Aug 1, 2022

Nichelle Nichols, trailblazing ‘Star Trek’ actress, dies at 89 Transcript

Nichelle Nichols, trailblazing 'Star Trek' actress, dies at 89 Transcript
RevBlogTranscriptsNichelle NicholsNichelle Nichols, trailblazing ‘Star Trek’ actress, dies at 89 Transcript

Actress and singer Nichelle Nichols, best known for her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Nyota Uhura in “Star Trek: The Original Series,” has died at age 89. Read the transcript here.

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Nichelle Nichols: (00:00)
Security sweeps of all decks are negative. Mr. Spock.

Speaker 2: (00:03)
Before Nichelle Nichols broke barriers on board the USS Enterprise as Lieutenant Uhura, she was dancing and singing her way across the stages of New York City and Chicago, the city close to where she grew up, Robbins, Illinois. In 1967, she released a cover of the Joe McCoy classic, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” on Epic Records.

Nichelle Nichols: (00:27)
Get out of here. Got to get me some money too.

Speaker 2: (00:29)
But it was playing Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura where she really found fame. It was a groundbreaking role for an African American woman in 1966, widely considered one of the first times a woman of color was not portraying a servant on TV. Uhura was the Chief Communications Officer, and fourth in command, onboard the Enterprise.

Nichelle Nichols: (00:51)
I didn’t find out that it was fourth in command till the second season. Nobody told me

Speaker 2: (00:58)
Nichols actually thought about leaving after the first season. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, begged her to stay. But it was an influential fan that finally convinced her, Martin Luther King.

Nichelle Nichols: (01:10)
He said, “You can’t.”

Speaker 3: (01:12)

Nichelle Nichols: (01:13)
“Don’t you know who you are to our movement, to everyone who’s…? You are there in the 23rd century. You’ve created a role that has such dignity and everything. It’s powerful. You cannot leave.”

Speaker 2: (01:29)
Another landmark for the show during the turbulent ’60’s, the first scripted interracial kiss on national television in 1968.

William Shatner: (01:38)
We had heard rumors that the southern stations, some southern stations, might cut it down.

Nichelle Nichols: (01:43)
It changed television forever, and it also changed the way people looked at one another. If two of their favorite actors can battle through it and come through it on top, why can’t everybody?

Speaker 2: (02:03)
The show ended in 1969, but endured for years in syndication, and at conventions attended by devoted Trekkies. In 1994, Nichols published her autobiography, “Beyond Uhura. Star Trek and other Memories.” Nichols also starred in several Trek movies, and even worked with NASA to increase diversity in the space program.

Nichelle Nichols: (02:27)
I had the privilege of recruiting the first women and minority astronauts for the space shuttle program.

Speaker 2: (02:38)
Nichols’ enduring beauty, her strength of character, her commitment to human rights will always inspire.

Speaker 7: (02:45)
And CNN media analyst and former New York Times media reporter, Bill Carter, joins me now. Bill, there is just an outpouring of remembrance today on social media, just beautiful reflections on her life. Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, said, “Representation matters. Excellence and representation matters even more. Thank you. #NichelleNichols. Rest well, ancestor.”

Speaker 7: (03:16)
I love that Martin Luther King Jr. story, and how he made her realize how significant she was to Black children and young women, because of her TV role, saying, “You got to stay in that role. It’s so important.” But it was not an easy door for her to open, was it?

Bill Carter: (03:33)
At the time, it was pretty extraordinary. Television had not had a Black character anywhere like this. This Was before Diahann Carroll did her show, and that was controversial. They didn’t really let her be a real character. This was a real, powerful, intelligent, commanding person.

Bill Carter: (03:51)
Now, they set it in the 23rd century, which was a commentary on what was happening in America, at the time. This was the civil rights era. And they were fighting for the basic rights to ride a bus and things like that, and drink out of a water fountain. And the show was basically saying, “We’re going to show what it could be in the future, what it could be for the racial equality in the future.”

Bill Carter: (04:15)
And so they found an actress, who was so convincing as a person of intelligence and authority that they pulled it off so well. I remember, as a kid, being in high school, and watching the show with friends of mine, and nobody reacting at all to the fact that it was a Black character. Nobody actually reacting at all, that was extraordinary, at the time. And it’s a testament to the show for doing it, but especially to the actress for pulling it off.

Speaker 7: (04:41)
It certainly is. And another recollection, from Whoopi Goldberg, who said Star Trek was the first time she saw a Black woman on screen, who wasn’t playing a maid, and that it was so inspiring to her. There are so many stories like that.

Bill Carter: (04:58)
Yes, exactly. This was actually in the mid ’60’s, and everything that we think of now, and there are conflicts now, still, which is extraordinary, but at the time, everything was charged, extremely charged. And the idea that you would have a character, a Black character, in this kind of role was groundbreaking, really, truly groundbreaking. And yet, it was done in a way that I think was brilliant, because it’s set in the future. Folks, what are you going to say about it? How is this raising hackles in 1966, when it’s supposed to be in the 23rd century? So they managed to do it.

Bill Carter: (05:37)
And Star Trek was great for that. They explored themes like that, because they could, because they were dealing with the future. But this was really an amazing approach. And I have to say, she was not an actress anyone knew. But boy, was she well cast. She just, utterly, was convincing. Beautiful woman, no question, but also, she just carried authority. And that was what was essential to the part.

Speaker 7: (06:00)
I’m going to talk about that famous kiss. That kiss between Uhura and Captain Kirk was also groundbreaking, certainly not something the mass audience was expecting. Do you recall the reaction to that, at the time?

Bill Carter: (06:12)
What was interesting, there was not a giant reaction to this. Later on, when Star Trek became a cult head in syndication, it was talked about enormously, this breakthrough moment. At the time, again, I felt like everyone who was watching the show at that point, and it wasn’t a big hit at the time, already accepted the fact that this is not a contemporary situation. So the idea that there would be an interracial kiss did not blow everyone away, except that they stopped to think about it.

Bill Carter: (06:41)
And again, they did it in such a very smart way. They were concerned about the south. The stations in the south would pull television stations for anything they thought was promoting racial equality, in those days, extraordinary as that sounds. But they thought, “We better film the kiss. And then we’ll have another scene, the same scene, shot and reshot, where they don’t actually kiss. Because the aliens were forcing them to kiss.

Bill Carter: (07:06)
And the two actors, according to both of their stories, just made it impossible, that when they reshot the scenes, they were unusable. So they had to show the scene with the kiss. And they expected all this blow back, which they didn’t get. The stations in the south ran the show, and it didn’t get that blow back anyone expected. Because again, I felt like they were telling people, “You know what? You may be prejudiced today. You may think you hate Black people today, but you know what? That’s going to be passe, at some point. It’s going to be, in the [inaudible 00:07:36], everyone’s going to get past this.”

Speaker 7: (07:37)
Yeah. She had an incredible life. She also volunteered for NASA, to recruit minority and female candidates for the space agency. Just did so much. And we honor her tonight on this show. Bill Carter, thank you for your remembrance of her incredible life.

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