Lieutenant Uhura herself - Nichelle Nichols - spoke over the phone to me on 7th February 1997. Bizarrely, the interview wasn't because of anything to do with Star Trek - it was to promote a CD reissue of an old album of hers! A version of this interview was published in SFX.
Your album Down to Earth is just out on CD. Are you worried that people might think your album is a novelty record?
"I don't know. I have no feeling about it. It's an original album that I did years ago and I'm delighted that they want to put it out, but whatever their reasonings are, only God and they know. I had no idea that they were doing that."
What do you think of the singing talents of your co-stars?
Do you consider yourself a singer or an actress?
"I started my whole career in musical theatre which means I was a dancer, I was a singer, I was an actress, I built sets, I directed! And it's just coincidental that the acting took off first over everything else. So I'm not a singer or an actress first. I'm just what I am. I'm a singer, I'm an actress, I'm a dancer, I'm a writer. That's what I do. And I'm very, very glad that people care enough about it to send me thousands of fan letters and to allow me to live as well as I do. And that's what I've always been all my life."
Touring with Duke Ellington must have been a big thrill.
"It was incredible. I was 14 years old and in a big musical in my home town, Chicago. And Mr Ellington came to see the show and asked to meet me. Two years later, when I was 16, he came back to town and asked me to create a ballet for one of his musical suites and to perform it. I did, and I toured with him for that American tour. And at the end of the tour, the band singer got sick and I went on a couple of times for her. It was totally incredible."
Was there ever any thought of doing anything other than entertainment?
"No. I was very blessed in always knowing what I wanted to do and what I wanted it to be, and by the grace of God I've been able to succeed in my chosen career."
You're obviously identified with the character of Uhura.
"Yes. Isn't that great?"
Has that been a help or a hindrance to your career, to be identified with one character?
"It's not a help or a hindrance to anyone. It's what you do with it. I think all the people in the show will always be known as those characters. And what characters to have attached to your name in life! The show is such a phenomenon all over the world. It's simply been an incredible experience."
At what stage in the '60s did you start to realise that Star Trek was becoming a phenomenon?
"Almost immediately, I realised that the scripts were marvellous, and above the average of anything that was on television at that time, and probably since. That did not mean that you realised this is going to be a big hit. As a matter of fact, we were concerned for it immediately, because it was too good. Good stuff was getting cancelled all the time, and a lot of tripe was still on."
It was cancelled after three years...
"Then its great popularity came in the re-runs."
Did you enjoy the films?
"Oh, I enjoyed the films immensely. We did six major motion pictures of a television series that we'd done ten years before."
Which is your favourite of the films?
"Two, four and six in that order."
So you agree that the even-numbered Star Trek films are the best?
"Exactly. They should skip seven and go directly to eight."
What do you think of First Contact?
"I haven't seen it but I understand it's very good."
You're the only one of the original main cast who hasn't appeared in a spin-off series. Have you been asked? Would you like to?
"I was asked and turned it down. I just didn't like what they were doing with Uhura, so I decided not to do it."
If the right script came up, would you do it?
"I'm an actress. I'm available for work, if the role is right."
The episode 'Plato's Stepchildren' had that notorious, ground-breaking kiss, the first inter-racial kiss on American television.
"Seems silly now, doesn't it?"
Was there a lot of opposition from the network?
"The network were very concerned about it, but to their credit, they went ahead with it. We got some of the largest fan-mail, and all of it was wonderful."
The irony is that it was banned for about 20 years in this country.
"You're kidding? You guys were further behind than we were!"
Over here Star Trek is still seen as a children's series.
"I don't get fan mail from children, from England. I think anybody with any intelligence sits down and sees the show, sees it's not a kids' show."
But we're talking about TV networks.
"Oh, well I was saying 'people with intelligence'! I thought we were talking about people with intelligence! Oh, no, that's not fair."
Apparently there are two schools of thought on Uhura's first name. Has it been clarified?
"It's been clarified. Uhura never had another name during the series. One of the fan writers wrote 'Upenda' - which means 'peace' in Swahili, I understand - not officially, but in some of their fan writings. And it sort of took hold. But when they were going to do the official history of Star Trek in a published book, the writer called Gene and asked him was 'Uhura' her first name or her last name? Gene said, 'Well, Nichelle and I never decided.' We always leaned towards it being her last name because it's taken from the Swahili 'uhuru' which means freedom. So it would sort of be like the same as 'Freeman.' So he said, 'You can make it her last name.'
"The writer said, 'What about her first name? I've come up with one in Swahili. It's Nyota.' Gene said, 'I can't give you that permission because Nichelle and I named her together, and she has rights to that, so you'll have to call her and get her permission.' So he gave him my number, and he called me and I laughed and was delighted. He said, 'I have a name and it's Nyota.' I said, 'That's quite beautiful. What does it mean?' He said, 'It means "star".' I said, 'You can have my permission!' So I have since said that her name is Nyota Upenda Uhura, which would mean a free-floating star: 'star of freedom and peace'. I like that."
Star Trek wasn't the first show you did with Gene Roddenberry, was it?
"No, he had a series called The Lieutenant, and he gave me my first guest star role in episodic TV."
Was that a cop show?
"No, it was the marines. Gary Lockwood was the Lieutenant and he was in the Marine Corps. In this particular episode, I come with my boyfriend who is a marine and has been transferred down South, and we're not thrilled about that. When he gets there, the first thing he sees - and he's a very intelligent, highly rated marine, and highly respected, and so is the other guy, the white guy. And the moment they see each other, they try to kill each other, which is totally against their nature. So the Lieutenant forces them to work together and to solve their problems. And I was in the middle of the whole thing."
I know you've done a lot of work with NASA.
"Yes, I did. In '78-'79 I recruited the first women and minority astronauts for the space shuttle programme. So that was historic and that was just great."
Do you follow the space programme?
"Yes I do. Not as they're sort of an everyday occurrence now. We adjust to magnificence and greatness so easily! And we take it for granted. Yes, especially if someone I know is on, or if it's a special mission."
I guess a lot of your time must be spent at conventions.
"There are quite a few. Last year I didn't do so many because I was busy with my career. But I'm remounting my one-woman show, Reflections, in which I become twelve legendary woman entertainers. I'm doing several concerts and I've agreed to do several Star Trek conventions this coming year, to work them into my schedule.”
Are any of the women in Reflections people that you met?
"Reflections is my reflection on the women I grew up respecting and who influenced my artistry and my life. And yes, many of them I met. And some of them became friends, like Pearl Bailey and Sarah Vaughan. And I had met the great Josephine Baker when I was just a kid. It was when I was at Chicago doing that show, when I was 14, her show came to town. And Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt - who's a dear friend of mine - and Ella Fitzgerald. My mother babysat for her son when we first moved to California. These are just amazing. And then of course, the great Billy Holiday, who I never met but I love her music. And of course Mahalia Jackson who I grew up around the corner from in Chicago. I used to hear her before and after she was Mahalia Jackson."
Are you still making records?
"My company, Always Productions has put out two, three CDs but they were fan-oriented. Then I signed with Crescendo Records a year or so ago. They put out a CD, a really nice one, and it's still doing well."
Finally, you were also in The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space.
"Oh, that was wonderful! It was such a tongue-in-cheek, dear thing. They're still talking about it might go to a series. That would be wonderful. It was so much fun doing."
How did you get involved?
"They called my manager to see about my availability and tell us about the role. At first I turned it down, and they said, 'Well, can we send her the script?' My manager brought the script over to me and said, 'I think you'd better read this.' I read and I just loved it. I couldn't stop laughing. It was wonderful."
Official website: www.uhura.com