Nichelle Nichols, who broke barriers for Black women in Hollywood when she played communications officer Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek” television series, died Saturday at age 89, her family announced this weekend.
The news struck a chord for many who knew Nichols for her role in the 1966-69 series -- a role which earned her a lifelong position of honor with the series’ rabid fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies.
RELATED: Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ has died at 89
Some of those fans have volunteered their time and efforts to build a full-scale suite of Constitution class starship sets at The Neutral Zone Studios in Kingsland, Georgia. The sets are designed to produce Star Trek fan films.
Three years ago, Nichols visited the Kingsland sets and filmed a documentary called “Breaking Barriers” there. You can watch some clips from that below:
She told one volunteer that she was enjoying being on the “beautiful” set, which felt like “being back at work” after being gone “a couple of weeks.”
She even joked that she wished she had a house big enough to keep the studio set inside.
Nichols’ role as Uhura earned her accolades for breaking stereotypes that had limited Black women to acting roles as servants and included an interracial onscreen kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.
The original “Star Trek” premiered on NBC on Sept. 8, 1966. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry’s message to viewers that in the far-off future — the 23rd century — human diversity would be fully accepted.
“I think many people took it into their hearts ... that what was being said on TV at that time was a reason to celebrate,” Nichols said in 1992 when a “Star Trek” exhibit was on view at the Smithsonian Institution.
She often recalled how Martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the show and praised her role. She met him at a civil rights gathering in 1967, at a time when she had decided not to return for the show’s second season.
“When I told him I was going to miss my co-stars and I was leaving the show, he became very serious and said, 'You cannot do that,’” she told The Tulsa (Okla.) World in a 2008 interview.
“'You’ve changed the face of television forever, and therefore, you’ve changed the minds of people,'” she said the civil rights leader told her.
“That foresight Dr. King had was a lightning bolt in my life,” Nichols said.
During the show’s third season, Nichols’ character and Shatner’s Capt. James Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to be broadcast on a U.S. television series. In the episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” their characters, who always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced into the kiss by aliens who were controlling their actions.
The kiss “suggested that there was a future where these issues were not such a big deal,” Eric Deggans, a television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018. “The characters themselves were not freaking out because a Black woman was kissing a white man ... In this utopian-like future, we solved this issue. We’re beyond it. That was a wonderful message to send.”
Worried about reaction from Southern television stations, showrunners wanted to film a second take of the scene where the kiss happened off-screen. But Nichols said in her book, “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories,” that she and Shatner deliberately flubbed lines to force the original take to be used.
Despite concerns, the episode aired without blowback. In fact, it got the most “fan mail that Paramount had ever gotten on ‘Star Trek’ for one episode,” Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.
Nichols was known as being unafraid to stand up to Shatner on the set when others complained that he was stealing scenes and camera time. They later learned she had a strong supporter in the show’s creator.
In her 1994 book, “Beyond Uhura,” she said she met Roddenberry when she guest starred on his show “The Lieutenant,” and the two had an affair a couple of years before “Star Trek” began. The two remained lifelong close friends.
Nichols was a regular at “Star Trek” conventions and events into her 80s, but her schedule became limited starting in 2018 when her son announced that she was suffering from advanced dementia.
Her son Kyle Johnson said Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico.
“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,” Johnson wrote on her official Facebook page Sunday. “Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all."
Former Associated Press Writer Polly Anderson contributed biographical material to this report.