Actress Nichelle Nichols

Actress talks about Duke Ellington’s influence on her early career and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s advice to her on her history-making role as one of the stars of the original Star Trek series

Nichelle Nichols' has had many historical acting firsts, including beng the first film and TV African American actress to play a role other than a servant—in her signature role as Uhura in the original Star Trek series. She also starred in six Star Trek features and the animated spin-off. Nichols used her visibility to promote an integrated U.S. space program and remains active in several educational organizations. The Chicago-area native is an accomplished singer-dancer, who toured with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, and has roots on the live stage.


Tavis: Nichelle Nichols made history back in 1966 when she became one of the first African American women to star on a prime time series with a role, of course, on “Star Trek.” Her story is just one of the many groundbreaking moments from the upcoming PBS special, “Pioneers of Television.” The next installment focuses on science fiction and airs on most of these PBS stations January the 18th. Here now, a scene from “Pioneers of Television.”
Tavis: Nichelle Nichols, always an honor, first of all, just to be in your presence.
Nichelle Nichols: Thank you, it’s really good to be here with you, too, Tavis.
Tavis: You doing well?
Nichols: It’s been a while – yes.
Tavis: It has been a while since we’ve seen each other.
Nichols: I think I was on one of your very first shows.
Tavis: And so here we are again.
Nichols: And here we are again.
Tavis: (Laughs) Lucky me.
Nichols: Yeah, lucky me. (Laughs)
Tavis: And you’re still as busy as you were then.
Nichols: More so.
Tavis: More so busy.
Nichols: If that’s possible.
Tavis: So it’s not just – speaking of being busy, it’s not just that you’re a part of this wonderful PBS special, this series here about the “Pioneers of Television.” We’ll come back to that in just a second. But you’re being honored this coming Sunday, I’m told. One of my favorite places in the country. I love the 92nd Street Y.
Nichols: Yes.
Tavis: In New York City. They’ve got a great honor for you and some other ladies this coming Sunday, so what’s that all about?
Nichols: Well, they’re doing the “Pioneers of Television,” and this Sunday is devoted to legendary women of television. So, and I’m with a wonderful group of ladies – Linda Evans, my girlfriend Stephanie Powers, Angie Dickenson and myself.
Tavis: Wow.
Nichols: Yes. (Laughter)
Tavis: Can I go with you?
Nichols: Yes, please. (Laughter)
Tavis: Do you need a date this Sunday?
Nichols: Yes. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s quite a crew right there.
Nichols: Yeah, indeed, indeed.
Tavis: That is quite a crew. I assume, then, if you are willing to accept an honor like the one you’re receiving this Sunday, that you are okay with the pioneering status.
Nichols: Oh, gosh, yes.
Tavis: Yeah.
Nichols: You go in hoping that you get to make your mark, and you stay in long enough to become or be called a pioneer – I’ve lived a life. I’ve had a wonderful life, and it ain’t over yet.
Tavis: I’m going to ask you in just a second about your conversation with my hero, whose birthday we will celebrate just a few days from now – a great story about how Dr. King talked you into staying on “Star Trek.” We’ll come to that in a second.
Nichols: Yes.
Tavis: So how about that for a tease? Dr. King talked her into staying when she thought about leaving. But tell me the story of how you got on “Star Trek” in the first place.
Nichols: Well, when I tell this story I have to say I think this is the way it went. I know that I was not in town. I was busily going from Canada – Montreal – to Paris to England, and so I got a call. Wherever I was, I got a call.
Tavis: Hold up, hold up – see, that’s why I love you. She’s so most and she’s so humble, she just moved right on past that. When she said she was busy moving around the world, she was moving around the world doing what? (Laughter) Tell me what you were doing.
Nichols: Well, I grew up in musical theater.
Tavis: That’s right.
Nichols: There, I was a singer. I was singing –
Tavis: And you were traveling and playing with people like?
Nichols: Oh, well, I think you’re talking about earlier than that, as a kid. I was discovered by the great Duke Ellington and –
Tavis: Ah-ha, there we go. Got to pull it out of you.
Nichols: Years ago, I was – it was a musical I was doing in my hometown of Chicago.
Tavis: That’s right.
Nichols: At the great Sherman House, and he came as a guest to see me and to see the show, staying at the hotel, Sherman House, and he asked to meet me. And I was, like, 14 or 15 and when they brought the note to our suite, my mother said, “Will you tell Mr. Ellington that my daughter can’t come down to meet him unless her mother comes down and the rest of the company comes.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Your mother was a wise woman.
Nichols: He thought that was so – he was so impressed by that. The band’s singer got sick and he called me into his dressing room. I had no idea she had left, she was deathly ill. He said, “Sing something for me,” and the next thing I know I’m replacing her (laughter) and doing my dance routine.
Tavis: With Duke.
Nichols: With the great Duke Ellington. It was like – I didn’t tour with him as a singer, but it was that last, oh, three or four performances I filled in, and –
Tavis: It’s on your resume.
Nichols: It’s on my resume.
Tavis: Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton.
Nichols: Then Lionel Hampton, I went in a special act and toured with him and his great band.
Tavis: Okay. I just wanted to get that out there, because it ain’t just “Star Trek,” y’all. It’s Duke Ellington, it’s Lionel Hampton.
Nichols: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: So anyway, you were traveling somewhere doing your music thing.
Nichols: Well, it was “Star Trek” that interrupted my career, you see.
Tavis: That’s what I want to hear. (Laughter) I like that, I like that. So you’re traveling around the world, doing your thing. You get a phone call from the “Star Trek” people – pick up the story.
Nichols: My agent calls me and says, “Come home, they’re doing ‘Star Trek,'” and I said, “I’m not coming home.” (Laughs) I’m loving this, and my career is moving and people are taking me seriously as a singer. They think I have a great voice. He said, “You get on a plane. I’ll put a first class ticket on there. You get your little brown butt back here, and if you don’t get this role, you can be back within a week.” I thought that was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and so I came, auditioned –
Tavis: And the rest –
Nichols: – and the rest is history.
Tavis: – is history.
Nichols: Yes, yeah.
Tavis: What was it like on “Star Trek” during those early days? This is segregation in America, now.
Nichols: In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, he said, “You cannot leave the show. You have the first non-stereotypical role on television, and the manner in which you have created your character, with dignity and beauty and intelligence, you are an image that our people – but not only our little children, but for people who don’t look like us, who don’t – they see us for the first time as we should be seen. This is what we’re marching for.”
Tavis: So two questions in that regard. One, how does it feel to know that Dr. King is a fan of your work, watching you every week, number one, and number two, obviously if King is encouraging you that way, you have to stay with the show, even though you had thought about leaving at some point.
Nichols: He said, “This is the only show that my wife, Coretta, and I will allow our little children to stay up late and watch.” And years later, his little children are now – who were then grown, two of them came to my – were guests in my home here and told me the story.
I said, “I met your father,” and told them the story I just told you, and they said, “Yes, that’s true, that’s true, because Daddy came home and said he met Nichelle Nichols, and they said, ‘You mean Lieutenant Uhura?’ and he said, ‘Yes.'” (Laughter) And he said, “Daddy, Daddy, you met -” (laughter) I was in hysterics.
Here’s Dr. King telling me I cannot leave and my mouth is opening, but nothing is coming out because as far as I was concerned that was my leader.
Tavis: What just moves me now as I listen to you tell this story is that for those of us who are Trekkies, who are fans of yours, we know what uhuru means. You connect the meaning of that to King; it fits beautifully, doesn’t it?
Nichols: Well, “uhuru,” ending in a U –
Tavis: That’s right.
Nichols: – is Swahili for “freedom.”
Tavis: Freedom – how about that?
Nichols: And so Gene, I was reading that book, that marvelous treatise on Africa, when I came for the interview, and the role of a communications officer was not even written. So they had a three-page thing, they told me to read from this part where Kirk, Spock and Bones, would I read the role of Spock, and I looked at it and said – because I hadn’t even been given the sides. And I looked at it and I said, “Oh, yeah.” I thought that’s who I was reading for.
So I said, “Tell me something about the character,” and they told me about his persona – no nonsense, not much of a sense of humor, but a brilliant mind. So I adopted that for Uhura – what became Uhura.
They were very happy with it, asked me to wait. Gene asked me to go to lunch, he wanted to talk about the character – “Oh, by the way, you have the role.” (Laughs)
Tavis: This is Gene Roddenberry, by the way, the creator.
Nichols: Gene Roddenberry.
Tavis: Exactly.
Nichols: The great bird of the galaxy.
Tavis: That’s right.
Nichols: And he said, “You know, Nichelle, I asked you to lunch to talk to you about this because I really am impressed with this word uhuru.” He said, “I’d like to do something with it with your character.” And I blithely said, “Oh, well, why don’t you do an alliteration on the word and soften it to ‘Uhura,’ put an A on it instead of uhuru, which is very strong, and make it Uhura?”
And he stopped and he said, “That’s your character, that’s your name, that’s where you come from – the United States of Africa – and you’ve created her. You are fourth in command, the communications officer of Starship Enterprise. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s it, good night. (Laughter) I’m literally out of time, but how are you going to close the show or at least close this –
Nichols: Well, now I’m being honored as a pioneer –
Tavis: And now you’re being honored for all that. You see that?
Nichols: – on television, I’ll take it.
Tavis: You can’t close the show better than that. It’s a fascinating story. I knew you’d love this, but the King connection –
Nichols: Indeed, yes.
Tavis: The freedom – it’s just a wonderful career.
Nichols: And you know, that man called me three times before he went to do the speech, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
Tavis: His “Mountaintop” speech?
Nichols: Yes.
Tavis: He called you three times to make sure that you had made a decision to stay.
Nichols: He would be at, like, at the airport or something. He would take the time to call. “This is Dr. King. I just wanted to make sure that you – I wanted to tell you how important it is and how much I’m pleased.” I was so moved by that, it affected me for the rest of my life. Yeah, “I just want to – and I thank you.”
It would be no more than a minute or a minute and a half. They’d be calling his flight, and I thought –
Tavis: You get a minute from King, that’s more than a thousand hours of –
Nichols: Yes, yes.
Tavis: Wow. It’s quite a life, quite a legacy, and obviously, she’s still going strong. So if you’re in New York this week and lucky enough, blessed enough to get a chance to see this great freedom fighter honored at the 92nd Street Y this Sunday, good for you.
Nichols: On the 16th. It’s going to be a wonderful thing.
Tavis: Good for you.
Nichols: I’m going to do “The View” after that on the 17th.
Tavis: And you should – you should do –
Nichols: And Piers Morgan, I’m looking forward to doing that.
Tavis: Go on with your bad self, then.
Nichols: Yes. (Laughter) So I’ve got a jam-packed three days.
Tavis: That’s why you can’t – this is why you can’t slow down.
Nichols: Yes.
Tavis: Nichelle Nichols, of course, her name – Lieutenant Uhura on “Star Trek,” as you all know, all you Trekkies.
Nichols: And then I’ve got to get back here, because I’m executive producer and one of the leads, starring roles, on a new movie called “Omaha Street.” So I’m really, really excited about that.
Tavis: You better pace yourself. You better pace yourself.
Nichols: I do.
Tavis: All right.
Nichols: I do.
Tavis: It’s good to see you.
Nichols: As long as it’s fast-paced. (Laughs)
Tavis: Good to see you. Thank you for coming on.
Nichols: I love you. Thank you.
Tavis: Love you back. That’s our show for tonight.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm