Monday, December 3, 2012

Change in Nichols

Perhaps it was the primary colors of the uniforms (or, more likely, the eye-catching alien costumes and inventive hair) that made me a childhood fan of 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.

Anyway, just as I sat in awe of the cool, articulate Uhura, with her intricately molded hairdo and long nails, other people – young and old – also looked to her as a signal of change when it came to the perceptions and expectations of black females on television. The punny title of this post actually came to mind when watching one of the films she made after Star Trek, which I'll get to later, but, as it turned out, she was part of a change in the tides of racial integration and acceptance beforehand while working on the series.

Nichols was born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois on December 28th, 1932. Her father worked in a factory, but was also mayor of the town they lived in. Eventually, the Nichols family “moved on up” to a deluxe Chicago apartment and she proceeded to develop her artistic side through singing and dance. A showy role in a play satirizing Playboy magazine led to a gig at the actual Playboy Club in Chicago. She'd been selected by Mr. Hugh Hefner himself after his seeing the play (called Kicks and Co.)

At only age nineteen, she married and swiftly divorced an older man named Foster Johnson, but not before becoming pregnant with his son. Young Kyle Johnson was born after the marriage had already disintegrated, making her a working single mother from practically the start. (Kyle, incidentally, became an young actor in his own right in a career that stretched from 1963 through the mid-'70s. He's seen here in a shot from 1969's The Learning Tree, in which he starred.)

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.

As the early-'60s came along, Nichols (now going by her new first moniker of Nichelle) sought work on television and finally made her debut in a groundbreaking 1964 TV-movie called Great Gettin' up Mornin'. The CBS movie was the first one ever broadcast that was written by a black woman and it concerned a southern black couple sending their two young children to a school that was newly integrated. Nichols played the mother, with handsome Don Marshall as her husband. (He would later guest star on Star Trek as one of “The Galileo Seven.”)

That same year, she won a guest role on The Lieutenant, a marine corps series that starred Robert Vaughn and Gary Lockwood (as the title character.) She was again placed with Don Marshall as well as Dennis Hopper in an episode focusing on racial tension. The subject matter was still so hot that the episode wasn't aired during the series' original run!

The producer of the show, Gene Roddenberry, was quite taken with Nichols, however, and would keep her in mind later when he was assembling another series. The two embarked on a clandestine affair, though Roddenberry was married at the time and had been since 1942. She worked in bit parts in films like Ann-Margret's Made in Paris and James Garner's Mister Buddwing (both 1966) and played a nurse on two episodes of the highly popular night time soap Peyton Place. There was also a guest role on a two-part episode of Ron Ely's Tarzan.

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.

Producer Roddenberry was creating another TV series, a “Wagon Train to the stars” as he described it, in which a large Earth spaceship, a starship, would embark on a five-year mission to explore the farthest reaches of the galaxy and report back their findings. The crew was instructed never to purposely interfere with any life forms they encountered, though sometimes such a thing could not be avoided. To headline the show, Roddenberry selected the beautiful and heroic Jeffrey Hunter, a movie star who had begun to slip somewhat in cinematic popularity.

The pilot for the series was elaborate, but considered too cerebral, thus a second one was ordered by NBC. Hunter's wife, preferring to be married to a movie star rather than a science-fiction TV actor, pressured Hunter to ask for more money or turn down the role. Ultimately, his price was too high and William Shatner was brought in to play a new captain of the starship Enterprise, Captain Kirk, for the second pilot. The second pilot was still rather cerebral by 1966 TV standards, but was also more conventional in structure. The series was picked up. (Incidentally, the green command tunics on the show always photographed as yellow/gold, except for dress uniforms, so they were thereafter depicted as gold in various other arenas.)

Roddenberry envisioned a future that had a blend of sexes, races and nationalities working together side by side. To further this goal, he peppered the supporting cast of the show with the Asian George Takei and, in a "gold" uniform at first, the black female Nichelle Nichols. It was satisfying for an Asian character at this time to be presented as articulate, assured and intelligent, but it was downright history-making to have a black female depicted regularly as professional, assertive and in line for command of a vessel.
So sketchy was her "character" in the earliest stages of preparation, she didn't even have a name!  Roddenberry wanted her on the show and such details as a name for her came after the fact.  Over lunch, the two collaborated on the name Lieutenant Uhura, inspired by a best-seller she was reading at the time called "Uhuru." The word meant freedom in Swahili, but the word was softened with an "A" on the end to help feminize and individualize it.

This is not to suggest that Nichols was overtly portrayed with any significant power or command duties. Baby steps. She had to be content for the most part to function as a virtual outer space telephone operator, space-age ear-piece in place, with the bulk of her lines being something like, “Hailing frequencies open, sir” or “No response, Captain.” Often, when writers attempted to give her more significant things to do, the ideas were augmented or shut down entirely. Skittish executives worried about how such progressive notions would go over with southern viewers, many of whom still lived in newly-integrated, racially-volatile neighborhoods. (As a side note, notice how this publicity still has the "old" Spock from the first pilot, in a different uniform, in the background!)

Nichols bided her time, seizing any opportunity that came along to demonstrate her abilities and, of course, always looking regal and polished at her station. She was heralded in the black press for her groundbreaking position on television, but was disheartened by the creative hamstringing that was happening behind the scenes. (In fact, the executives had attempted to prevent her from being on the show at all, threatening to buy out her contract and prevent her from working on Trek until Roddenberry got around it by hiring her as a day player only, at a rate that wound up being higher than her contract salary!)

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!!”

When the series' ostensible female lead, the blonde, white Grace Lee Whitney (who I also adored as a kid) was fired after appearing in eight episodes, due to her drinking and resultant weight gain, Nichols found herself in a fairly more prominent position amongst the crew, the only other semi-regular female being Majel Barrett as Nurse Chapel.
Sometimes, she would be permitted to sing on the show, something I was never a big fan of, but perhaps it was because the songs were deliberately unusual and futuristic.
Occasionally, she would be given a bit more to do than look pretty and handle incoming and outgoing messages, especially in episodes that were more ship-bound rather than involving a landing party. It was in the second season that she really got the chance to shine a couple of times. The 1967 episode “Mirror, Mirror” had Shatner, Nichols, DeForest Kelly (as Dr. McCoy) and James Doohan (as Mr. Scott, or “Scottie”) swapped out to a parallel universe where their counterparts (who'd been transported to the original Enterprise) were actually cutthroat, conquering hellions!

For this special episode, my own all-time favorite of the series, Uhura's familiar red uniform was given a midriff-baring redux and a gold sash and hip knife were added. Her staggering figure was shown off to great advantage, but so was her acting talent. In the course of the episode, she was called upon to be frightened, seductive, cool and dangerous, among other things.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but there is a moment when Uhura enters the bridge of the “bad” Enterprise from the elevator and sizes up the situation by pausing and looking side-to-side at everything and everyone. I cannot begin to count how many times I have aped this action when going somewhere new and unfamiliar. LOL

Nichols hairstyle underwent several permutations over the run of the show, but this is probably the most iconic one. I used to love sitting in front of the TV and watching Grace Lee Whitney's bizarre basket-weave, Nichols' bubble 'do with the curls in the crown and all the other ladies' elaborate, and often big, coiffures.

Nichols was given another decent opportunity later that season in “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” wherein she, Shatner and Walter Koenig (as Ensign Chekov, an addition to the cast meant to appeal to young female fans) were enslaved on a planet for the express purpose of fighting to the death in a savage game for the delight of some aliens.

I also liked this one because her assigned trainer for the games was the hunky Steve Sandor, who made me feel warm and tingly as a gayling watching the screen with interest. I think I would have been more receptive to his methods than she was.

However, the biggest mark she would make, culturally, probably came in the third season in 1968 when the episode “Plato's Stepchildren” aired. In this one, a cruel alien race with powerful psychic abilities forced the crew members of the Enterprise to dress in Romanesque garb and behave against their will in various follies.

One of them involved making William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols embrace each other in a romantic clinch and kiss! This marked the first time that an interracial kiss had been shown on scripted network television. (Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr had previously shared a friendly peck on the cheek during a variety special. Only several months before the Trek episode, there had been behind the scenes turmoil because Petula Clark had merely taken the arm -!- of Harry Belafonte during a song on one of her specials.) There was a flood of letters to the network, but reportedly 99% of them were positive!

During the third season, Nichols began to tire of the continued lack of importance of her role and was disillusioned with the new producer who'd come on board after Roddenberry departed. She also felt wounded by the assassination of Martin Luther King in April of 1968 and found it difficult to concentrate on her work, despite his encouragement. Towards the very end of the third season, her familiar position at the communications console was sometimes filled by other actresses, including, ironically, the blonde, white Elizabeth Rogers.

Nichols began to concentrate more on singing engagements, having remarried in 1967 to songwriter Duke Monday. The two would travel out of town for various club engagements, which was another reason she would occasionally miss an episode of Trek. The union would only last until 1972, however.

Star Trek, despite its general quality, had never been a successful show in the ratings. (The highest it had ever gone for a given year was #52!) There were plans to cancel it after the second season, but an impassioned write-in campaign saved it from the axe. After the third season, during which the budget was slashed, further hampering the overall quality, it was finally cancelled, but not before the network's marketing department railed that the show's demographic (filled with viewers sixteen to thirty-nine) was the most desirable of all.

This wound up being a key point because after the show's cancellation, it was rerun in syndication and became a hugely popular program, far more so than it had ever been during its regular run. The down side for Nichols was that in order to make room for increased commercial time, often her already limited sequences would be trimmed or cut out entirely in order to keep the primary plot of the episodes intact.

Soon, the studio who owned the rights, Paramount, was making money hand over fist with the rebroadcasts and a wave of Star Trek merchandising hit toy stores. It was here that I had my Christmas made in a big way by being given the Mego Enterprise playset and figures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Uhura. I played with them until they nearly fell apart!
Her doll looked not a thing like her, really, and the hair bordered on a joke! I think they may have sorta been going for the look shown here, but they didn't achieve it.
Burgeoning gay that I was, I did everything I could to restyle and reconfigure my own Mego figure to look more like the real deal.
Thus begins the Mego hair show portion of this blog.
I think this qualifies me for a permanent place in The Gay Hall of Fame!
The show's sets had long been torn down, but it was decided that some milk might still be wrung from the old cow if the show was brought back as a Saturday morning animated cartoon. Everyone except Chekov (bizarrely excluded for budgetary reasons) was hired to voice their now-famous roles on the cartoon.

To me, the animated rendition of her character didn't resemble her in the slightest either. All the figures seemed taller and skinnier than their counterparts (though Leonard Nimoy, as Spock, already fit that bill.) In one episode, Uhura finally took command of the Enterprise when the others were disposed. The series aired from 1973 – 1974.

1974 was the year that Nichols really made the big change I refer to in the title of this post. She took a film role that was a 180-degree spin from the refined, serene and loyally-obedient Lt. Uhura. The movie was Truck Turner, a Blaxploitation flick starring Isaac Hayes, and Nichols portrayed Dorinda, a vengeful, foul-mouthed madame who sets her sites on Hayes, the man responsible for the death of her lover.

Braless and hiking her skirt up to (almost) reveal the promised land (though she did have on a white g-string underneath), she brazenly struts through the film in the hardest, most common (and captivating) way.

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.”

Then there is her managerial style when it comes to laying down the law at her pad full of floozies. “Shut up! Now all you whores sit down, I wanna talk to you. Anybody thinking about leaving here is gonna find my left foot square up their ass do you understand me?” and the gem-ridden, “Shut up ya chunky whore. I'm talking to you. Those two bitches that left, they better learn to sell pussy in Iceland because if I ever see them again I'm gonna cut their fucking throats. Hey! We are a family. And that's what we're gonna stay. Now I got important business out there today. So when I call you I want you to shake yo asses proper ya hear? HUH?! Now get out there and make it look good. And Raquel take that fucking jacket off!”

This genre is a love it or hate it one, with many fans and critics alike. As someone who loathes the stifling PC atmosphere which seems to permeate every area of our lives these days, I must say I get quite a kick out of several of these films, especially with ones that star Jim Brown. In any case, how can anyone truly resist the chance to see Lt. Uhura, alternately clad in loud get-ups or ostrich feathers, mouth a line like this one? -- “I haven't had to sell my pussy since I was fifteen and found out I could sell other bitches' instead.”

Despite having practically walked off with the film, Nichols never again agreed to appear in another Blaxploitation flick. She did the one, which demonstrated her versatility in the extreme, and that was plenty for her, but she did have many other offers come her way.

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.

This work continued in one form or another for many years and she has been a guest of many NASA programs and events. She, Gene Roddenberry and her Star Trek costars were on hand (except for Shatner) in 1976 when the first space shuttle, Enterprise, named for the vessel of the popular series, was christened.

The continued interest in Star Trek led to plans for a new TV series to be called "Star Trek: Phase II," which would be the flagship series of a proposed new network owned by Paramount. The network didn't make it off the ground (at least not in 1978 as was intended), so the show was never made, but thanks to the stupendous success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, especially, Star Wars (both in 1977), it was decided to bring the cast of Star Trek to the big screen. That's just what happened in 1979 with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Directed by Robert Wise (an Oscar-winner for both West Side Story and The Sound of Music), the result was a long, muted, reverent film that was met with mixed opinions by critics, but which made most fans very happy. You must realize that by 1979, with home video not yet a household fixture and with limited opportunities for viewers to get to see their favorite stars and characters, it was an event for Trekkies (later to be known as Trekkers) to get to see the Enterprise and its crew in all their glory again.

I was less offended by the dreamy, deliberately-paced aspects of the film than I was by the inclusion of new characters who seemed to hijack most of the screen time from the people I had paid money to see! I like Stephen Collins, but he was not a Star Trek person. Neither was Persis Khambatta, who figured heavily into the film's storyline. It didn't seem fair to me to bring back the cast of Star Trek and then hand over so much of the plot to others.

For this update, the uniforms were pastel grey and gold and bore little to no resemblance to the iconic clothing of the series. Nichols sported a sculpted afro rather than the more elaborate styles she'd had before. But a decade had passed since then and times had changed.

Rewatching the film recently in widescreen high-def, I can appreciate its craftmanship and the majesty that Jerry Goldsmith's music brings to the visuals. It lacked some of the action that punctuated the parent show, not to mention some of the humor, but it was a meaningful reunion of all the primary participants. Later films (without question Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) would seek more zest, color and passion than this first one.
As these films continued to be made, Nichols began morphing into a film star rather than a TV actress. True, she was still a supporting player in what had now become a highly successful machine, but there was usually a scene or two devoted to highlighting her presence. She and her fellow actors wanted more to do, though, and often became annoyed at being upstaged by other stars.
By the time of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), by which she was fifty-nine years-old, she was sporting a silver-frosted hairstyle and had a sequence in which her character stripped down and did a distracting fan dance (in silhouette) as part of an infiltration plan. This segment led her to recall the sixth film more fondly than the rest.

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.

That same year (1994) saw the publication of Nichols' book “Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories.” In it, there were occasional traces of resentment towards William Shatner, a feeling shared by (and in some cases, far exceeded by) other members of the gang that always seemed so devoted to one another on screen. Several of the actors felt that he was a limelight hog and ungenerous when it came to highlighting their own work and talent.

I have always found this annoying in that Shatner and Nimoy were the stars of the series and the others, apart from Kelly, were scarcely meant to be more than regular, familiar support. Many a TV actor playing a supporting part on a popular series dove straight into oblivion upon cancellation. These folks should be praising the heavens that their good fortune in being cast in such a project led to a lifetime of recognition and, in time, income!

Anyhoo, in the years after this, Nichols could be heard utilizing that silky voice of hers on animated shows like Batman, Gargoyles, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command and in a variety of Trek-related video games. In 1995, she penned a science-fiction book called Saturn's Child. (In a bizarre blip, she also lost a younger brother in 1997 as part of the Heaven's Gate mass suicide.) She later landed a featured role in the Cuba Gooding Jr comedy Snow Dogs (2002) and a cameo in the Ice Cube comedy Are We There Yet? (2005.)
Her sci-fi cred helped lead to a recurring part on the TV series Heroes in 2007. She has enjoyed branching out into a variety of genres and properties, be it playing a doctor in the Graham Green film The Torturer (2008) or as a former blues singer in 2012's This Bitter Earth. Today she is seventy-nine, but continues to act every now and again.
I think it's safe to say that, thanks to her place in the Star Trek franchise, she will always live on in the hearts and minds of the show's fans, which is a sort of immortality that only so many people are capable of achieving. She certainly made an impression on me as a child that I won't ever forget.


Therese said...

Just found this! Great post about Nichelle! You may like my Trek blog too -- Enjoy and LLAP! -Therese Bohn \\\///

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