When Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner Smooched — and Made TV History

She was also one-half of the historic, on-screen interracial kiss which rocked television in 1968.

Nichelle Nicols and William Shatner in 'Star Trek,' via YouTube: gregorija1

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Nichelle Nichols, the actress best known for her role as Nyota Uhura in Star Trek, died on July 30 at age 89. With her passing came an outpouring of grief and remembrances from Trekkies who idolized the groundbreaking performer. Her portrayal of Uhura, an officer aboard the USS Enterprise, set Nichols apart as one of the first black women to star in a major network series.

She was also one-half of the historic, on-screen interracial kiss which rocked television in 1968.

Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols was born in 1932 and grew up in a suburb of Chicago. And though she was acting professionally throughout the early ’60s, it was Nichols’ turn as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series, which proved to be her breakout in 1966.

Playing crew member Uhura, Nichols was an integral part of the cast of the original sci-fi series. Uhura was also, notably, one the first black characters with a significant part on any American TV series. But, unsurprisingly, Nichols faced racist backlash and felt demoralized by the end of the show’s first season. On-set, things were not much better: Nicholes lines were cut often and fan mail was kept from her by the show’s staff. Realizing she’d rather be on Broadway — Nichols also sang and danced — she she decided to quit Star Trek at the end of its first season.

MLK Kept Her From Quitting

Until Martin Luther King intervened.

Nichols had handed in resignation to showrunner Gene Roddenberry who told her to take the weekend off and think it over. And as fate would have it, that weekend, Nichols attended an NAACP banquet where she crossed paths with Dr. King — who was a huge Star Trek fan.

As she later recounted, King told her: “Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.” He also said that Star Trek was the only show he and wife Coretta Scott King allowed their kids to stay up and watch. So when Nichols told him she’d be exiting the show, King was insistent. “You cannot, you cannot,” he said. “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day: as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers.” As Uhura, Nichols played a bridge officer: a highly skilled and capable character. And as King, should she leave the show, that position in the story could be replaced by anybody — “even an alien.”

Inspired, Nichols stayed on Star Trek. And the following year, she made history… by making out with co-star William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain Kirk.

That Kiss

In season three of Star Trek, showrunner Gene Roddenberry decided to push the envelope with a steamy kiss between Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Nyota Uhura. It would occur in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” which aired on November 22, 1968.

It’s still debated whether Kirk and Uhara’s kiss was technically the first interracial one on television. William Shatner had kissed the French-Asian actress France Nuyen on The Ed Sullivan Show and, on Star Trek, once locked lips with the Filipino-European actress BarBara Luna. George Takei, who is of Japanese descent, also kissed Nichols’ neck during a previous Star Trek episode. However, it appears that Shatney and Nichols’ now-famous smooch is, technically, the first example of a black and white actor full-on kissing for television.

In fact, it was considered so risqué that when NBC executives heard of Roddenberry’s idea, they worried it would would anger Southern viewers. NBC ordered that two versions of the scene be shot: one with, and one without the kiss.

However, both William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols had a trick up their sleeve. After successfully filming the perfect kiss — full of tension and lip-on-lip action — they flubbed each take of the G-rated version. Ad Nichols recounts in her memoir, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, Shatner even crossed his eyes during one of those shots.

In Her Words…

As Nichelle Nichols writes:[14]

“The next day they screened the dailies, and although I rarely attended them, I couldn’t miss this one. Everyone watched as Kirk and Uhura kissed and kissed and kissed … When the non-kissing scene came on, everyone in the room cracked up. The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable. The only alternative was to cut out the scene altogether, but that was impossible to do without ruining the entire episode. Finally, the guys in charge relented: ‘To hell with it. Let’s go with the kiss.’ I guess they figured we were going to be cancelled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.”

From Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories

Indeed, the original series was cancelled at the end of that season. However, the Star Trek franchise would be revived again and again, both on TV and the big screen, for generations to come.

And following that first iteration, Nichols made a substantial career shift — working for NASA.

‘Drunk History’

In this fantastic episode of Drunk History, comedian Ashley Nicole Black discusses Nichelle Nichols’ trailblazing career.

Nichelle Nichols’ NASA Legacy

After the cancellation of Star Trek, Nichols began volunteering with NASA recruiting minority and female personnel. And the program was a massive success. Nichols recruited such iconic astronauts as Sally Ride, the first female astronaut in space and Colonel Guion Bluford, America’s first black astronaut. Mae Jemison, who was the first black female astronaut in space, has also cited Nichols, and her performance as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, as her initial inspiration to become an astronaut.

As Ashley Nicole Black puts it in Drunk History: “Nichelle Nicols was the first black lady to go to space for fake, and she recruited the first black lady to go to space for real. She literally integrated space.”

Nichols, too, became a true space enthusiast. She began serving on the board of governors of the National Space Institute during the 1980s. The documentary Woman in Motion explores her impressive life.

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