On Star Trek and Star Power: A Q&A with actress Nichelle Nichols

 

Like most of my born-in-the-70s peers, I grew up in the age of starry science fiction, with Star Wars and Star Trek dominating my television and my bedroom decor. Outer space seemed within my childhood grasp, and with it, new extraterrestrial communities, terrains foreign and familiar, and unparalleled cosmic opportunities – like navigating a spaceship – around every corner.

Fierce female leaders stood strong at the helm of my formative years, leaders like Princess Leia and Lieutenant Uhura. Though I aged alongside Wil Wheaton and Star Trek: The Next Generation, with lady leads Counselor Troi and Dr. Crusher holding their own (and Guinan, played by the indomitable Whoopi Goldberg, always on hand to slide you a drink at the ship’s bar), it was the first Star Trek crew who commanded respect for setting the stage.

On deck in the original show, amid traditional male forerunners Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Sulu, appeared the stunning Lieutenant Uhura, played by actress Nichelle Nichols. Though Nichols was considered a supporting character, her poise and perfection, along with a surefire, commanding voice, made her a highlight of every episode. The camera would pan along her manicured fingers while she listened intently for external communications and maneuvered dials on the control panel. She made appearances at the forefront of particular missions, and in one episode, received a groundbreaking kiss from the captain.

I knew what I wanted to be. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I was going to do. And it happened.

Nichols, now in her mid-80s, continues to carry that captivating grace that made her famous. Recently in Portland for Wizard World Comic Con, the sci-fi maven makes only the occasional trek these days, but still brings a shine to every room she enters.

Q: Most people tend to ask you about your time on Star Trek, but you were already busy performing before you were cast in the show.

A: Yes, I was a singer and dancer.

Q: How old were you when you started singing and dancing?

A: About this high. (Laughter, with a gesture of her hand.) My folks started out that way. More and more, it got bigger and bigger, and I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Q: Did you receive encouragement from your family?

A: “Sit down, Mom and Dad. Let me show you the latest thing.”(Laughter.) And they sat down. And it wasn’t like I was an only child. I had six brothers and sisters. I had a wonderful young life, growing up in Chicago. I could get people to sit down and shut up! And perform for them! Some of them weren’t even family! It was a wonderful young life. And I thought I was really hot stuff. Some of them did too, so as long as they thought so!

I just loved being me, at an early age, and it kept on going. And I realized I still loved it. I love being me. I loved entertaining.

They used to come get me, and they’d all sit on the sofa. And I wouldn’t just do it – I made an entrance! I’d put on a show for them. I could see that I was entertaining them!

And when I needed to show off some new moves, they were all there for me. They would critique – because I told them that they should! It was wonderful. The critiques were right on, and any time I wanted to show them something, they couldn’t wait to critique me!

I had a wonderful young life like that.

The older people in my family, my parents and older siblings, would ask me at night if I would show them what I had. Not just encouragement from my parents, but also from my brothers and sisters.

Q: What was it like touring with Duke Ellington?

A: Oh, it was amazing. I toured with Lionel Hampton as well. Maybe four or five others. Ooh, baby. They introduced me, and I got to make a grand entrance. Ooh, yeah, baby. I loved it, too. I loved every dang second of it.

Q: When you moved to television, was it a different experience not having that grand entrance?

A: Oh, no, not at all, because everyone else on the show was like that. They themselves were like me. And I gave to them what they gave me to me. I had a wonderful time. So lucky to be in showbiz.

Back in that time, for some reason, you didn’t put people down. You didn’t talk about them negatively. You would talk to them about what they were doing, and you would give them feedback. And I would do that to them. I always had an audience. All my friends were family.

After Star Trek

Though she’s asked most often about her time on Star Trek, it just was a sliver of Nichols’ lifelong career. In addition to other small-screen roles, and six feature-length Star Trek films, the actress also utilized her star visibility to help boost NASA’s efforts in recruiting women and African Americans into the space exploration program.

Q: Do you regret not doing more Broadway?

A: I went on to Broadway to do a show [after Star Trek ended], and they wanted me to travel. At that time, I wasn’t ready to travel and be away from home for so long. I’ve never regretted it, because I’ve gone on to do so many other things.

Q: Are there any standout moments from Star Trek that stay with you?

A: Oh, almost everything. When Star Trek came along, I could hardly believe it. I couldn’t wait to get to work. I really, and I mean that truly, I loved what I did, what I was learning. And I still love it.

Q: Do you make it to a lot of Comic Cons? 

A: Well, I don’t do a lot of them, but wherever I go, there they are. So that’s wonderful. I haven’t had one negative thing about my fans. Knock on wood.

I’m really, really, really, a lucky lady.

 

~Jennifer Matthewson

Photo credit: Nichelle Nichols

Live long and prosper.