Pioneering Star Trek actor and space exploration advocate Nickel Nichols died Saturday in Silver City, New Mexico. She was 89 years old.
His death was first announced by his son, Kyle Johnson, on Facebook and later confirmed to Variety by his talent manager and business partner, Gilbert Bell.
“Last night, my mother, Nickel Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away,” she wrote on Nickel’s official Facebook and Instagram pages on Sunday. “Their light, like the ancient galaxies now being observed for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and inspire.”
“His life was well lived and as such a model for all of us,” he said. “I, and the rest of our family, will appreciate your patience and tolerance as we mourn his loss until we recover well enough to speak further.”
Grace Dale Nichols was born on December 28, 1932, near Chicago, Nickel was an artist of many talents.
Her career in entertainment began when she was just 16 years old, as a vocalist with Duke Ellington in a ballet she composed for one of her compositions. Although she continued working as a model and dancer, Nickel toured internationally as a singer with big bands led by Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton.
Nickel made his film debut opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1959 picture Porgy and Bess and began working in television a few years later. He was then cast in the role of a lifetime as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the communications officer on the Starship Enterprise, in the original Star Trek TV series.
African-American women had previously appeared on television, but were usually cast as domestic. When Star Trek debuted in 1966, Nickel’s pivotal role in the prime-time series marked a TV milestone.
Academy Award-winning actor and comedian Whoopi Goldberg credits Nickel for inspiring his acting career.
“When I was 9, Star Trek came out. I saw it and I screamed through the house, ‘Come here, mom, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black woman on television and she’s not a maid’ !'” said Whoopi. “I knew then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Nickel remained with Star Trek throughout its original run, ending in 1969, and appeared in subsequent Star Trek films.
However, he had originally planned to resign after his first year on the show. As Nickell revealed in a 2011 PBS interview, she changed her mind after getting a chance at the NAACP program.
“A promoter came and said that someone wants to meet me. He said he’s my biggest fan,” she said. “I thought it was some Trekker, some kid. I turned to my seat and with a big smile on his face was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said, ‘I am a trekker, I am your biggest fan.'”
He encouraged Nickel to stay with the series.
“He was telling me why I can’t” [resign], ” she recalled. “You can’t just resign, it’s an important role. That’s why we’re marching. We never thought we would see this on TV.'”
In November 1968, Nickel made history when his Star Trek character kissed Captain James T. Kirk, played by white actor William Shatner. This scene is often cited as the first interracial kiss on American television.
In his long career as an actor, Nickel has appeared in several other productions on the small and silver screen, including the NBC series Heroes and films such as The Supernatural and The Bitter Earth. He also lent his voice to animated shows such as Futurama and Batman: The Animated Series.
Nickel may be best remembered for her career in entertainment, but she also leaves a distinct legacy: as a woman who devoted decades of her life to advocating space exploration, particularly between women and minorities.
A lover of all things space, Nickel served on the board of governors of the National Space Society, a non-profit space advocacy organization, and was reportedly an active leader in America’s now-defunct Space Cadets. She also launched a consulting firm, Women in Motion, which partnered with NASA to recruit minority and female personnel for the space agency. Her recruits included Gionn Bluford, the first African-American astronaut in space, and Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut.
Nickel received NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Award for his efforts in this area. He even had an asteroid named after him in his honor.
In recent years, Nickel has withdrawn from public and professional appearances amid health setbacks. She had reportedly been battling dementia since 2013 and had a mild stroke two years later. Until his death, Nickel was in the middle of a bitter conservatism battle over his estate between his longtime talent manager Bell and his son amid claims of major abuse; It gained renewed interest amid the #FreeBritney movement surrounding Britney Spears.
He made his final public appearance at Los Angeles Comic-Con in December 2021 as part of a three-day farewell ceremony honoring his trailblazing career.