STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES SEASON 1 - Q&A with NICHELLE NICHOLS
Did you have any interest in SF before involved with STAR TREK?
I guess I did, from a very young age, I always loved good literature, and many times it fell in the area of science fiction and the imagination of a budding artist or actor is piqued by science fiction. I never really separated it in my mind as science fiction, as something other - if it was SF and I didn't like it, I relegated it to poor writing.
As Harlan Ellison says, you're telling stories, and it doesn't matter what genre you're telling them in...
Exactly right - I loved Robert Heinlein and many of the good imaginative science fiction writes, and it just didn't seem like it was fiction or science, it was a projection of what could possibly happen if... The great If... If science did this, if it were possible to travel through space and time, what if? And that's all that drama and comedy and theatre are all about, that's what a good writer does. What if this happens? And if they can capture your mind and your imagination, then that's good literature - it's Dostoevsky or Heinlein or Gene Roddenberry. Or Nichelle Nichols...
What did you think about the idea of ST; how did you first hear of the project?
I was in Europe and having a great time after finishing some musical performances in London, I had gone to Paris to meet some friends. I got a call from my agent to 'come home, they're doing Star Trek'. Little did I know that ST, which I didn't know what it was from his saying it by that name, but which he thought I understood, was in fact Gene Roddenberry's dream that we had talked since he had given me my first starring role in television three years earlier than ST in THE LIEUTENANT about a Wagon Train To The Stars. That was his working title for what became ST. I didn't know that until I came back home and walked into the interview and there sat Gene Roddenberry. He had had my agents send for me, but he had made me come in and get it on my own, read for it before five of the producers, co-producers and directors. He never told them that he knew me.
How much did they tell you about her?
They told me nothing. I walked in; I flew back and walked into the interview and read for a role called Spock! Which was a scene with Spock, Kirk and Bones which I had no ideas, so I asked them who was this woman Spock? The role looked awfully good, I thought I was reading for a female role called Spock. They burst my bubble by telling me that there was a man called Leonard Nimoy who already had it. I said could I read for it as if I was reading for the role? They said yes; I said, could she be a woman, and that's when they said, yes but Leonard Nimoy would not like it. It was a long scene and when I finished I asked them what this Spock person was like, and I applied it to a woman's attitude and responses, and when I finished there was silence in the room, and Robert Justman said I think we'd better have Penny call down to personnel and see if LN has really signed his contract, and that was how they told me that I had got the role that they hadn't written yet. It was not Spock of course!
A whole new version of history that...
Yes! It was a wonderful way of telling me that I had got the job, and later that day he told me I had the role.
Now, is it correct that you considered turning the role down at one point?
No, I never considered turning the role down. I wish the Press would get this right for once!! It's incorrect. After the first year, I was delighted with having had this opportunity to work with such fine actors, and to work with Gene once again, and have this beautiful role that he allowed me to develop and to name, which I named Uhura from the Swahili word Uhuru which means freedom. I was delighted, but my first love then and still is is musical theatre which I was doing when they sent for me, and what I was doing when I got the first acting role in THE LIEUTENANT, and I never intended to be or expected to have a career much less a stellar career in television and movies. I thought it was really nice of him to give me this opportunity and I was now being offered lots of roles in theatre, especially musical theatre, and I had the opportunity to consider them, and I told Gene that I was going to leave after the first year. I completed a year and I was simply going to leave to pursue my first love, musical theatre.
There were other changes at the end of the first year...
There were, but it didn't matter. I wasn't aware of it nor did I particularly care. So Gene was very upset and it happened to be on a Friday and he asked me to think about it over a weekend, and that weekend I met Dr Martin Luther King (MLK), and you know the rest of that story...
Rather use it in your words...
On the Saturday night I went to a NAACP big event, a fund raiser here in LA, and one of the producers of the event said to me that there was someone who would very much like to meet you, he's a very big fan of yours. I turned and it was Dr MLK. He praised my work and the manner in which I presented myself with dignity and efficiency and ability and beauty. He even said, 'and beauty', and that these, the manner in which I was projecting Uhura as a woman from the United States of Africa, was very important in how the world would see us as African-Americans, and for the first time on television we would be finally seen as we should be seen, as intelligent and beautiful people, and qualified people as well as entertainers. Which we are - comediennes or lower forms of life. Finally we should be seen as we should be seen. I was stunned by that, and I was absolutely delighted with what he said, and tossed up, as you can imagine, and said, thank you so much, I am very much going to miss the cast because I am leaving the show. And this great warmth that he had became very sombre and he said, 'You cannot do that. You absolutely cannot do that. This is bigger than you think. You must not leave the show at this time. you can't. That's when he said that this is the first show which my wife and I allow our children to stay up late and watch. That's when he told me - let me back up - for the first time, we are seen as we should be seen. That's where that came in. He said, not only our little children can look and see themselves with great pride and look in seeing you, but the world will see us, people who don 't look like us. People the world over are going to see us for the first time as we should be seen. You can't leave now.' I was so stunned, it was as though it was an indictment from, this world leader, and indeed it was. As powerful as Kennedy's indictment was that said we go to the moon in this decade and return and change; he said you have changed the face of television forever, you cannot leave. It must grow, and this is your legacy, this is one of your purposes on life. You cannot leave it. I went back and told GR what he had said, and told him that I would stay if he wanted me to. Gene cried, not just cried, great big tears rolled down his face, and he said, bless this man, at least someone knows what I'm trying to achieve.
Very powerful story...
It was very powerful in my life.
Still feels like yesterday?
That is correct.
How much other feedback from the African American community?
At the time, not much other. Maybe because it was SF and fantasy, at that time the African American community was going like, show me some reality. But as time went on through the reruns I have become this icon in the African American community with people coming up to me, and women saying, you have no idea what you meant to me/ I was in college, I was in high school. There was a young woman who said, I was 9 years old when ST came on and I looked on the TV and I ran through the house screaming, hurry, hurry, there's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid! She said, from that moment on, I knew that I could be anything I wanted to be, and she became Whoopi Goldberg.
Another young woman, 9 years old, said the moment I saw ST and I saw you, I knew I would be the first African American woman astronaut, and I would fly in space, and her name was Dr Mae Jemison. They sought me out to tell me this, and I have often spoken to GR, who is no longer here, but I look up and say, Gene you were right, this is what you dreamed, and your dream was correct. Your dream was beautiful. I have young women in their 20s and 30s coming to me, younger than that, because they discovered ST in the reruns and they have discovered Uhura, and they say they want to be just like me when they grow up, and some of them are blue eyed blondes, and some of them are African American, and some of them are Chinese or Asians, or Indians, and it is just a world-wide marvellous testament to Gene's vision and my opportunity to create that wonderful character.
Did you think it was going to be a success?
Yes, I thought it was going to last for years, so I was quite shocked and pained for the world I think even more than I, because I could go on back to my musical theatre, which was still budding, and every time we had a break, or hiatus, I worked in theatre, and I did other films, but I always thought it was going to take off, and I was quite shocked when we were cancelled after three seasons.
Did you get an inkling with the timeslot of death?
I think there was a lack of foresight, to be kind... they "discovered' in the aftermath, and it became multi billion dollar franchise for several studios and the network.
During the first season, how much did the show change around you?
I was not in the first pilot. I was not hired or brought back until the second pilot was done and they were ready to shoot within a matter of a couple of weeks. When I came in they were actually changing the person called Communications Officer, Head of Communications from a man to a woman, and developing that character in major ways, but unfortunately Hollywood still being Hollywood in the 60\s, kept shooting it down in ways. When I decided to leave, I thought nobody would care because they weren't, the development that was taking place was being decimated week after week. It didn't bother me so much because television and movies wasn't where I thought I was going to achieve my fame! It really didn't bother me as much as it might have if that were my dream and goal.
What were your initial impressions of the cast when you first met them?
I fell in love with each and every one of them. It was mutual. I had never worked with a cast in Theatre or anywhere else where there was such a rapport. I thought the casting was so perfect. I had a special relationship with everyone individually and collectively. Some things changed over a period of time, as things do in life, and I responded in pain to some and, well that's life in other cases, but for the most part, we have all, and I mean all, come to understand that we were in unique situations and responded in ways that we sometimes would not have liked, and in other times... but today I think we have come to accept and respect... We've always respected one another, but to learn to respect and we cared about one another and we would not have hurt if we had not cared.
Difficult to be hurt by someone unless you care what they think about you...
That is correct.
Any particular favourite memories of times on the set...
I think I captured as many of them as I could in my autobiography, Beyond Uhura. There were daily things but those are beyond my memories right now!
PLATO'S STEPCHILDREN has gone down as a hallmark in television. What was your reaction and the crew's reaction?
By this time we were so natural with one another that it never even bothered any of us until we were about to do the scene, and the director almost had... he thought we were joking when we were doing the scene. He said, you can't do that. Bill said, what are you talking about? He didn't know what he was talking about. There, big as day, it said, Kirk takes Uhura in her arms and they kiss. After all this battle against being forced, they kiss. He was upset about it. The next you know, they had the suits come over and GR come over and I went to my dressing room and said let me know when you make a decision. I wasn't in any position to make any decisions. I didn't care one way or another whether we kissed or just hugged. Bill said, hell no, it says we kiss, and what are you talking about? Of course we kiss, they're forcing us to do this thing. Uhura wouldn't do this, I wouldn't do this to entertain these beings, but it says this, and he wouldn't do it otherwise. So front office people, suits came down, NBC came down, suits came down, GR came down and Gene in his inimitable way solved the problem by saying shoot it both ways. That took care of that. Bill kept saying, I got to get the kiss right so that if they use it they've got to use it. Finally the AD said we only have 5 more minutes, and the director said Please Bill, give me the one without the kiss, and Bill said, of course, and we did the one without the kiss, and when we saw the dailies the next day, and there's the suit and the front office and everybody, and GR, and when I say the suits, I think there were about 8 of them, and when we came and we saw the scene after scene after scene with the kiss with the kiss with the kiss, and finally you hear the director say Please Bill give me the one without the kiss, we're beyond Golden Time (we're overtime), and Bill says, of course, why didn't you say so? And then we do the thing, and Bill takes me in his arms, differently from all the ones with the kiss, bends me over into the camera, moves down and doesn't kiss me and looks up into the camera, and (she's laughing) he had crossed his eyes! There was no way possible that you were going to use that one without going back, and spending thousands of dollars to redo it. There was absolute silence in the screening room and all of a sudden you could hear people try to keep from laughing. Then one of the suits stood up and said 'The hell with what the South thinks, let's go with the kiss, take the best one and go with it.' Everybody laughed all the way back to the set.
What was the reaction to it was when it was originally broadcast?
Enormous! We had the most fan mail that we had ever received, before or since on that episode. Gene said 99.44% of it was positive: how wonderful, how magnificent, all of that. The 1 letter he said me a copy of said he was from the South and he didn't condone the mixing of the races, but a red blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful woman in his arms like Lt Uhura, he ain't gonna fight it! That was like saying, really, how stupid can you be? We're big enough to take a kiss. That also attested to the mindset of the fandom that we were attracting in the hundreds and thousands and millions.
People were recognising something in Gene's vision...
Something beyond race, sex, and stupidity.
Shame things aren't like that at the moment...
I don't think we've lost anything; I think that the evolutionary process of society moves one step forward and two steps back; then 3 steps forward and 2 steps back, then hopefully 3 steps forward and only 1 step back and then you get your evolution and the process serves us in positive ways, and sometimes you cannot see it because it seems so devastating, as we're experiencing now, But we've experienced terrorism, we've experienced negativism, man's inhumanity to one another before, and yet today we're a better people because of how we respond to it. Sometimes we respond foolishly before we respond sensibly. Sooner or later we do. You've got to remember that emotions are involved as well as logic sometimes.
Talking about the show, nearly 40 years ago - is it a happy trip down memory lane?
Yuh. From the moment I went back and told GR I would stay because of what Dr King had said to me, and from that moment on, Dr King would call or have his office call to let me know he was proud of me that I had stayed. To reiterate the importance of how he saw it, which meant so much to me. I have never looked back. I have never what-iffed, if I had only gone on. I am very proud that I took that stand and was strong enough to take that stand and see that I had been given an opportunity to touch and change history in a positive way and to touch other people's lives and impact young people and especially young people, but people in general - their lives in positive ways. I've never looked back.
Question & Answer Text Copyright Paramount Home Entertainment