AKA Grace Nichols
Birthplace: Robbins, IL
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Lt. Uhura on Star Trek
Grace Nichols began taking ballet lessons at the age of seven, and was considered something of a dance prodigy, earning the nickname "Nichelle" for her graceful pirouettes. As a teen, she worked as a dancer, and sang and toured with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. She later toured with Lionel Hampton, and made her film debut with a tiny part in the 1959 film of Porgy & Bess with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. Nichols had a role in a racially-charged episode of Gene Roddenberry's early-1960s series The Lieutenant. In her biography, Beyond Uhura, she revealed a romantic involvement with Roddenberry during that time. The affair was over long before Star Trek, but Roddenberry remembered her when he wanted a multi-racial cast for his science fiction series.
As Lt. Uhura, communications officer for the Enterprise, Nichols is often credited as the first African-American actress in an American TV series whose character wasn't stereotypically black -- a housekeeper or nanny. Actually, the first was Cicely Tyson's character (the secretary, Jane Foster) in the 1963-64 series East Side/West Side, but Nichols' show had a bigger audience and, obviously, a much bigger impact. The network, however, was very jittery about having a black woman in a relatively important role. They reportedly kept fan mail from reaching her, and nagged Roddenberry to keep her role in the background. Nichols was reportedly the only performer in the cast who wasn't originally offered a contract, but instead worked on a week-to-week basis.
She considered quitting Star Trek midway through its first season, when her character had been given little to do beyond perpetually opening hailing frequencies. In one interview, she famously described Uhura as "a glorified telephone operator in space". Then, at a civil rights protest, she met Martin Luther King Jr. -- who told her that he was a big fan of Star Trek. According to Nichols, when she told King she was thinking of quitting the show, he was shocked. "Don't you know you have the first non-stereotypical role in television?" she recalls King saying. "For the first time the world will see us as we should be seen -- people of quality in the future. You created a role with dignity and beauty and grace and intelligence. You're not just a role model for our children, but for people who don't look like us to see us for the first time as equals."
Nichols is also credited with TV's first interracial kiss, a smooch with William Shatner's Captain Kirk, in the 1968 episode "Plato's Stepchildren". Many stations in America's south refused to broadcast the episode, and it was banned in England for almost 25 years. But it wasn't even a romantic moment -- space aliens were using mind control to force the characters to kiss, against their will. The network was so nervous that two versions of the scene were filmed: one with the kiss, and one without it, where Kirk instead dramatically fought off the impulse. "When the camera zoomed in", says Nichols, "Bill crossed his eyes and the director didn't notice it until the next day in dailies. Of course the last scene was unusable and they had to go with the kiss scene, which became history as the first interracial kiss on TV."
Lt. Uhura's name was inspired by uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom. By the first Star Trek film, Uhura had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and in the second and subsequent films she was Commander Uhura -- but on the big or small screen, the character never had a first name. In a 1970s fan-fiction short story, her first name was cited as Upenda, and Nichols liked the story enough that she said at several Trek conventions that Upenda was indeed Uhura's first name. Then, in the late 1980s, as an official history of Star Trek was being compiled, a researcher suggested nyota -- Swahili for star. Nichols now says that Uhura's full name is Nyota Upenda Uhura.
Her non-Trek roles include the classic blaxploitation film Truck Turner with Isaac Hayes, wherein Nichols played the vicious, wicked, and incredibly sexy Dorinda. She also had a recurring albeit minor part in the Ron Ely Tarzan movies and TV series. Her other films include the super-silly Supernaturals with Maxwell Caulfield and LeVar Burton, Snow Dogs with Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Are We There Yet? with Ice Cube. She has written two science fiction novels, Saturn's Child and its sequel, Saturna's Quest, about a tough black woman in space. Nichols has hinted that in a third novel, her heroine may be revealed as a distant relative of Uhura.
In the shadow of her Star Trek fame, Nichols recorded an album in 1968, called Down to Earth, which included 10 smoothly-performed standards and drew good reviews (unlike Shatner and Leonard Nimoy's clumsy musical efforts). When Roddenberry's health was fading before his death, Nichols co-wrote and performed a song for him, titled "Gene". She sang it again at his funeral, and it is included on her 1991 album Out of This World.
In the late 1990s and early 00s, Nichols served as spokeswoman for The Kwanzaa Foundation. She has also written and performed a one-woman show called Reflections, a musical tribute to twelve women who inspired Nichols, including Pearl Bailey, Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson, and Sarah Vaughan.
Nichols has been cited as a childhood inspiration by comedian Whoopi Goldberg and astronaut Mae Jemison. In the late 1970s and early '80s, Nichols worked for NASA, recruiting women and minorities for the space program. Sally Ride (the first American female astronaut) and Guion Bluford (the first African-American astronaut) were among those who signed up at Nichols' NASA appearances.
Father: Samuel Nicholas ("founding father" of Robbins, Ill.)
Brother: Thomas (b. 1938, d. Mar-1997 in Heaven's Gate mass suicide)
Husband: Foster Johnson (m. 1951, div. 1951, one son)
Son: Kyle Johnson (actor, b. 14-Aug-1951)
Boyfriend: Gene Roddenberry (affair while he was married, early 1960s)
Husband: (m. 1968, div.)
National Space Society Board of Governors
Students for the Exploration and Development of Space Board of Advisors
Asteroid Namesake 68410 Nichols
Hollywood Walk of Fame 1992
Star Trek Uhura (1966-69)
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Trek Nation (30-Nov-2011) · Herself
The Torturer (15-Oct-2008)
Tru Loved (28-Feb-2008)
Are We There Yet? (21-Jan-2005) · Miss Mable
Surge of Power (14-Aug-2004)
Snow Dogs (18-Jan-2002)
Trekkies (18-Oct-1997) · Herself
The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space (1-Dec-1995)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (6-Dec-1991) · Uhura
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (9-Jun-1989) · Uhura
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (26-Nov-1986) · Uhura
The Supernaturals (1986)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1-Jun-1984) · Uhura
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (4-Jun-1982) · Uhura
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (7-Dec-1979)
Truck Turner (19-Apr-1974)
Mister Buddwing (15-Jul-1966) · Dice Player
Author of books:
Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories (1995)
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