Actor Nichelle Nichols, who played the character Uhura in the original “Star Trek” TV series, poses at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena on Aug. 5, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/File Photo
Nichelle Nichols, whose portrayal of Lt. Nyota Uhura on TV’s “Star Trek” was one of the early landmark roles for a Black actor, has died at the age of 89, her son announced Sunday.
“I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” Kyle Johnson posted on Instagram.
“Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration.
“Hers was a life well lived and as such (is) a model for us all.”
Nichols died at a hospital in Silver City, N.M., according to the Los Angeles Times, which cited a family friend. She had suffered a stroke in 2015 in Woodland Hills and been embroiled in a conservatorship battle between her family and a former manager, the newspaper added.
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Nichols was a successful stage actress and had toured as a singer with jazz legends Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton when she was cast as Lt. Uhura in “Star Trek,” which debuted on NBC in 1966. It was one of the first prominent roles for a Black woman on American television.
Nichols has said that she wanted to quit the show in its first season to pursue a career on Broadway, but a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about her importance as a role model to Black children changed her mind.
Later public figures from former President Barack Obama to Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg cited her cultural importance and impact.
Her interracial kiss with white “Star Trek” star William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, on a November 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” was considered another TV landmark of the civil rights era, and drew some viewer protest at the time.
She reprised her role as the competent and level-headed Uhura in six Star Trek feature films.
In the years after “Star Trek” went off the air in 1969, Nichols worked with NASA to attract women and minorities to the space program. One of the recruits, the late Sally Ride of La Jolla – who died 10 years ago this month – in 1983 became the first female U.S. astronaut to make it to space.
Others included the first Black woman astronaut, Mae Jemison, and the first Black NASA chief, Charlie Bolden.
She participated in numerous fan events as the Star Trek franchise’s popularity continued, but in March 1997, she found herself in the spotlight for a tragic reason connected to San Diego.
Her brother, Thomas Nichols, killed himself as part of the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe. She told the late talk show host Larry King, according to the Associated Press, that “he made his choices, and we respect those choices.”
She also told King that she felt it ironic that her brother and the 38 others who died chose to time their deaths as the comet Hale-Bopp passed close to Earth, something she called “this wonderful celestial event.”
Fans and admirers mourned her on social media Sunday.
Nichols “symbolized to so many what was possible” and “inspired generations to reach for the stars,” NASA said on Twitter.
George Takei, who played Lt. Hikaru Sulu on “Star Trek,” tweeted, calling the actress: “the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols.” He added, “today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”
Former “Wonder Woman” star Lynda Carter tweeted: “Many actors become stars, but few stars can move a nation. Nichelle Nichols showed us the extraordinary power of Black women and paved the way for a better future for all women in media. Thank you, Nichelle. We will miss you.”
A private service will be held for family members and those close to his mother, Johnson said.
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce said flowers would be placed on Nichols’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1 p.m. Monday. The star, which Nichols received in 1992, is located at 6635 Hollywood Blvd.
– Staff and wire reports