and was granted based on her love of Uhura.
“I met Whoopi Goldberg when Gene was doing The Next Generation and she had told me when Star Trek came on she was nine years old and she said she turned the TV on and saw me and ran through the house screaming: Come quick, come quick. There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid.”
Presidential crushes and inspiring astronauts to boldly go into space
After Star Trek was canceled, Nichols gave her time to NASA, helping to recruit female and minority personnel to the organization. Dr. Sally Ride (the first female astronaut) and Colonel Guion Bluford (the first African-American astronaut) are among those she helped to become space explorers for real.
February 2012: President Barack Obama welcomed Nichelle Nichols to the Oval Office in proper Star Trek style. Ms. Nichols tweeted that President Obama is, in fact, a Star Trek fan, who told her that he had a crush on her when he was younger. pic.twitter.com/MzTLyS6TGr
— Michael Okuda (@MikeOkuda) June 14, 2020
And in 2012, it turned out that she had even had an effect on President Barack Obama. After meeting him in the Oval Office on February 29, 2012, Nichols tweeted: “Months ago, [President] Obama was quoted as saying that he’d had a crush on me when he was younger.” She went on: “I asked about that and he proudly confirmed it!! President Obama also confirmed for me that he was definitely a Trekker! How wonderful is that?!”
As well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Nichols also has an asteroid named after her: Asteroid 68410 Nichols.