Star Trek's Uhura Reflects On MLK Encounter

Nichelle Nichols caused a sensation in the 1960s for her role as Lieutenant Uhura in the classic television series, "Star Trek." It was one of the first times a black woman was cast as a main character in a major television show. But Nichols almost quit the show to pursue other dreams. She talks to host Michel Martin about her character's importance during the civil rights movement, and how Martin Luther King Junior convinced her to stay on "Star Trek".

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

On this Martin Luther King Day, we are looking at the legacy of the civil rights leader. We're looking back and we're looking forward to talk about what that legacy still means.

In a moment, we'll hear from the legendary singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, who admired King as a leader and also knew him as a friend.

But one of the things that might not be so well known about Martin Luther King, Jr. is that he was a Trekkie, a fan of the television show "Star Trek" - that according to Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played the groundbreaking role of Lieutenant Uhura on the popular series from 1966 to 1969 and in the movies that followed. And if we've forgotten why we liked her so much, here's a clip.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Ms. NICHELLE NICHOLS (Actor): (As Lieutenant Uhura) I'm connecting the bypass circuit now, sir.

(Soundbite of buzzing)

Ms. NICHOLS: (As Lieutenant Uhura) It should take another half hour.

Mr. LEONARD NIMOY (Actor): (As Spock) Speed is essential, lieutenant.

Ms. NICHOLS: Mr. Spock, I haven't done anything like this in years. If it isn't done just right, I could blow the entire communications system. It's very delicate work, sir.

Mr. NIMOY: I can think of no one better equipped to handle it, Ms. Uhura. Please proceed.

MARTIN: Well, there you have it. Even Spock was a fan. And Dr. King was a fan. And according to Nichelle Nichols' biography, he also played a pivotal role in setting the course for her career. And she is with us now to tell us more about it.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. NICHOLS: I am delighted to be here with you. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, in hindsight, of course, you know, everybody recognizes that this was a groundbreaking role. An African-American woman fourth in command on a spaceship in the 23rd century, you know, an officer, a leader. But you had actually planned to quit after your first season. Why?

Ms. NICHOLS: Well, I grew up in musical theater. To me, the highlight and the epitome of my life as a singer and actor and a dancer/choreographer was to star on Broadway. And as my popularity grew once the show was on the air, I was beginning to get all kinds of offers. And I decided I was going to leave, go to New York and make my way on the Broadway stage. And a funny thing happened.

MARTIN: Well, tell us about that funny thing that happened.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NICHOLS: I went in to tell Gene Roddenberry that I was leaving after the first season, and he was very upset about it. And he said, take the weekend and think about what I am trying to achieve here in this show. You're an integral part and very important to it. And so I said, yes, I would. And that - on Saturday night, I went to an NAACP fundraiser, I believe it was, in Beverly Hills. And one of the promoters came over to me and said, Ms. Nichols, there's someone who would like to meet you. He says he is your greatest fan.

And I'm thinking a Trekker, you know. And I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking toward me. And he started laughing. By the time he reached me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NICHOLS: And I was speechless. He complimented me on the manner in which I'd created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you. He said, no, no, no. No, you don't understand. We don't need you on the - to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for. So, I said to him, thank you so much. And I'm going to miss my co-stars.

And his face got very, very serious. And he said, what are you talking about? And I said, well, I told Gene just yesterday that I'm going to leave the show after the first year because I've been offered - and he stopped me and said: You cannot do that. And I was stunned. He said, don't you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. He says, do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch. I was speechless.

MARTIN: Ms. Nichols, I have to tell you, the same was true in our house. I mean we would run and our parents would literally call and say look, look, you know, she's on.

Ms. NICHOLS: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: But that's kind of a heavy responsibility, though. I do have to ask you about that. I mean the fact is you did put a side some of your own personal dreams to stay in that role.

Ms. NICHOLS: Yes. Yes. Well, you know...

MARTIN: And then you did three movies. And how does that sit with you now?

Ms. NICHOLS: Well, it's interesting that you said, you know, you would run through the house and look. I met Whoopi Goldberg when Gene was doing The Next Generation and she had told me when Star Trek came on she was nine years old and she said she turned the TV on and saw me and ran through the house screaming: Come quick, come quick. Theres a black lady on TV and she ain't no maid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NICHOLS: And that did something to my heart, so I knew that I had made the right decision, because as Dr. King said, you have been chosen.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and I am talking to Nichelle Nichols who is probably best known for her groundbreaking role as Lieutenant Uhura on the classic television series Star Trek.

I wanted to ask you what you think about how African-American women are portrayed on television today. And, of course, since you, you know, what such a big deal, as Whoopi Goldberg put it in her own style...

Ms. NICHOLS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...to see a woman of color in leadership who was, you know, an equal player who, you know, clearly had a leadership role. But on the other hand, there's still a lot of criticism that African-Americans who try to drive or the lead characters in a show, they're still the best friend, right?

Ms. NICHOLS: Mm-hmm. Yes.

MARTIN: They're still the friend, the buddy, the secondary role.

Ms. NICHOLS: Yes.

MARTIN: I just was curious about your thoughts about where you think people are.

Ms. NICHOLS: Well, if you notice, that is not the reflection of what our life is. And so we can never give up. We can never stop. You can never get too relaxed and think, oh, everything is fine now because it isn't.

MARTIN: Final question I wanted to ask, we've been asking all our guests in today's program and I'd like to ask you, how do you interpret Martin Luther King, Jr.'s challenge today?

Ms. NICHOLS: I think it's as valid today as it was when he declared it. His work isn't finished. It's only just begun. But we've come a long way from Dr. King's day in which there were dogs being unleashed on the marchers and fire hoses. And here I was projecting in the 23rd century what should have been quite simple. We're on a starship. I was head communications officer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NICHOLS: Fourth in command on a starship. They didn't see this as being oh, it doesn't happen till the 23rd century. Young people and adults saw it as now.

MARTIN: Actress, dancer, singer, space travel advocate, Nichelle Nichols is probably best known for her role as Lieutenant Commander Uhura on the television series Star Trek and she was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West.

Nichelle Nichols, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for everything you've done.

Ms. NICHOLS: Thank you.

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