Nichelle Nichols, 'Star Trek' icon who played Lieutenant Uhura, dies at 89

Kim Willis

Trailblazer Nichelle Nichols, who played "Star Trek" communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the 1960s TV show and shared one of television's first interracial kisses with William Shatner, has died at 89.

Her son, Kyle Johnson, announced her death in a statement posted on her Facebook page. Family friend Sky Conway confirmed to USA TODAY that Nichols died Saturday evening in Silver City, New Mexico, calling her "truly transformational" and "an amazing person."

"I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years," Johnson wrote on Facebook. "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. 

Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on "Star Trek," has died at 89.

"Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all."

Nichols played Uhura on the original "Star Trek" TV series from 1966 to 1969 and reprised her role in six "Star Trek" films, starting with 1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture." She was widely praised for breaking down barriers in an era when Black women were rarely seen in prominent TV roles. 

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"Star Trek: The Original Series" cast: Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols and DeForest Kelley.

"I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle," wrote Shatner on Twitter, who starred alongside Nichols in the original TV series. "She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world."

Shatner said he "will certainly miss her" and sent his "love and condolences to her family."

"I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise," her co-star George Takei wrote on Twitter. "For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend."

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Actor Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura on ''Star Trek,'' waves as she arrives at the "Star Trek: 30 Years and Beyond" tribute at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles on Oct. 6, 1996.

Nichols, born Grace Dell Nichols on Dec. 28, 1932, in Robbins, Illinois, started her career as a dancer and singer, and she wanted to be the first Black ballerina when she was younger. She originally danced ballet during performances by Duke Ellington and his band, and got her break when Ellington asked her to sing one night when the lead performer became sick. 

Once in Hollywood, she made her film debut in 1959’s "Porgy and Bess," the first of a string of film and TV roles that led up to "Star Trek."

She planned to leave the show after its first season to explore other acting opportunities, but a fan surprised Nichols at an NAACP event and was disappointed to hear she was thinking of quitting. The fan was Martin Luther King Jr., who told her "Star Trek" was the only TV he allowed his children to watch, and convinced her to remain on the show.

Nichelle Nichols expresses her support to striking members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) outside the gates of Paramount Pictures studios in Los Angeles on Dec. 10, 2007.

In "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry's vision, "minorities weren't on set because we were minorities, we were on set because, in the future, our diverse world would all be working together as equals," Nichols told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017 ahead of the fan conference Wizard World Philly. "I understand that everyone needs to see role models that can inspire them and talk to them and represent them, but I believe that we need to move to a future that transcends race, gender, or anything else. We're all people."

During the show’s third season, Nichols' Uhura and Shatner’s Captain Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to be broadcast on a U.S. TV series. In the episode, "Plato’s Stepchildren," their characters, who maintained a platonic relationship, were forced into the kiss by aliens who were controlling their actions.

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura and William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk in the "Star Trek" episode, "Plato's Stepchildren," on Nov. 22, 1968.

In 1977, Nichols was appointed to the board of directors of the National Space Institute and later was invited to NASA headquarters, just as NASA was looking to expand its pool of talent and diversify. NASA asked Nichols, who had also started a consultant firm, Women in Motion, to help recruit more women and people of color to apply for the astronaut program. In just four months, Nichols was credited with bringing in more than 8,000 applications, of which more than 1,600 were women and more than 1,000 were people of color. 

Her many film roles ranged from 1974's Isaac Hayes Blaxploitation movie "Truck Turner" to 2005’s Ice Cube comedy "Are We There Yet?"

On TV, Nichols had voice roles in the animated series "Futurama," "The Simpsons," "Spider-Man" and "Gargoyles." Nichols also appeared in the daytime drama "The Young and the Restless" and NBCs "Heroes."

She received a lifetime achievement award from the Saturn Awards in 2016, which honor sci-fi entertainment.

Johnson said a private service would be held for family members and close friends, and signed his statement "Live Long and Prosper."

Nichols suffered a stroke in 2015 and her son revealed she was suffering from dementia in 2018.

Contributing: Felecia Wellington Radel, USA TODAY, and The Associated Press