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Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura on 'Star Trek,' has died at 89

Remembering pioneer actress Nichelle Nichols 01:10

Nichelle Nichols, known for her role as Nyota Uhura in "Star Trek: The Original Series" has died at the age of 89. 

Nichols' son, Kyle Johnson, announced Nichols'  death Sunday in a Facebook post. 

"I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years. Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away," he wrote. "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."

CBSLA Reporter Laurie Perez talked to several "Star Trek" fans at the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Sunday.

Nichelle Nichols, trailblazing "Star Trek" actress, passes away at 89 03:29

"What she did so well was just like being right there in the mix. We grew up in a world where we just saw that as normal and that's one of her greatest contributions not only to the show but also to us all," David Zhend said.  

After the show's first season, Nichols was set to leave the show until a chance encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who she said talked her out of it.

"He said, 'for the first time on television we will be seen as we should be seen every day - as intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance but who can go into space,"' Nichols said during an interview.   

Nichols' role in the 1966-69 series as Lt. Uhura earned Nichols a lifelong position of honor with the series' rabid fans, known as Trekkers and Trekkies. It also earned her accolades for breaking stereotypes that had limited Black women to acting roles as servants and included an interracial onscreen kiss with co-star William Shatner that was unheard of at the time.

Like other original cast members, Nichols also appeared in six big-screen spinoffs starting in 1979 with "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and frequented "Star Trek" fan conventions. She also served for many years as a NASA recruiter, helping bring minorities and women into the astronaut corps.

More recently, she had a recurring role on television's "Heroes," playing the great-aunt of a young boy with mystical powers.

Nichols' "Star Trek" co-stars William Shatner and George Takei both took to Twitter to pay homage to the trailblazing actress. 

The original "Star Trek" premiered on NBC on Sept. 8, 1966. Its multicultural, multiracial cast was creator Gene Roddenberry's message to viewers that in the far-off future — the 23rd century — human diversity would be fully accepted.

During the show's third season, Nichols' character and Shatner's Capt. James Kirk shared what was described as the first interracial kiss to be broadcast on a U.S. television series. In the episode, "Plato's Stepchildren," their characters, who always maintained a platonic relationship, were forced into the kiss by aliens who were controlling their actions. 

The kiss "suggested that there was a future where these issues were not such a big deal," Eric Deggans, a television critic for National Public Radio, told The Associated Press in 2018. "The characters themselves were not freaking out because a Black woman was kissing a white man ... In this utopian-like future, we solved this issue. We're beyond it. That was a wonderful message to send."

Worried about reaction from Southern television stations, showrunners wanted to film a second take of the scene where the kiss happened off-screen. But Nichols said in her book, "Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories," that she and Shatner deliberately flubbed lines to force the original take to be used.

Despite concerns, the episode aired without blowback. In fact, it got the most "fan mail that Paramount had ever gotten on Star Trek for one episode," Nichols said in a 2010 interview with the Archive of American Television.

Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols hated being called "Gracie," which everyone insisted on, she said in the 2010 interview. When she was a teen her mother told her she had wanted to name her Michelle, but thought she ought to have alliterative initials like Marilyn Monroe, whom Nichols loved. Hence, "Nichelle."

Nichols first worked professionally as a singer and dancer in Chicago at age 14, moving on to New York nightclubs and working for a time with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands before coming to Hollywood for her film debut in 1959's "Porgy and Bess," the first of several small film and TV roles that led up to her "Star Trek" stardom.

She was a regular at "Star Trek" conventions and events into her 80s, but her schedule became limited starting in 2018 when her son announced that she was suffering from advanced dementia.

Johnson asked for privacy while his family grieves. 

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