Star Trek. One thing is certain, no other female on TV caught my attention during my early grade-school years more than Lt. Uhura, as played by Nichelle Nichols. Something about the casually elegant way she manned her communications console and kept Captain Kirk updated on whatever was happening appealed to me considerably.
Years later, as an adult, I would relish the opportunity to work as a receptionist and then a customer service agent in a call center, envisioning myself as an equally sleek and serene part of a support system... until I actually DID said jobs and realized how taxing they can actually be! Ha! I hope I can ride out the rest of my work life without dealing directly with the public.
Nichols' continued stage work eventually gave way to an extended tour with Duke Ellington, in which she sang with his band. On the west coast, she landed several stage roles that demonstrated both her talent and her considerable looks and figure. She also appeared as a dancer in the 1959 filmization of Porgy and Bess, a movie that has long been all but held from viewing by the Gershwin estate.
Things were about to take a major turn, however. From about 1966 on, Nichols would find herself associated with an increasingly popular and longstanding pop culture juggernaut. True, things began slowly enough, but in time she would be part of the colossal sci-fi phenomenon Star Trek.
Jeffrey Hunter, a movie star who had begun to slip somewhat in cinematic popularity.
She had practically made up her mind to quit the show when a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. changed her mind. He emphasized that it mattered tremendously that she was there, visible, whether she was given more to do or not. Her very presence was considered inspiring to others of her race. As a pre-teen Whoopi Goldberg allegedly said, “Mama! There's a black lady on TV and she ain't no maid!!”
Nichols shed all traces of politeness in her portrayal. Her hysterical dialogue when describing some of her stable of prostitutes is priceless. Exhibit A: “We call her Turnpike, 'cause you gotta pay to get on and pay to get off!” Exhibit B: “Her clients call her Colonel Sanders because she's finger lickin' good.”
Instead, she turned her attention to constructive work in the field of space travel and information thanks to her association with outer space (regardless of the fact that she'd never left dry land!) She worked with NASA as a recruiter to encourage minorities and females to enlist in the agency. The famous Sally Ride was one of the many folks brought into the program through this effort and astronaut Mae Jemison (the first black female to travel in space) has credited Nichols' role of Uhura as an inspiration to her in pursuing her career.
Some of her fellow costars, though, were beginning to show their age. For the seventh film in the series Star Trek: Generations (1994), only Shatner, Doohan and Koenig were retained as the reins were handed over to the former stars of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series which had debuted in 1987 and lasted until 1994, running more than twice as long as the original show.