Nichelle Nichols blamed William Shatner for groundbreaking Star Trek role being reduced

While William Shatner was among the many associated with “Star Trek” to pay tribute to Nichelle Nichols over the weekend and her groundbreaking role as communications chief Uhura in the original 1960s TV series, she once said he was partially responsible for her role being reduced by the end of the first season.

Nichols died Saturday night at the age of 89, prompting Shatner to tweet: “I am so sorry to hear about the passing of Nichelle. She was a beautiful woman & played an admirable character that did so much for redefining social issues both here in the US & throughout the world.”

(Courtesy photo)As Lt. Nyota Uhura in TV’s ‘Star Trek’ in the 1960s, Nichelle Nichols became a trailblazer and role model. 

The obituaries for Nichols backed up Shatner’s view that the character was trailblazing for TV and film, with all of them saying that she was presented as a Black woman in a position of authority when the show premiered in 1966, the Washington Post’s obituary said.

Nichols said in her 1994 memoir, “Beyond Uhura,” that Shatner wasn’t so eager to cede screen time and storylines to her and the show’s other supporting cast members. By the end of the first season, her lines and those of others were routinely cut, the Washington Post said. She blamed Shatner, calling him an “insensitive, hurtful egotist” who used his star billing to hog the spotlight, the Washington Post added.

Diehard fans of the series would agree that Uhura was an underutilized character in a series that still promised to offer a vision of a progressive 23rd century future by featuring a cast that included women, Blacks and Asians in important and non-stereotypical supporting roles.

Cast members from the original “Star Trek”: DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, William Shatner, George Takei, and James Doohan. (AP Photo/Paramount) 

Whoopi Goldberg, who went on to have a recurring guest star role in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” once said it meant so much to her to see a Black woman on TV who wasn’t playing a maid, the Washington Post said.

Even though the show costumed Nichols and all female crew members in figure-hugging mini-dresses, Uhura was presented as the fourth in command of the Starship Enterprise — behind Capt. James Kirk, played by Shatner, science officer Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, and chief engineer Scott, played by James Doohan.

Nichols later spoke about how Martin Luther King Jr., whom she met at an NAACP fundraiser during the first season, talked her out of quitting the show after the season. King told her that her role on “Star Trek” was important for the cause of civil rights. “Because of Martin,” she told the “Entertainment Tonight” website, “I looked at work differently. There was something more than just a job.”

Nichols stayed for its entire three-year run because of the encouragement from Dr. King, according to The Conversation. He told her that he and his family were fans of the show and that she was a “hero” to his children.

Nichols created an impressive backstory for her character as a renowned linguist whose last name is a feminized version of the Swahili word for “freedom,” the Washington Post reported. But fans didn’t see much of that. By the end of the first seasson, Uhura mostly appeared on the show as a “glorified telephone operator in space,” Nichols said, usually reduced to announcing to Kirk from her console on the bridge: “Hailing frequencies open, sir.”

Meanwhile, storylines tended to revolve about Kirk and occasionally Spock, Scotty or Dr. McCoy, played by DeForest Kelly. The relationships of these men was usually a central focus.

The one time that Nichols got to share the spotlight with Shatner was when the co-stars performed what at one time was believed to be TV’s first interracial kiss. This was in a 1968 third-season episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which followed the Enterprise crew visiting a planet inhabited by a group of beings who have adopted Greek culture and who use mysterious telekinetic powers to make others submit to their will.

The beings forced Kirk and Uhura, platonic work colleagues, to kiss passionately. According to Nichols, Uhura and Spock were initially supposed to be the the pair kissing, but the script ended up with it being Kirk and Uhura.  There alsso was panic on the set about whether they should go through with filming the scene, with concerns that there would be backlash among viewers, especially in the South, The Telegraph said.

“Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry suggested that they shoot the scene with an alternative take of Kirk resisting the beings’ command, The Telegraph added. But Shatner, apparently determined to break the taboo on interracial kissing, deliberately messed up this alternative take, and the show had no choice but to go with the kiss.

It turns out that TV’s first interracial kiss had occurred the year before, when Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. gave each other a peck on the lips during a NBC special, the Washington Post said.

In addition to Shatner’s demands for screen time, Nichols said her role on “Star Trek” was undermined in other ways, according to the Washington Post. She said studio personnel hid her ample fan mail so that she didn’t know the full extent of her negotiating power.

As difficult as Shatner reportedly was difficult to work with, Nichols and her other co-stars continued to work with him. That includes George Takei, who has probably been the most public about his issues with Shatner.

As “Star Trek” became a mainstay of TV syndication, it grew a fierce and loyal fanbase who wanted to see more adventures of the Enterprise crew. Nichols voiced Uhura in a “Star Trek” animated series in the 1970s, and regularly appeared at conventions to meet adoring fans known as “Trekkies” or “Trekkers.”

Nichols also reprised her role in six feature films from 1979 to 1991 that helped make “Star Trek” an enduring cultural juggernaut and lucrative film franchise.

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Author: Martha Ross