Nichelle Nichols: who else was a 10th-grade nerd supposed to write about?

This was my 10th-grade English term paper.  We had to pick a famous person, and I happened to have Nichelle Nichols’ autobiography Beyond Uhura.  That was the extent of my thought process.  She’s a great lady and not a bad subject.  But the paper’s just boring and poorly organized.  I think I called this Outside the Uhura Sphere: Nichelle Nichols’ career outside of Star Trek.

 

One major problem that faces actors today is the obstacle of rising from obscurity to a level where they are recognized. Once there, actors then face the problem of disassociating themselves from their most famous role or roles in order to move along with their careers. Nichelle Nichols appears to have faced neither of these problems. She had already embarked upon an impressive career in dancing, singing, and theatrical acting before she took her most famous role on Star Trek. During and after her “tour of duty” on Star Trek, she continued to broaden her professional career into composing and consciousness-raising with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Nichelle Nichols had a truly impressive career outside of her role as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek.

At the age of thirteen, Nichols was first exposed to her first love in performing: ballet. Her father took her to the Sammy Dyer School of Dancing, convinced by her constant performing around their Robbins, Illinois home that she had inimitable talent. While at the School, Nichols studied with Virginia Reilly, a preeminent dancer and instructor of the day. Nichols found that she was well inclined toward the art of ballet, and quickly ascended to the top of her class. However, the only other student in Chicago that could rival Nichols’ skill, Frances Taylor, soon became a professional opponent. Quite an enmity soon developed between the two young girls that would last for many years. Throughout Nichelle’s dance career, she was forced to compete for several positions against the recurrent Taylor, including a spot in the exclusive Katherine Dunham dance troupe1.

Despite this inconvenience, Nichols continued to progress, and was offered engagements at modern dance performances, including the College Inn Hotel, where she was praised by the distinguished French dancer Josephine Baker and, more importantly, Duke Ellington. Ellington’s comments made the strongest impression on Nichols of any of her experiences at the College Inn. Her encounter with Ellington was to lead to a concert tour with his band, in the future2. While studying with Virginia Reilly, Nichols met Foster Grant, a talented, if a bit self-absorbed, young man. Grant was fifteen years older than Nichols at the time, but they fell in love at their first kiss, and all of her parents objections didn’t stop her from marrying him in 1951, just after her eighteenth birthday. While she was performing at the College Inn Hotel, Nichols found it necessary to keep in practice while staying in town, so she joined Carmencita Romero’s dance studio, where Afro-Cuban dance was stressed. As seemed to be her habit, Nichols quickly progresses to the top of her class, and from that point on in her dancing career, Nichols’ dance would be influenced by Afro-Cuban mentality and its raw emotion3. Truly, Nichelle Nichols dancing career was the envy of many.Her talent provided a springboard on to a star-filled career in show business.

Nichelle’s first experience in true show business was with Duke Ellington, whom she had met at the College Inn Hotel. After marrying Foster Grant, Nichols and he had gone on a song-and-dance tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania. When they returned home, Nichelle was contacted by Duke Ellington’s public relations agent and told to meet Ellington at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago for an important meeting.

I went alone to the Palmer House Hotel, where I was escorted to the Duke’s private suite. “I’ve never forgotten seeing you two years ago in the College Inn show,” he said warmly. “I have composed a new musical suite entitled ‘Monologue Duet and Threesome.’ The dancers who have been interpreting my Monologue segment are leaving the tour. Would you be interested in choreographing and performing that dance for me?”

Needless to say, Nichelle was utterly blown away by his proposal. She and Foster took Ellington’s dance on tour, where it was a hit all over the Midwest. However, by this time, Nichols’ pregnancy was beginning to show and the morning sickness was setting in, so she had decided to go home to her mother. Then, Foster dropped the bombshell: he was leaving her for twelve weeks of engagements in Montreal. Nichelle had known this was coming, and soon after the birth of her only child, Kyle, she filed for divorce from Foster5. She also, however, got on with her career. As fame-filled as her experience with Duke Ellington was, her first big break as a solo song-and-dance star is considered to have come at a Milwaukee night club owned and operated by a rising Midwest Mafia don named Frankie Balistrieri. Although Nichelle can’t remember the name of the club, she remembers the uncomfortable atmosphere she experienced while working there. For example:

When a male singer tried to seduce me, I gave him the brush-off and sought the safety of a friendly female singer the show, only to find out that she was a lesbian. Not only that, one of the chorus girls was sweet on her and, mistaking my intentions, threatened to kill me. It was just awful.

The trouble didn’t end with bad cast relations. The night club in which she was performing used to be a strip club, and prostitution and B-drinking were frequently practiced (“B-drinking was an old practice where the strippers mixed with the audience to coax male customers into running up a large bar tab.”). Nichols, who had assumed that since the club had been remodeled, it had been placed under new management, was totally naive to these underhanded practices. However, this was not the case. As one former stripper explained, “Leopards don’t change their spots…They just change their decor.” So when first Louie, the bartender and quasi-pimp, then Mr. Balistrieri told her what her “job” was supposed to entail, Nichelle knew that she had to get out. It took several weeks of pleading and lying to “Mr. B” before she was finally released to go to Minneapolis.

Some years later, Nichelle’s booking agent booked her at a Canadian night club. After she got there, she realized that she had been booked at a “smoker”– a “men-only private function.” She was respectfully and cordially received by the audience, but as she was being driven home by an important friend of the event’s sponsor, he drove her unexpectedly to a cabin in the woods, where he attempted to rape her. When Nichols forcefully resisted his efforts, he left her there until dawn when the man’s law partner showed up and took her to his home, where she slept, then fled to the police. Since the man, whom Nichols prefers not to name, was such an important figure in his community, most people did not believe her story, but the two Mountie detectives sent by the Crown to investigate her case found her story to be valid. The court found Nichelle Nichols’ assailant guilty of attempted rape, violent assault, and illegal detention11.

As soon as the trial ended, Nichols resolved to put the incident behind her, and went on to open for several prestigious night clubs, such as the Blue Angel in New York, and was offered a part in Pearl Bailey’s traveling show, but was put off by Pearl’s arrogance and hypocrisy, and turned it down. She also embarked upon an avid career of composing, writing a song for Gene Roddenberry entitled “Gene”, and an operetta, written with Jim Meechan entitled Ancestry. She currently tours her one-woman show Reflections. Nichelle Nichols show business career neatly combined her previous singing and dancing talents with an acting “flavor” that she would come to love.

The art for which Nichelle Nichols was to become most famous is acting. Her earliest experience in professional drama was in the theater, which Nichols always held as a favorite. Nichols was cast in the Ebony Showcase Theatre’s performance of Nicodemus and Edna Stewart’s Carnival Island. While working on the very well-received play, she met Frank Silvera, with whom she had a very loving relationship for six years. Together they produced James Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical drama, The Amen Corner. In it, they managed to cast such stars as Juanita Moore, Maidie Norman, Isabel Sanford, and Beah Richards. Although the play was hailed by critics and audiences alike, Baldwin, the playwright, hated the production, found it entirely miscast, and demanded its closure, but owing to Nichelle’s reasoning, he allowed the play to continue onto Broadway, sans Nichols, who had fallen out of love with Frank, and thought it best to move on. Since then, Nichols has played in productions ranging from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to the touring Broadway hit Horowitz and Mrs. Washington. She was given the honor of being assigned a standby to Diahann Carroll in Richard Rogers’ musical No Strings, and, more recently, starred as Mother Superior in a production of Nunsense II in Denver.

Nichols television career brought her even more fame. She appeared in multiple hit show, such as The DA, Ironside, Kicks and Company, and her first Gene Roddenberry show, The Lieutenant, which led to her role on Star Trek. Nichols has also performed the voices on several popular animated series, such as Spider Man, Tarzan, Gargoyles, and The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space. She further created and hosted a Sci-Fi Channel documentary entitled Inside Space. Alongside her dynamic performances in the Star Trek movies, Nichelle has made several appearances on the big screen, including movies such as Doctor, You’ve Got to be Kidding, 1967; Mister Buddwing, 1966; Truck Turner, her first role after Star Trek in 1974; and The Supernaturals, 1986. She also appeared in Three for the Wedding and Summer Holiday, and had a cameo role with Ann-Margret in Made in Paris.

Needless to say, throughout her acting career, Nichelle’s talent has brought her many accolades. These include her two-time nomination for the Sarah Siddons Award for Best Actress for The Blacks and Kicks and Company, Celebrity of the Week at Walt Disney World in 1991, and her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, awarded on January 9, 1992. Nichols was also the first African American to place her hands in the cement in front of Mann’s (Grauman’s) Chinese theatre. Nichelle Nichols’ acting career finally exposed to the world the talent that she possessed.

Throughout her career, Nichols found it necessary to raise the awareness of the nation regarding issues that seemed prevalent to her at the time. These included racism, the space program, and impoverished families. Nichelle first encountered racism while attempting to books a room at a hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah. It struck a chord with her that in a northern, Morman town in the 1970s, race problems would still exist. Her commitment to the ending of racism in America was one of the determining factors in her assuming the role of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. It was a powerful statement, seeing an African woman on the bridge of the prestigious starship Enterprise. Her presence, as George Takei relates, helped to solidify the starship Enterprise as “a metaphor for starship Earth.” However, after one season on the show, she was still the only cast member without a contract and continued to receive prejudicial flak from studio staff, and along with the fact that the Uhura character was remaining largely unfulfilled, Nichelle decided to leave the series. That very weekend, she attended an NAACP fund-raiser. There she was confronted by a very special Star Trek fan: Dr. Martin Luther King. When she revealed to him her intent to leave the show, Dr. King virtually scolded her.

You cannot…You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close. I’m sure you have taken a lot of grief, but you changed the face of television forever. You have created a character of dignity and grace and beauty and intelligence. Don’t you see that you’re not just a role model for little black children? You’re more important for people who don’t look like us. For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people–as we should be…Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color. You are important there because of your color.

Needless to say, she was deeply moved by Dr. King’s remarks. That Monday, she went to Gene Roddenberry and said, “If you still want me, I’ll stay.” After relating the incident with Dr. King to Gene, Gene remarked, “God bless that man. At least someone sees what I’m trying to achieve.”  Since that time Nichelle Nichols’ courage in the face of racism has inspired African American icons such as popular comedian Whoopi Goldberg and the first African American women in space, Mae Jamison. Jamison has more for which to thank Nichelle Nichols than inspiration. In early 1977, Nichelle spear-headed a hugely successful drive to bring women and minorities in to the United States Space Program. It was a speech by the then current NASA director of science, Dr. Jesco von Puttkamer that made Nichelle realize that the American Space program, which is intended to represent out country and our planet, was made up entirely of white males. Nichols used her position on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society to sway executive opinion that a program to reach out to women and minorities could be feasible and successful. Her private group of performing women, called Women in Motion, Inc. joined forces with NASA to add impetus to the drive. When all was said and done, over twenty-four thousand inquiries were made of NASA regarding the thirty to forty positions available.

Another impressive accomplishment by Nichols benefiting NASA was a twenty-minute educational musical entitled Space: What’s In It for Me?. This film, written by Nichols, starred herself as Lieutenant Uhura, who shows a young student around the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Due to all her contributions, NASA presented Nichelle Nichols with the NASA Public Service Award in the fall of 1984. Another arena in which Nichols is involved is indigent families. To benefit the Family Assistance Program, she, and other celebrities, signed comic books and other memorabilia for auction to raise funds for the education of needy children. Nichols and other members of Women in Motion, Inc. started a charitable organization called Kwanza that raises funds to provide necessities to disadvantaged families. Most recently, Nichols was a guest celebrity at the Maury Wills Golf Classic to benefit “Today’s Fresh Start”, a program to make education more accessible to those in need. Nichelle Nichols has also given cabaret performances to benefit Parkinson’s Disease research. Nichelle’s contributions to society have benefited all aspects of American society.

Nichelle Nichols’ career and her contributions to Americana are incomparable. She has broken the mold holding most actors and actresses in a static holding pattern that binds them to their most famous roles. If more performing artists would emulate Nichols, the average dramatic quality put out by the media would be infinitely improved, and we would all live long and prosper.

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