Hailing Frequencies Open: A Q&A with Star Trek's Original Uhura
By DAVID WEINER
June 02, 2014
Hailing frequencies open! Best known as the original communications officer Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols has blazed trails among the stars on television and in the real Solar System too, recruiting qualified woman and minorities for NASA including late astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
With the 50th anniversary of the broadcast premiere of Star Trek on the horizon, the 30th anniversary of the release of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock this week, and her involvement with the fan-driven Destination Star Trek 3 in London this fall, I sat down with Nichelle to talk Trek and her career. Now 81 years young, she was at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA to moderate the Time After Time installment of the "In Person" Malcolm McDowell Series of Q&A Screenings presented by Tegan Summer's Prospect House Entertainment in partnership with Glendale Arts.
Wearing a Star Trek command insignia pendant on her necklace, her wrist bangles clinking as she gestured, Nichelle was as elegant and intriguing as one would hope for from the first lady of Sci-Fi TV, answering questions about being part of TV's first-ever interracial kiss; Martin Luther King Jr's personal plea for her not to leave Trek; how she almost got fired from Trek; and even her reaction to appearing in the over-the-top, '70s blaxploitation indie Truck Turner.
ETONLINE: It's an absolute pleasure to sit down with you. Looking over your many onscreen accomplishments, there's one credit that was new to me: Truck Turner.
NICHELLE NICHOLS: Truck Turner! Lord have mercy! Oh my goodness. (laughs)
ET: How was working with a cast that included Isaac Hayes, Scatman Crothers and Yaphet Kotto? What was that experience like?
NN: I have to think for a minute. I have to tell you first I haven't had a job that I said, “Ugh." I loved working, and just about everything that I did was fun doing or extremely worthwhile doing. Informative, you know? Everything was a new thing for me and I gained from everything that I did.
ET: Now, Star Trek comes along and you’re a singer and a performer.
NN: I’m a singer, dancer and actor when Star Trek came along.
ET: And what was your take on this Sci-Fi show? I know you had done an episode of Gene Roddenberry's The Lieutenant, and then Gene shows up with this role for you on his proposed "Wagon Train to the Stars." What was your take on this? "Oh great, a job"? Or, "Wow, this could be something"?
NN: Well, I knew Gene Rodenberry, so I knew anything he had was going to be top quality. I think he gave me my first job in television and movies. I was excited because he didn’t see anyone else. He had written a role for me, and he didn’t tell me that until after I got it. … I was just having fun with it. He was wonderful, and wonderful to work with. He loved creative artists.
ET: And very progressive. He was kind of able to get away with more than the average show at the time by tackling topical subjects in a Sci-Fi setting.
NN: Oh my god, yes.
ET: Were you acutely aware of that as you were making the show?
NN: Oh, you were always aware, because he didn’t do anything ordinary. So, you would be with other actors and he'd go, "Can you believe this? At this day and age you’re getting to do this?" He was ahead of his time in more ways than one. He was marvelous. And he looked to see what you brought to it. It was excellent whatever he had to do, but whatever you brought to it that strengthened it, he knew it, and he let you go there.
ET: Well, he let you sing on the show!
NN: Oh god, yes (laughs). It was wonderful working with him.
ET: I don’t need to tell you that you’re a tremendous presence on that show. It’s almost like you’re the focal point of the Enterprise bridge -- you're practically in every shot.
NN: Oh, most assuredly. I didn’t go into a role that was already written. The role was waiting for me.
ET: One of the episodes, Plato's Stepchildren, contained what would be the first interracial kiss on television. Was that a big deal going into it?
NN: Good lord, the studio said we can't do that, we can't do that, but the script had gone to New York. … The biggest name in the business, the head of Paramount Studios, [traveled from New York] to California. He said, "I came out just to meet you, and I'll tell you why." … They kept reducing my role … and he came and he had enough of it. He said, "She knows what that role is, she knows what she’s doing, and that role isn’t going anywhere but up." … Nobody tried to fire me again.
ET: There was camaraderie between the Trek cast as well, knowing that there were important things happening. With that interracial kiss, the producers wanted to shoot different takes -- one where it was a hug -- and Shatner screwed up take after take on purpose by either kissing you or making faces to the camera. Is that true?
The Civil Rights Movement had gained tremendous momentum by the time Star Trek was airing weekly on NBC, touching on subjects of racial inequality, oppression and counter-culture. The show was remarkable at the time for featuring a multi-cultural cast of characters -- an Asian (George Takei), a Russian (Walter Koenig), an African-American (Nichols) – without pointing out their potential disparities. Roddenberry's future Earth was an even playing field, something that was not lost on Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
ET: There was also a lot of pressure surrounding your role on the show, I would think. At one point you were interested in leaving for other opportunities -- and Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I don’t think so"?
NN: Ha! He said, "No, you can’t." I started to say, "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Dr. Martin Luther King!" (laughs). I didn’t -- but I thought it … And he said, "Don't you know what you have here? This is very important. This is going to live forever. You're changing the face of television forever, and you got that role, and only you could do that role. You can't leave." Wow!
ET: Up until then, did it not really occur to you how much impact your casting had?
NN: Up until then, work was work -- my work as an actor -- and you got a really good part in something and you did that, and you thanked your stars for that. But then because of Martin, I looked at work differently. There was something more than just a job. There was something more than just a good part. And from that point on, I looked to see what was there that I could do something really important with.
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