'Trailblazing' Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols dies aged 89

ITV News Reporter Mark McQuillan on Nichelle Nichols' life and legacy

Nichelle Nichols, best known for playing Lt Uhura in the original Star Trek television series, has died aged 89.

Star Trek actor George Takei, who starred alongside Ms Nichols, led tributes to the “trailblazing” actor who is credited with breaking down race and gender barriers in her role as communications officer Lt Uhura in the 1960s.

The star died of natural causes on Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico, her son, Kyle Johnson said in a Facebook post.

Mr Takei, who starred as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu of the fictional star ship USS Enterprise, said his “heart is heavy” following her death.

He shared a photo of them together and wrote: “I shall have more to say about the trailblazing, incomparable Nichelle Nichols, who shared the bridge with us as Lt. Uhura of the USS Enterprise, and who passed today at age 89.

“For today, my heart is heavy, my eyes shining like the stars you now rest among, my dearest friend.”

Ms Nichols' portrayal of starship communications officer Lieutenant Uhura in the 1960s sci-fi TV series "Star Trek" and subsequent movies helped redefine roles for black actors and her influence was felt beyond the screen.

Star Trek crew, from left, James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, George Takei, Leonard Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols. Credit: AP

In 1968 Ms Nichols and "Star Trek" star William Shatner broke a cultural barrier when they engaged in U.S. television's first interracial kiss.

Ms Nichols had planned to quit her Star Trek role after one series, but was persuaded to stay by 1960s civil rights leader Martin Luther King because it was so revolutionary to have a black woman playing an important senior crew member.

Mr King's daughter Bernice King reflected on the importance of representation on television in her tribute, saying: “Representation matters. Excellence in representation matters even more.

“Thank you, #NichelleNichols. Rest well, ancestor.”

After criticising Nasa for failing to pick qualified women and minorities as astronauts, the space agency hired Ms Nichols in the 1970s to help in recruiting.

Nasa shared a photo of the actress wearing Nasa overalls while sitting behind monitors to Twitter, the agency said: “We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible.

“She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”

Kate Mulgrew, who portrayed Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, praised Nichols for pathing the way for female actresses.

Sharing a photo of Nichols in her Lt Uhura role to Twitter, Ms Mulgrew wrote: “Nichelle Nichols was The First.

“She was a trailblazer who navigated a very challenging trail with grit, grace, and a gorgeous fire we are not likely to see again. May she Rest In Peace.”

Nichelle Nichols speaks in front of the Space Shuttle Endeavour after its last flight in 2012. Credit: AP

While actress Jeri Ryan, who played Borg drone Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager, said: “RIP to a true legend. Her legacy will live forever” in her tribute.

The Star Trek official Twitter account also wrote: “We’re deeply saddened to report the passing of Nichelle Nichols – a trailblazer, an inspiration, and so much more. She will be deeply missed.”

Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter agreed that she felt Nichols had helped “pave the way for a better future for all women in media”.

In her tribute, she said: “Many actors become stars, but few stars can move a nation.

“Nichelle Nichols showed us the extraordinary power of Black women and paved the way for a better future for all women in media. Thank you, Nichelle. We will miss you.”

Dave Blass, who was a production designer for Star Trek, added: “Nichelle Nichols changed the world. How many people can say that.

“She was a beacon of representation, who inspired people to reach for the stars. She embodied all that Star Trek stands for. Must watch film on her work with Nasa.”

Announcing the news, Nichols’ son wrote on her official Facebook page: “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.

“Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”

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