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Nichelle Nichols, trailblazer known for playing Lt. Uhura on 'Star Trek,' dies

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"Star Trek" fans are mourning the death of Nichelle Nichols. She played Lieutenant Uhura on TV and films. And in the 1960s, she was one of the first Black women starring on a TV show. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this remembrance of a groundbreaking role model.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

NICHELLE NICHOLS: (As Uhura) Hailing frequencies open, sir.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Nichelle Nichols boldly went where few Black actresses on TV had gone before when she played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, chief communications officer of the starship USS Enterprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

NICHOLS: (As Uhura) Strong interference on subspace, Captain. The planet must be a natural radio source.

DEL BARCO: Uhura traveled through the 23rd century, communicating with aliens and exploring new planets, new civilizations. As Earthlings were struggling with racial issues in 1968, Uhura shared one of the first on-screen interracial kisses with Captain James T. Kirk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

NICHOLS: (As Uhura) I am not afraid.

DEL BARCO: In a "Star Trek" special on the Smithsonian Channel in 2016, Nichols said that kissing scene shouldn't have been shocking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICHOLS: It's just two people like my grandmother and grandfather. Grandpa was white, and Grandma was Black (laughter).

DEL BARCO: Nichols' death has stirred reaction from Hollywood to the White House. Actor William Shatner, who played "Star Trek's" Captain Kirk, praised his co-star as a beautiful woman who played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues. George Takei, who played helmsman Hikaru Sulu on the series, mourned his dear friend. We lived long and prospered together, he tweeted. President Joe Biden praised Nichols as a trailblazer who, quote, "redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

NICHOLS: (As Uhura, singing) Somewhere beyond the stars, beyond Antares...

DEL BARCO: Nichols sometimes sang on "Star Trek." In fact, she began her career in Chicago, singing and dancing on stage. She modeled for Ebony magazine and went on tour as a singer for the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICHOLS: To me, the highlight of my life was to star on Broadway.

DEL BARCO: Nichols told NPR in 2011 that during the first season of "Star Trek," she wanted to quit to pursue her dreams on Broadway. She handed her resignation letter to Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICHOLS: He was very upset about it, and he said, take the weekend and think about what I am trying to achieve here, Nichelle. You are an integral part and very important to it.

DEL BARCO: That weekend, she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a fan. She told him she was leaving the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICHOLS: 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 to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.

DEL BARCO: King convinced her to stay onboard "Star Trek," and she did, through the original 1960s series and six subsequent films. Eventually, Lieutenant Uhura became Starship Commander Uhura.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

NICHOLS: (As Uhura) Roger. Old City Station at 22:00 hours. All is well.

DEL BARCO: In real life, Nichols helped convince women and people of color to become astronauts. Here's her 1977 NASA recruitment video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICHOLS: Now there's a 20th century Enterprise, an actual space vehicle built by NASA and designed to put us in the business of space, not merely space exploration.

DEL BARCO: After Nichols' death, the space program sent out a communication. She inspired generations, NASA tweeted, to reach for the stars.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LOS ANGELES RADIO TV SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA SONG, "STAR TREK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.