TV PLUS

In 2012 interview, Nichelle Nichols described 'honor,' responsibility of being in 'Star Trek'

Erick Henrickson
The Detroit News

The late "Star Trek" legend Nichelle Nichols sat down in May of 2012 with Eric Henrickson, a former Detroit News staff writer and author in our Geekwatch blog, to talk about her life in and out of the classic TV series.

Nichols, who died Sunday at the age of 89, was appearing with other sci-fi and action stars at the Motor City Comic Con in Novi. This is that interview, originally posted in two parts on May 17-18, 2012.

Actor Nichelle Nichols speaks during the Creation Entertainment's Official Star Trek Convention at The Westin O'Hare in Rosemont, Ill., Sunday, June 8, 2014.

Does the novelty ever wear off when you keep seeing new projects, like comic books and novels?

“Never. And I don’t call it a novelty any longer. It’s a dramatic an wonderful part of my life — ever evolving. It’s wonderful.”

 How does it feel to be part of the “Star Trek” legacy?

“In a word, an honor. A man had a dream, and he changed the world. His name was Gene Roddenberry. He brought so many diverse people and negative views into one grand positive. I was very lucky and honored to be chosen to be part of it and to be the chief communications officer, fourth in command of the starship. We brought the dream alive.”

Everybody’s heard the story about how Dr. King asked you to stay on the show (I didn’t get to finish my question) …

“He didn’t ask me to stay on the show. He commanded me. He said I could not leave. You have to remember when ‘Star Trek’ came on , people were marching in the South for freedom and being shot down and killed and put in jail and having dogs and hoses put on them. It was a horrible time. Yet here was this show where not only did we overcome, but we went into the universe as we should be, as equals. Uhura was an integral part of that dream, he said.”

He told her: “We look on that show every week, and that’s part of what keeps us going. We started now, and you showed where it’s going.”

“It was amazing,” she added. “It was an amazing time. I’ve never looked back, and I’ve never regretted it.”

DeForest Kelley, left, Leonard Nimoy, second left, Nichelle Nichols, second right and William Shatner, right, appear in a scene from the TV series "Star Trek."

How did it feel to be the only female lead in a predominately male cast? 

“There were so many firsts on there. It was the first integrated show on television, and it took to the imagination of the people — while it wasn’t being recorded as such on those little boxes in people’s home with the Nielsen ratings. Out greatest numbers were from young people in the South.”

Southern parents forbade kids from watching it, she said. “They would then go to their friend’s home like they were going to do homework” and watch it in big groups. “These are some of the most brilliant people in the country. And the reason for it is that this show Gene created was so inclusive. Not just of people of different colors and races, but inclusive of all people. People who before that wouldn’t go out if you were in a wheelchair because it was so uncomfortable. People were included who were different, who were positive and strong, but they were regarded as different. It made a better world.”

Recently, Nichols attended a dinner in honor of Dr. Bernard Harris Jr., the first African-American to walk in space. He told her, “You have no idea how much you meant to me and that you were there.” And then he told the audience the same thing during his speech.

Your image was a great example for young girls. Do you think there are any modern characters that will have as lasting an effect?

“I think that it opened the door for young women, especially African-American young women, and that door has never closed. There are these brilliant young black actresses, and to be nominated or win an Academy Award, is no longer a dream. It’s a fact.”

How did Zoe Saldana do as Uhura in the J.J. Abrams version of 'Star Trek?'

“I thought she was brilliant. When I met her, she was just wonderful. J.J. introduced us on the set. When she saw me she said, ‘Oh, my God.’ We sat there and talked for two hours. She picked my brain, and I praised her beauty. When I saw it, I thought it was spot on.”

Members of the "Star Trek" crew, from right, Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, William Shatner, Walter Koenig, DeForest Kelley and James Doohan, toast the newest "Star Trek" film during a news conference at Paramount Studios in December, 1988.

How was the original series different from working on the later movies?

"It's a different medium. And it takes on a different complexity. Filmmaking and television is a matter of hurry up and wait. It’s not like theater where you do continual scene after scene. You do things out of context. It takes another kind of demand on your abilities. That’s another aspect of your career, of your responsibility. I wasn’t crazy about all of the movies, but I didn’t dislike any of them. But it shows you the power of the people because not only did ‘Star Trek’ come back to to the films, and not only did they do one film that succeeded, they did several. That’s not a bad legacy."

What's your favorite convention story?

“I don’t know if I have one; there are so many. It’s just fandom in general. I have nothing but the highest regard for “Star Trek” fandom. They come from all walks of life, and that’s what Gene gave to the world — that all walks of life are important. And that’s what makes the world beautiful."

You’ve done the fan-ish "Star Trek" film "Of Gods and Men." (It featured several "Trek" alumni, including Walter Koenig, Grace Lee Whitney and Alan Ruck.) What was that like?

(One fan Web series, "Star Trek: Osiris," is filmed in Metro Detroit and will have a booth at the convention. Full disclosure: I have a bit part in the first episode.)

“Arduous, because we weren’t in the studio and didn’t have all the luxuries of working in a studio. It was like back when you said, ‘We’ve got a barn. We can put a stage show,’ and it comes out just great. It was hard because it was a hundred and some degrees, and I thought, ‘Never again.’ But when I saw the results, it was all worth it.”

Nichelle Nichols, the actor who portrayed Lt. Nyota Uhura on the 1960s television series "Star Trek," speaks after the Space Shuttle Endeavour lands aboard a NASA Boeing 747 at the conclusion of its last flight, at Los Angeles International Airport, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012.

Tell me a bit about STEM.

“I find it so rewarding because our space program is our greatest natural asset, I think. Instead of reducing it, we should be building it. I think nothing will stop our onward push. Just because the space shuttle program ended ... just look at how much it accomplished beyond what it planned to do. That’s not the end of the space program. Incredible things are going to happen. We’re already delving further into our space and bringing back incredible amounts of information. That’s why STEM is so important to young people. They’re our future, and if you really want a career, get involved with all the areas of the youth programs that are focused on that. And schools are focusing more on science and engineering and technology and robotics. If you’re not a physicist and an engineer, sing about it and perform about it. Our education system is in shambles. It’s absolutely disgraceful that college loans are so high and are going up in spite of everything Obama has tried to do to bring it down. We’ve got a House that’s a do-nothing House until they can destroy Obama.”

What is "Ohama Street" about?

“It’s a brilliant story of redemption and forgiveness and love. And it’s between a young white boy who’s taken in and his life is saved by a black family who have lost their son in an accident with this kid. It’s an incredible story.”

Would you rather have a teleporter that really worked, or a phaser that really worked?

I’d rather have both. They come in handy. … But a teleporter most assuredly, with a phaser on my hip."