Why Nichelle Nichols Stayed On As Uhura in “Star Trek”
Remember the scene above? That is the occasion of the first interracial kiss on national television. But it probably wouldn’t have happened if the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Saint of the Sixties, had not intervened earlier.
Yesterday marked the 44th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek on NBC in 1966. Back in the day, Nichelle Nichols, Lt. (now Commander) Nyota Uhura on Star Trek, The Original Series (TOS), was ready to jump the good Starship Enterprise amid rumors that the science fiction show was going to be cancelled in 1967. She was being offered her own show on Broadway, a tempting bait.
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.
Reporter Savas Abadsidis interviewed Nichelle Nichols at the beginning of the year for the magazine KISS because of her involvement in a one-woman show that she wrote and performed in entitled, Reflections, a musical tribute to black female singers. However, some other reminisces were revealed, including the time when King persuaded Nichols not to leave Star Trek, even though she had already submitted her resignation to Trek producer Gene Roddenberry. Here’s the except from Abadsidis’ interview about how it really happened. Yes, this is a transcription from a recording, so there were a lot of long sentences that I had to cut the “ands.” Other than that, any changes are for grammar, punctuation and spelling rules:
The next night was Saturday and I was due to be a celebrity guest on a dais at an NAACP fundraiser at UCLA. One of the organizers came up to me and said that there was someone who wants to meet you; and he says that he’s your best, biggest fan, and I’m thinking it’s a Trekkie! [laughs]. So I said, “Certainly,” and I got up, turned around, and maybe 10 or 15 feet coming towards me, I see Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember thinking whoever that little fan is, he’s going to have to wait, because here’s Dr. King who walks straight up to me with this big, magnificent smile on his face, and says, “I’m the fan!” because I’m sort of looking around for someone else. He says, “I am your best fan, I am your biggest fan!” and I… I was at a loss for words, and if you know me, I am never at a loss for words.
I just couldn’t say a thing, and he began to tell me how important my role was, what an inspiration it was. And you have to understand we were in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, people were regularly being attacked by dogs, and marchers were being hosed on the television every night, real life things. [...H]ere I am in this futuristic thing on TV, and he was so complimentary; he told me, I “was so important, and the way you have created this role,” and I am just looking at him and looking at him, and I remember I just kept hoping he’d never stop talking. Because his voice is just… You know, the voice. And I finally just started saying, “Thank you so much, Dr. King,” and I am shaking his hand, and still shaking from nervousness, and I said, “Thank you so much, and I am really going to miss my co-stars.”
And at this, his face totally changed, and he said, “What are you talking about?!” and so I told him I would be leaving the show, because…and that was as far as he let me go, and he said, “STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed-ear green person could take this role!” And I am looking at him and looking at him and buzzing, and he said, “Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be! As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs. And you PROVE it, this man [Gene Roddenberry] proves and establishes a precedent that validates what we are marching for, because three hundred years from today there we are, and there you are, in all our glory and all your glory! And you CANNOT leave!”
And I did not leave.
I went back on Monday, and told Gene that if he hadn’t replaced me and still wanted me to stay that I would. [...I] told him what Dr. King said, and I’ll never forget him [Roddenberry] sitting behind that big desk that he had, and he said, “So that’s your decision?” And I said, “I’d like my letter of resignation back please,” and I told him what had happened while meeting Dr. King. And I don’t know if you know what Gene looked like, but he was a big guy, and was like 6’3” with that hawk nose and a great sense of humor, and this brilliant mind, and a futurist and–whatever great things you heard about him are just a small part of what that man was. I looked down at him sitting behind his desk when I told him the story, and I finally shut up, and a huge tear is rolling down his cheek. And he said, “Thank God someone understands what I am trying to achieve.” He reached down into his drawer and pulled out my letter of resignation and handed it to me, it had already been [laughs] torn up.
Nichelle Nichols is now 77. She still performs, most recently on TV’s Heroes and Tru Loved. In 2009, she sang and danced on an Internet sci-fi musical comedy, The Cabonauts. Of the bridge crew, George Takei (Sulu), Walter Koenig (Chekov), William Shatner (Captain Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Rand) survive. Whitney and Nimoy have retired. Shatner is doing ads for personal injury attorneys (yes, I see them everyday; they’re for Hupy and Abraham). Koenig has suffered the loss of his son. Takei is happily married to his longtime male love and still does voiceovers, cameos, commercials, and roles.
Nichols also had an affair with Roddenberry that began in 1963, and continued on and off for several years until he married Majel Barrett (Nurse, later Doctor Chapel, and much later Lwaxana Troi). When William Shatner blabbed about it in one of his memoirs, Nichols was outraged at what she felt was an invasion of her privacy, and apparently, it was the last straw on her camel’s back.
Nichols later wrote her own memoirs, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. In it, she got back at Shatner for some of his excesses on the show that she had borne, and ended her chapter with: ‘I can’t say with certainty that I would refuse another chance to beam aboard the Enterprise. However, as for Bill personally, I say, with some regret and much hurt, ‘This communication channel is now closed. Uhura out.”’
Moreover, she also clarified her relationship with Roddenberry, which was apparently one of great affection and complexity, even after they finally parted (in her words, their racial differences scuttled the relationship; “he just couldn’t take it”). When she learned Roddenberry was dying, she co-wrote a song in his honor, “Gene,” and sang it at his funeral.
And about that kiss? Remember that Kirk and Uhura weren’t being romantic; they were being forced to kiss.
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.”
Star Trek. Truly a show of the future, shaped by its time. Can’t wait to see the new one, in which the new Uhura and the new Spock swap more than just spit.