It’s time now for part two of our interview with Star Trek legend Nichelle Nichols, who responded to questions from you, the readers of StarTrek.com. Once again, Nichols was engaged and talkative, and she provided fresh insights on some familiar stories.
You commented on Zoe Saldana’s performance as Uhura building towards what you’d done with the character. As the character moves forward, what would you like to see?
Nichols: I’d like to see what J.J. Abrams does with it. I think with what Zoe did, making the change, going from this young, flirty gal and having fun to being dead serious, I’d like to see where that goes. She’ll be making more choices in the next few years and I have full faith and confidence in Zoe and in J.J. I’d love to see where they take it, and I’d love to come back to it in that out-of-sequence timeframe and meet up with Uhura as her mother or grandmother or whatever, if J.J. wanted to use me. I would love to be a part of it.
The story of the interracial kiss between Uhura and Captain Kirk is familiar to a lot of people, but one reader wanted to know if you realized at the time how important it could be?
Nichols: No. To tell you the truth, we were so happy to have a script that was unique and was taking a grand step forward, but we weren’t thinking about it (in a historical context). I think (the producers) were sensitive to it. They saved our scene to be shot when no one else was around, at the end of the last day, an hour before the end of shooting.
We know you're still very close with George Takei, Walter Koenig and Leonard Nimoy among the surviving members of the original Star Trek cast, but several readers asked about the current state of your relationship with William Shatner. So...?
Nichols: It's very cordial when we see each other.
Another now-famous story is how Martin Luther King convinced you to stay on Star Trek. Rolling a couple of questions together, could you please share that story again for people who’ve not heard it? And, also, if you had actually left Star Trek, what were you planning to do?
Nichols: When I told Gene (Roddenberry), I walked away, and as far as I was concerned it was a fait accompli. I was being all kinds of things. Remember, I grew up in musical theater. I belonged to the theater, not to television or movies. Those were things I did when I hadn’t quite made it where I wanted to go, but was on my way. I had quite a lot going for me. I had no idea of the power of being on a screen and people seeing you weekly. But I was ready to go. As nice as this little part was, and I loved the people and I loved working on it, and I was getting experience in a new medium, I didn’t think twice about (leaving). Gene said, “You can’t, Nichelle. Don’t you see what I’m trying to do here?” I just looked at him, because I was resolute. He said, “OK,” and I handed him my resignation. He took it and looked at it with sad eyes. He was behind his desk and I was standing in front of him and – I’ll never forget it – he said, “I’m not going to accept this yet.” He put it in his desk drawer and said, “Take the weekend and think about this, Nichelle. If you still want to do this on Monday morning I will let you go with my blessings.” I said, “Thank you, Gene.” And I thought, “Whew, that was rough, but I got through it.”
That weekend, I went to what I remember as a NAACP fundraiser, though it could have been something else. Whatever it was, I was in Beverly Hills. I was being seated at the dais as other notables were coming to join us at this event. One of the organizers of the event came over to me and said, “Ms. Nichols, I hate to bother you just as you’re sitting down to dinner, but there’s someone here who wants very much to meet you. And he said to tell you that he is your biggest fan.” I said, “Oh, certainly,” I stood up and turned around and who comes walking over towards me from about 10 or 15 feet, smiling that rare smile of his, is Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember saying to myself, “Whoever that fan is, whoever that Trekkie is, it’ll have to wait because I have to meet Dr. Martin Luther King.” And he walks up to me and says, “Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.” You know I can talk, but all my mouth could do was open and close, open and close; I was so stunned.
Dr. King starts to tell me about how Star Trek is the only show that he and his wife, Coretta, allowed their little children to stay up and watch. And he goes on about what the show means and my role in it and how I’ve created this character with dignity and knowledge. Finally, I said, “Thank you so much, Dr. King. I’m really going to miss my co-stars.” Dr. King looked at me and the smile went off his face and he said, “What are you talking about?” I told him. He said, “You cannot,” and so help me this man practically repeated verbatim what Gene said. He said, “Don’t you see what this man is doing, who has written this? This is the future. He has established us as we should be seen. Three hundred years from now we are here. We are marching, and this is the first step. When we see you, we see ourselves, and we see ourselves as intelligent and beautiful and proud.” He goes on and I’m looking at him and my knees are buckling. I said, “I…, I…” And he said, “You turn on your television and the news comes on and you see us marching and peaceful, you see the peaceful civil disobedience, and you see the dogs and see the fire hoses, and we all know they cannot destroy us because we are there in the 23rd century.”
That’s all it took. I went back on Monday morning and told Gene what had happened. He sat there behind that desk and a tear came down his face, and he looked up at me. I said, “Gene, if you want me to stay, I will stay. There’s nothing I can do but stay.” He looked at me and said, “God bless Dr. Martin Luther King. Somebody truly knows what I am trying to do.” He opened his drawer, took out my resignation and handed it to me. He had torn it to pieces. He handed me the 100 pieces and said, “Welcome back.”
OK, now to a few fun questions. You had a red uniform on Star Trek. Did you ever think you were on the chopping block?
Nichols: (Laughs). No! Never! But there’s a funny story. The first time you saw me I wasn’t in a red outfit; the outfit was puke green. The front office had not seen that and had no idea I was on the show. When they saw the dailies, they went, “What the hell? Who is she?” Gene said, “She’s the communications officer.” They said, “What happened to…?” Gene said, “He got a lead role on Room 222, and Nichelle is absolutely perfect for it. Isn’t she good?” They said, “Yes, she’s good, but… but… but… but, we can’t…” Gene said, “I told you I was going to make a change on the bridge. You knew this.” They said, “All you said was you were going to add a little color. We thought you were talking about the costumes!” Gene said, “You know, you’re right. I don’t like her in that outfit,” and he had the costumer change it. The next thing I knew I was in a red costume for the duration of the show. They didn’t come up with the idea of the red shirts dying on planets for a little while.
What were you wearing during the “nude” scene in Star Trek V?
Nichols: I was wearing… me. And, of course, I had a g-string on.
If you had to sit down for lunch with Kirk or Spock – one of the characters, not one of the actors – which would you choose?
Nichols: Mr. Spock. As we talked about, I created my character as relating to Spock. I thought of Spock as Uhura’s mentor, because he was older and more experienced.
You wore the earpiece on TOS. Was it heavy? Do you still have one? And do you, today, use a Blue tooth?
Nichols: They were never heavy because they were made of very, very light material. They took a mold of my ear, so when it was made, it was made for me and just formed into my ear. Yes, I do have my original earpiece, plus another that was given to me as well. And, no, I don’t have a Blue tooth because there’s a thought it has an effect on your hearing and on your health. I have a flip cell phone, and you know they took that from Star Trek, too.
Many people, with Majel Barrett-Roddenberry’s passing, consider you to be the First Lady of Star Trek. How does that sit with you?
Nichols: Majel is still the First Lady of Star Trek. I’ve decided that I am the First Lady of Space, because I’ve done so much with NASA over the years and I’m involved again with them now, and because I’m starting a foundation, The Nichelle Nichols Foundation. I’m just starting it, just forming it. You can tell people to visit my site (as she’ll be posting information as it becomes available), but it’s to help young people understand the need and the value of what the president is pushing of science, of STEM, which is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. We’re forging ahead, and I’m working with NASA, including one of my recruits, on that. My foundation will support that and also the performing arts. You didn’t think I was leaving that out, did you?
Finally, how does it feel to know you’ve inspired so many people – people like Dr. Mae Jemison and Whoopi Goldberg, who are a couple of your more famous fans – but also so many others, people you may never even have met?
Nichols: People keep saying, “You’ve inspired women of color.” And I say, “Yes, black, white, yellow, brown, red and probably some with green blood and pointy ears!” Gene’s brilliance was in casting people from all over the Earth, and an alien. It made everyone feel like they belonged. I wasn’t a black communications officer. I was a communications officer who happened to be from Africa, who happened to have brown skin. So I have had women of all stripes tell me how Uhura inspired them to reach for the stars. I’ve had women who’ve named their children after Uhura, and even after Nichelle. But the incredible thing is I have had white men come up to tell me, “You’ve changed my life.” They would say, “I came from a racist family, until I saw you in that setting on Star Trek.” And I said, “Yes, that is the way life is supposed to be.” What Gene did by casting us helped change society, change the way people thought, changed the world. It’s amazing. He wanted (Star Trek) to be a reflection of the world, and that’s what happened.