When the first regular episode of Star Trek neared filming, the Enterprise‘s communications officer was Dave Bailey, a guest character. And also a white male. While it’s not an entirely shocking development (the communications officer(s) had tiny roles in the pilots), there was a big problem that episode director Joseph Sargent recognized immediately: there wasn’t a single African American in the cast. Joe D’Agosta made a suggestion, and Gene agreed instantly.
D’Agosta’s choice? A singer/actress named Nichelle Nichols. After touring with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton as a singer and dancer, Nichols appeared in Porgy and Bess, launching her acting career. In the middle of singing appearances, stage plays, and guest turns on television, Nichols made an appearance on The Lieutenant, in the episode that had gotten that series cancelled: “To Set It Right”. It was this performance that D’Agosta had remembered, as Nichols had not acted well, but had been a consummate professional despite her relative lack of acting experience.
However, what no one was aware of (and it didn’t become widely known until the 1990s) was that Nichelle Nichols had previously had an affair with Gene Roddenberry.
Ignoring for a moment the dual scandals of a Hollywood producer cheating on his wife, and with a woman of color (remember, in the ’60s, such affairs were actually illegal in some states), this was never once discussed publicly until Nichols wrote her autobiography in the ’90s. Furthermore, the affair (which Nichols ended when she saw how much Roddenberry adored Majel Barrett) never affected the casting process. Nichols wasn’t even aware that Gene was involved until she arrived in Hollywood after being diverted from a European nightclub tour. If there was any favoritism, it was Nichols’ salary: $1,000 a day. If she was on set all six scheduled days of a shoot, Nichols stood to make more per episode than William Shatner himself. For 1966, this was even more revolutionary than Nichols playing something other than a maid.
The effect was immediate: Nichols fit in wonderfully with the rest of the cast (even though she was frequently crowded out of episodes outside of opening hailing frequencies), and for black audiences, she was a revelation. Not only was she competent, effective, and respective, but Lieutenant Uhura was drop dead sexy. Part of this was fueled by a different sort of arms race: Nichelle Nichols and Grace Lee Whitney quickly engaged in a bit of one-upmanship over their legs. The odds were stacked in Uhura’s favor, since she was usually seen in a seated position, while Yeoman Rand was almost always on her feet. It wasn’t a hostile competition by any means, but it was never going to be discouraged on a Gene Roddenberry show. But even greater than that was Uhura’s name, which was drawn from an actual person Nichelle Nichols was reading about in the Desilu waiting room, about an African woman named Uhuru, a named which meant “freedom”. With a simple letter change for pronunciation’s sake, Star Trek not only had a black woman on the bridge in a high position, but she had an authentic African name as well. In a country where most African Americans bore the last names of their ancestors’ slave owners, this was another big deal. And it wouldn’t be the last.
Next time, a trip to the ’80s and one of the all-time great sports rivalries.