Nichols became a household name when Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry cast her as Lt. Nyota Uhura in the '60s sci-fi series.
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Star Trek (1966 TV series)

Nichelle Nichols, who broke a major race barrier as the star of the 1960s sci-fi series Star Trek, has died at 89. Her son Kyle Johnson confirmed the news on her official Instagram account.

"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. "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."

The actress enjoyed decades in the spotlight thanks to her screen work, her music career, and her activism to help more women succeed in the field of astronomy.

Nichelle Nichols attends Day Three of the 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con held at Los Angeles Convention Center on December 5, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
Nichelle Nichols at the 2021 Los Angeles Comic Con
| Credit: Albert L. Ortega/Getty

Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols studied dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy as a teenager before she was discovered by jazz legend Duke Ellington. Nichols joined Ellington's tour as a ballet dancer, but ended up as the lead singer. She toured all over North America and Europe with Ellington, as well as, Lionel Hampton's band.

In 1959, Nichols made her big-screen debut after landing a role as a dancer in Sammy Davis Jr.'s Porgy and Bess. She went on to act in other films and TV series, including making a guest appearance in Gene Roddenberry's show, The Lieutenant, in 1964.

However, Nichols' breakout role came when Roddenberry cast the actress as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek series.

When the show first aired in 1966, Nichols was one of the first Black women to play a major role on primetime television. She is popularly cited as having the first interracial kiss on American television, when her character famously locked lips with white leading man William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk. Martin Luther King Jr. once called Nichols' role "the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a black woman in television history."

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura in the STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES episode, "Arena." Original air date January 19, 1967.
Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura in a 1967 episode of 'Star Trek'
| Credit: CBS via Getty

Following the end of the science-fiction series, Nichols helped NASA recruit astronauts who were women or minorities. Among those who were recruited as a result of the program was Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut.

During her acting career, Nichols starred in six Star Trek movies from 1979–91. Some of her most recent work included the 2002 Disney picture Snow Dogs, in which she played Cuba Gooding Jr.'s mother. In 2005, she acted alongside Ice Cube as Miss Mable in the comedy Are We There Yet? And in 2007, she had a recurring role on the NBC series Heroes as Nana Dawson. Nichols appeared in the long-running daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless as recently as 2016.

In 1992, Nichols was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And when the original Star Trek cast was honored in front of Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1991, she became the first African-American to place her handprints and signature at the iconic spot.

Nichols was nominated twice for the Sarah Siddons Award for Best Actress for her performances in The Blacks and Kicks and Company. In addition to acting, Nichols also recorded two albums, Down to Earth and Out of This World. Nichols has one son, actor Kyle Johnson, from her first marriage to Foster Johnson. She later remarried songwriter Duke Mondy. The pair divorced in 1972.

"Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all," Johnson wrote of his mother. "Live Long and Prosper."

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