Star Trek’s Nichelle: ‘Obama was starstruck to meet me!’

With the original Star Trek screening on CBS Action we caught up with Nichelle Nicholls, who became the first black actor to gain a leading role in a US TV show when she was cast as Communications Officer Uhura in the iconic sci-fi series…

It’s almost 50 years since Star Trek first screened, are you amazed that it’s still so popular?
“Don’t remind me because it makes me feel old! No I’m not surprised at all, it’s a great show!”

Why do you think it caught the public’s imagination so effectively?
“Gene Roddenberry cast it perfectly and he didn’t hesitate. Whether he liked the people or not – if they were right for the character they were cast. So consequently we all understood who we were and there was something so natural about it.”

What did you most like about your character?
Firstly, Gene allowed me to name her and create her life, she’s from the United States of Africa and I named her Uhura – because ‘Uhuru’ means freedom in Swahili. Every day I’d come in with some new detail about her backstory and ask ‘What do you think about this?’ He’d just tell me to keep creating because he was getting credit for it!”

Back in the 1960s there weren’t many black actors on TV…
None! Occasionally you’d get a black lady in a TV movie or something, but it was very rare…”

That’s quite hard to imagine now isn’t it?
I can’t even conceive of it.”

You’ve got some great fans. I think President Obama said that he had a crush on you as a boy?
“Lord have mercy! When I met Obama I thought I was the one who was supposed to be nervous because I was meeting the President of America! But when he came over, I recognised that he was starstruck and the first thing he said was ‘I can’t believe I’m meeting you!’ It was crazy!”

We hear he’s very charming?
Oh my god yes and also brilliant. He’s an amazing man, I’m so proud that he’s our president. He’s got it all, the looks, the brains and the charm!”

Uhura had a brilliant sense of style – did you keep any of her outfits?
Well of course! But I only have one original costume left, they knew I was going to take it anyway so they gave it to me.”

She had fantastic hair as well, did it take long to get ready on set?
Yes it did. I came in about and hour before everyone else with Leonard Nimoy, because we had the most that needed to be done!”

She also sang quite a lot in the series, was that Gene’s idea?
Yes it was because he gave me a guest role in a series that he had three years prior to Star Trek called the The Lieutenant. I went in to sing for that and I never even got through the whole thing – he said ‘you’re hired’. It was wonderful because it opened up so many doors for me. Then three years later I was on Broadway and I got a call about a new show and they said it was Gene Roddenberry. I didn’t need to know anything else, I was already on the plane. We went for lunch near Paramount Studios and talked for three or four hours and created the role of Uhura. He had this brilliant way of eliciting creativeness out of you. When it was over we had the character and the next thing I knew I was on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise!”

Do you go to Star Trek conventions?
Oh my god yes!”

The fans are a bit crazy aren’t they?
“Not at all! Star Trek fans are the most intelligent people on the planet!”

What do you make of the new Star Trek movies? (Zoe Saldana plays Uhura in Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013))
“I think she’s fabulous as Uhura. When she was making the first movie she asked around and eventually got in touch with me because she wanted to meet me. She came to my house and asked if I’d talk with her about the role and how I saw it – she was as nervous as a kitten. I said ‘Don’t even think about me, think about what you would do. You wouldn’t have been cast if you hadn’t been right for it.’ I told her to take the part and make it hers and she did. Before she left, we were like the best of friends. When I saw the movie I was so proud of her!”

What are your favourite memories of the show?
From day one to the last day – I loved every minute of it!”

Star Trek – The Original Series screens on CBS Action, Monday-Friday, at 6pm.


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