Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of interviews with veteran television stars who are featured in the PBS series Pioneers of Television. The series begins Jan. 18 and runs through Feb. 8. Next up: Linda Evans, star of The Big Valley and Dynasty.
En español | At the end of Tuesday's Pioneers of Television episode (on PBS, 8/9 p.m. ET/PT) Nichelle Nichols says she has "always been grateful" for the opportunity to play Star Trek's Lt. Uhura. And when she says always, she means — always.
Although the actress nearly quit the series after its first season in 1966, for the next half century she has embraced her character like a twin sister. "I am recognized all over the planet," she told AARP. "That has been rather delightful because I really enjoy the character."
And well she should, given the iconic status the series and her character enjoy. As she explains in the Pioneers documentary (profiling vintage science fiction series), even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once confessed to her he was the "biggest Trekkie on the planet." And, more specifically, he was a fan of Uhura.
A major breakthrough in mid-'60s pop culture, U.S.S. Enterprise Communications Officer Lt. Uhura represented Hollywood's most high-profile portrayal of an African-American woman of intellect and achievement. Important at the outset, her character's impact went into warp drive as the series became one of the most successful franchises in entertainment history.
More than gainful employment, Star Trek, in its infinite varieties — movies, videos, games, animation — permitted her to cultivate the Uhura mystique. Eventually, the lieutenant became a commander. And though Nichols appeared in everything from Lost to a Scooby-Doo movie, she says "I am really blessed that people adored Uhura."
All that adds up to a cult figure some creative types might find a burden. Remember, by 1986, William Shatner had become so exasperated with his Captain Kirk mantle that he went on Saturday Night Live and famously told Trekkies to "get a life." Nichols, who appears willingly at fan events, sees it differently.
"It is a wonderful idea not to let it die. Let's celebrate it in conventions." She is scheduled to appear at a huge one in Las Vegas this August.
These fairly regular "cons" also have another benefit: keeping cast mates tight. "Most of the time when you finish a TV series, you go on. Our friendship lasted outside because of the conventions. It was a rather grand thing for us to think that we were in the 23rd century, where no man or woman had gone before."
Personal appearances aren't the only means by which Nichols stays in touch with her fans. As befits a communications officer, she utilizes today's social networking tools. Her tweets are regular, popular and personal (RealNichelle made sure to wish everyone a Merry Christmas). And, her Facebook page proves just how down to earth she really is.
She has posted "hundreds of photos of what I call my ‘outside room' in my garden. I have planted vast trees. [My fans] are really interested in what I am doing."
Nichols believes playing the officer in charge of communications, not engineering or medicine, magnified Uhura's social impact. "There is nothing more powerful than communicating. She was a linguist, could pick up languages." Proving she by no means takes all things Uhura too seriously, she adds, "I could tell everybody in outer space where to go!" Nichols, 78, says her Spanish is rusty, but she plans on "getting back to it" for the known benefits learning a language has on cognition. "If you don't use it, you lose it."
She has admiration for ST creator Gene Roddenberry, who along with The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, is lionized in Pioneers as a big thinker on the small screen. As with all four of the Pioneers hours this month, the sci-fi retrospective offers tidbits of surprising information. Before Roddenberry started writing for TV he was — a motorcycle cop. Who knew?
Nichols says she thinks he had yet another secret calling: moralist. "I think that was rather daring of Gene, and rather ingenious," she says.
It is not surprising that the woman whose alter ego won't be born until 2239 has a cosmic vision. "I think any power so mighty that it could create the universe would hardly be limited to creating one little planet with life."
And the communication officer signs off saying, "It would be the height of arrogance to think so."
Jack Curry, a former editor at USA Today, is a freelance writer and editor and serves on the editorial board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, specializing in corporate philanthropy and the media.