Monday, August 1, 2022

Hailing Frequencies Open: The Late Great Nichelle Nichols

There are those shows and those actors who have an impact on us from our earliest years. I cannot remember when I first saw Star Trek, but I know I must have been very young. That also means I have no idea when I first saw Nichelle Nichols. I simply know that I have been one of her fans as long as I can remember. The entire cast of Star Trek made a lasting impression on me and Nichelle Nichols was no different. When I was young, besides Gail Fisher on Mannix, she was the only Black actress on a drama I knew of.  What is more, Nichelle Nichols played Lt. Uhura, who as Communications Officer and fifth in command of the starship Enterprise occupied a position of authority. Miss Nichols could not help but make an impression on me. What is more, Nichelle Nichols impressed me beyond being a talented actress, singer, and dancer. She worked with NASA to recruit minorities and women in the space program. In the Eighties she served  on the board of governors of the National Space Institute. To put it simply, Nichelle Nichols was one of my heroes. Sadly, Nichelle Nichols died July 30 2022 at the age of 89.

Nichelle Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols on December 28 1932 in Robbins, Illinois. She adopted the name "Nichelle" when she was a teenager. Her father, Samuel Nichols, was mayor and chief magistrate of Robbins. It is the second oldest  Black incorporated town in northern Illinois after Brooklyn, Illinois. Nichelle Nichols studied both ballet and Afro-Cuban dancing. It was while she was performing in a revue at the Sherman House hotel in Chicago that she was discovered by Duke Ellington. She toured with Duke Ellington and his band throughout the United States and later performed with Lionel Hampton's orchestra. In the Fifties, she performed in nightclubs in both the United States and Canada. She even opened for Redd Foxx.

Nichelle Nichols made her film debut in 1959, dancing in Porgy and Bess. In 1961 she appeared in the stage musical Kicks and Co. in New York City and later Chicago. She performed at the Chicago Playboy Club and also appeared in a Chicago stock company production of Carmen Jones. She later performed in a New York production of Porgy and Bess. In 1964 Nichelle Nichols made her television debut in the TV movie Great Gettin' Up in the Mornin'. That same year she guest starred on Gene Roddenberry's television series The Lieutenant and The CBS Repertoire Workshop. In 1966 she guest starred in two episodes of Peyton Place. It was in 1966 that she began her three year run as Lt. Nyota Uhura on Star Trek. While the show did not receive particularly good ratings, it developed a cult following even in its first run. It was while she was on Star Trek that Nichelle Nichols guest starred on the TV series Tarzan. In 1970 she guest starred on Insight. In the Sixties Nichelle Nichols appeared in the movies Made in Paris (1966), Mister Buddwing (1966), and Doctor, You've Got to Be Kidding! (1967).

In the Seventies Nichelle Nichols reprised her role as Uhura in Star Trek: The Animated Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). She guest starred on the TV show The D.A. She appeared in the movie Truck Turner (1974). In 1976 she was a  a special guest at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, watching the landing of Viking 1 on Mars. That same year she attended the  christening of the Space Shuttle Enterprise with other Star Trek cast members. Beginning in 1977 Nichelle Nichols began her affiliation with NASA through her company Women in Motion to recruit more minorities and women into the space program.

In the Eighties Nichelle Nichols continued to appear as Uhura in the Star Trek movies, including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). She also appeared in the movie The Supernaturals (1986). She guest starred on the show Head of the Class and appeared in the TV movie Antony and Cleopatra. As mentioned above, it was in the Eighties that she served on the  the board of governors of the National Space Institute.

In the Nineties Nichelle Nichols appeared in the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). She was a host on the Sci Fi Channel program Inside Space. She guest starred on the TV shows ABC Weekend Specials and G Vs. E. She was a guest voice on the animated shows Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, Spider-Man, Buzz Lighyear of Star Command, and Futurama. She appeared in the TV movie The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space.

In the Naughts she appeared in the movies Snow Dogs (2002), Surge of Power: The Stuff of Heroes (2004), Are We There Yet? (2005), Lady Magadalene's (2008), Tru Loved (2008), and The Torturer (2008). She had a recurring role on the TV show Heroes. She appeared in the pilot of the web series The Cabonauts. She was a guest voice on the animated series Futurama and The Simpsons. She appeared in the animated TV movie Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster.

In the Teens Nichelle Nichols guest starred on the TV shows The Young and the Restless, Downward Dog, and Space Command. She appeared in the Star Trek television fan film Star Trek: Renegades. She also appeared in the TV movie Sharknado 5: Global Swarming. She appeared in the movies This Bitter Earth (2012), Surge of Power: Revenge of the Sequel (2016), The White Orchid (2018), Mr. Malevolent (2018), Surge of Dawn (2019), and Unbelievable!!!!!. She appeared as Nyota Uhura in the fan-produced movie Star Trek: First Frontier (2020). In 2021 she guest starred on the TV series 12 to Midnight.

Nichelle Nichols has been described as a groundbreaking actress, and that is no understatement. While Cicely Tyson was the first Black actress in a major role in a television drama on East Side West Side, her character was the lead character's secretary. This made Nichelle Nichols to the first Black actress to play a character in a position of authority. After all, Nyota was not only the Communications Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but its fifth in command. While Lt. Uhura never got to take command of the Enterprise on the original series, she got to do so twice on Star Trek: The Animated Series. Playing a character of some importance on Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols then paved the way for every Black actress appearing on a television drama ever since. Her importance was certainly not lost on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After the first season of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols was considering leaving the show. It was at an NAACP that she was told a fan wanted to meet her. It turned out that the fan was none other than Dr. King himself. He told her that Star Trek was the only show he and his wife would let their children stay up and watch. Nichelle Nichols then told Dr. King she was planning to leave Star Trek. He told her that she couldn't. He told her that "...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, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers." Essentially, Dr. King saw Lt. Uhura as an important role model for Black children and little girls.

Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned out to be right. As Uhura, Nichelle Nichols inspired many young people to pursue careers as astronauts, astrophysicists, astronomers, and linguists, No less than Dr. Mae Jemison, physician, engineer, and the first female Black astronaut, has cited Nichelle Nichols as an inspiration. She even began every one of her shifts on the space shuttle Endeavor with Uhura's line, "Hailing frequencies open." Through her work with NASA, Nichelle Nichols was responsible for many women and minorities entering the space program.

As groundbreaking as Nichelle Nichols' role as Nyota Uhura was, it was not the only role she ever played. She was a talented singer and dancer who had performed in both Porgy and Bess and Carmen Jones. With regards to movies, she played Amelia Brooks, the adoptive mother of the protagonist in Snow Dogs. She was an elderly babysitter in the movie Are We There Yet?. In the movie Truck Turner she played a role as far from Uhura as one can get--Dorinda, who ran a stable of prostitutes.

In addition to being a talented actress, dancer, and singer, a true pioneer in television and film, and an activist for the space program, Nichelle Nichols was also well known for her kindness. Following her death George Takei wrote at length about their friendship and her kindness towards him throughout the years. Her kindness did not simply extend to her Star Trek cast mates, but to her fans as well. I know several people who have met her through the years (including my beloved Vanessa) and all of them have said she was one of the sweetest, kindest people they had ever met. Following her death, many fans paid tribute to her, writing about how kind and how nice she was to them. Nichelle was truly a legend. She was a groundbreaking actress who paved the way for Black actors on television and in film ever since. She inspired many to enter scientific and space related fields, and recruited minorities and women into NASA. But ultimately she was also a very kind woman who truly cared for people Nichelle Nichols was a legend and a very definition of a lady.

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