Inside the heartbreaking conservatorship battle of a 'Star Trek' legend

Illustration of Nichelle Nichols
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Tucked away at the end of a secluded cul-de-sac, Nichelle Nichols’ Woodland Hills home was a testament to her boundary-breaking career spanning more than 70 years. Nichols lined walls and shelves with photos of herself as Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek” series, memorabilia from her legions of fans and documentation of her contributions to NASA’s recruitment of women and people of color in the 1970s.

The home was Nichols’ pride and joy, say those close to the star. She purchased it in 1982 for $12,000 and meticulously planned its details, from her plush, oversize furniture to the garden where she planted roses to the neighboring property she purchased in 1994 to use as a guesthouse and workspace for projects.

Questions around the fate of Nichols’ home — who lives in it and what happens to it — have been central to an ongoing, years-long legal battle over the finances and care of the beloved TV star, who friends and family say is financially drained and struggling with dementia.

A three-way fight over Nichols’ fate involves her only child, Kyle Johnson, who is also her conservator; her former manager Gilbert Bell; and a concerned friend, Angelique Fawcette.

Four panels of photos of the same woman in different movie and TV roles
Nichelle Nichols in her role as Lt. Uhura in "Star Trek" projects from 1966 to 1982. (CBS )

In 2018, Johnson filed a petition for conservatorship, arguing that his mother’s dementia made her susceptible to exploitation. In 2019, Bell filed a lawsuit against Johnson, alleging attempts to remove him from Nichols’ guest home, where he has lived since 2010, and “aggressive and combative behavior.”

Bell says that while living in close proximity to Nichols, he helped to restore her career and financial well-being. According to Johnson, who filed a countersuit against Bell in 2020, Nichols’ home was the place where her former manager “exerted his undue influence and took control over Ms. Nichols’ assets and personal affairs,” misappropriating the star’s income as her health deteriorated and memory faded.

Fawcette, a producer and actress who met Nichols in 2012, entered the legal fight opposing Johnson’s conservatorship petition. Fawcette pushed for visitation rights to spend time with her friend, and she argued for Nichols to stay in Woodland Hills — a scenario that has looked increasingly improbable.

At 88, Nichols no longer occupies the house. Last year, Johnson moved her to New Mexico, where he and his wife live. Johnson declined The Times’ requests to speak with Nichols directly.

Against the backdrop of the #FreeBritney movement around Britney Spears raising public consciousness about conservatorships, Nichols’ former agent and friend have launched court battles to intervene, they said in interviews. Their fear: Nichols is being denied a chance to live out her remaining years as she wants.

° ° °

Born in Robbins, Ill., Grace Nichols was renamed Nichelle as a teenager moving into the world of professional entertainment. She sang and danced through the Chicago club circuit in the 1940s and 1950s, and after her brief marriage to fellow dancer Foster Johnson and the birth of son Kyle, she moved to L.A. to focus on film and television.

In 1959, Nichols had a small role in the Samuel Goldwyn production of “Porgy and Bess,” which brought her together with some of the most successful Black stars of the day, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Dorothy Dandridge. Nichols met “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry in 1963 after being cast in an episode of his TV series “The Lieutenant,” and in 1966 she made her debut as communications officer Lt. Nyota Uhura in “Star Trek.”

A woman in a red Star Trek dress at a control panel
Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura in the original "Star Trek" series. (CBS)

Frustrated with the lack of depth in her role, Nichols considered leaving “Star Trek” during the first season. A chance encounter with Martin Luther King Jr., a Trekker, changed her mind. He told her she was a trailblazer — a Black woman on TV in a nonstereotypical role. Although the original “Star Trek” series was short-lived, running three years until 1969, Nichols became an icon, appearing in the many manifestations of the “Star Trek” franchise, including the animated show and a string of feature films.

In 1970, Nichols attended her first “Star Trek” convention, and at a 1975 event, NASA representative Jesco von Puttkamer sparked her relationship with the space agency. In 1977, NASA hired Nichols to help recruit astronauts for its space shuttle program.

Over four months, she appeared in TV public service announcements and traveled the country to speak at universities and professional science organizations to encourage women and people of color to apply. NASA credited Nichols for helping to attract astronauts including Sally Ride and Frederick Gregory.

With a NASA doctor nearby, Nichelle Nichols walks on a treadmill in 1977 as part of her work recruiting women and POC.
With a NASA doctor standing by, Nichelle Nichols walks on a treadmill in 1977 as part of her work recruiting women and people of color to the space program. (PhotoQuest / Getty Images)
The space shuttle orbiter OV-101, dubbed Enterprise, unveiled in 1976 in Palmdale with "Star Trek" cast members.
The space shuttle orbiter OV-101, dubbed Enterprise, unveiled in 1976 in Palmdale with, from left, NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher and "Star Trek" actors DeForest Kelley, George Takei, Nichols and Leonard Nimoy, series creator Gene Roddenberry and actor Walter Koenig. (Space Frontiers / Getty Images)

But for many years, conventions provided Nichols’ primary connection to the public. In her 1994 autobiography, she writes, “Star Trek” conventions “are unlike any other fan gathering, perhaps because a Trekker is unlike any other fan in the world. One would be hard-pressed to find such a large group of intelligent, sensitive, aware people.”

And fans loved Nichols, says Adam Malin, co-founder of Creation Entertainment, which has staged traveling fan conventions since 1971. Malin considers her “the ultimate ambassador for what we hope the future could be.”

The fan gatherings were a major source of income for Nichols, who commanded top dollar for her signature and photos. She drew lines that would last all day long, says Chase Masterson, a “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” actor who appeared with Nichols at conventions.

But by the time Bell began working with Nichols — in 2009, according to court documents — the convention appearances had dried up, and Nichols was struggling financially, says Bell, 82.

The two had met earlier that year, hitting it off over lunch at P.F. Chang’s. Bell became Nichols’ manager, helping her book conventions, other appearances, films and TV projects.

After he sold his home in Studio City, Bell says, Nichols encouraged him to move into her guesthouse for free in 2010. (He began paying rent, $300 a month, after two years of living in the guesthouse.) Bell recalls her saying, “We’re only across the driveway from each other, and we’ll be able to develop these projects much faster.”

Under his guidance, Nichols began to recover financially, going from one or two convention bookings a year to at least three a month, Bell says. Nichols could earn $10,000 to $15,000 for attending a small convention and $40,000 to $50,000 participating in major conventions, he says.

While Bell was her manager, her annual income reached several hundred thousand dollars, he claimed, although her son Johnson disputes that number and characterizes Bell’s accounting records as “extremely deficient.”

In January 2013, Nichols collapsed in her living room and was taken to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with pancreatitis — attributed to alcohol, Johnson says. Johnson, 70, says he and other family members noticed an increase in her drinking over the years. Bell attributes Nichols’ struggles with convention bookings at the time to alcohol.

“She denied it,” Johnson says, “and did not want to do any kind of [Alcoholics Anonymous], Betty Ford [Center] or any such alcohol treatment.”

A middle-aged man, left, smiling with his older mother, who is spreading her hand in a "Star Trek" symbol.
Nichelle Nichols with her son, Kyle Johnson, at the annual "Star Trek" convention in 2019 in Las Vegas. (Gabe Ginsberg / Getty Images)

While Nichols recovered in the hospital, Bell, Johnson and Fawcette crossed paths. Fawcette and her husband, writer-director Steven Fawcette, met Nichols while casting their “Star Trek” parody film “Unbelievable!!!!!” They describe Nichols at the time as gravely ill.

On a low point during her recovery, the couple say, they were the only two people by Nichols’ side.

“She was definitely gasping for breath,” Angelique Fawcette, 51, says. “She was calling out to her people who had passed away.”

After weeks in the hospital, Nichols moved into a nursing and rehabilitation facility. Nichols tried to leave the facility twice on her own, Bell says, so he took her home — against medical advice and without the consent of her family.

On the day Bell helped Nichols leave the rehabilitation facility, she signed an advance health care directive and a general power of attorney naming Bell as primary agent, allowing him to make healthcare decisions and to manage finances for her. Angelique Fawcette was named as a successor.

That night, Fawcette says, Nichols asked her to record a video about what she wanted in her later years. In the interview, titled “Nichelle’s Own Words,” Nichols responds to questions about her career and desire to work.

During an edited, hourlong interview posted over three videos, Nichols — then 80 — appears coherent at times but repeats herself at others. She says relatives, including Johnson, tried to convince her to work less.

“My son thinks that I should be letting up, you know. I say to him, ‘Kyle, when you pay my bills you’ll be able to tell me what to do.’”

Fawcette says Nichols told her that she would know when to release the video. And five years later, in 2018, Fawcette published it to YouTube during the conservatorship proceedings.

After the hospitalization, Nichols continued working, making the convention rounds and appearing in film and on TV, including on “The Young and the Restless” in 2016.

“It was because I got her off alcohol and turned her career around professionally that she was working,” Bell says.

With Bell and Nichols, the line blurred between manager, caregiver and friend, he says. Bell cooked meals every day. After Nichols had a mild stroke in 2015, she required more intense care. Bell arranged for physical therapists, caregivers and assistants.

“It was very, very close, as it often happens between managers and their clients in Los Angeles, because it’s intensely personal work,” says Bell’s attorney, William Bowen.

A man sits in an office chair in an office. On his desks are photos of himself and a friend.
Gilbert Bell, 82, Nichols' former manager. In 2010 he moved into Nichols' guesthouse as he managed her career. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Fawcette says her bond with Nichols also deepened, as she came to view the star as a family member. She describes Bell as Nichols’ “gatekeeper,” controlling who had access to the performer. “I never really liked the guy. ... I had to deal with him in order to see my friend.”

Fawcette says Nichols’ home fell into a state of disrepair. Before Nichols’ 85th birthday celebration, she found the performer’s closet empty. At one point, she reached out to Nichols’ younger sister, Marian Nichols Smothers, for help.

“It was just getting to be too much, where the family was not intervening in the manner in which they should,” Fawcette says.

Johnson says he came to L.A. intermittently to help Nichols with tasks around the home, but Bell and Fawcette say Johnson was a rare presence in Nichols’ life in the years leading up to the conservatorship.

Then Bell reached out to Steven Fawcette with a surprise: Bell wanted to marry Nichols. Bell says he and Nichols talked about marriage as a business partnership, a way to ensure that she was protected financially.

The Fawcettes called Smothers and Johnson in a state of panic. That was around early 2018.

In May 2018, Johnson petitioned for conservatorship, known in other states as a legal guardianship, nominating a team of licensed professional fiduciaries to temporarily control Nichols’ person — including healthcare, food, clothing and housing — as well as her estate, the financial assets. In the petition, Johnson claimed Nichols has “severe short-term memory loss impacting her executive functioning. ... Certain individuals have unduly exerted themselves into Ms. Nichols’ life to her detriment.”

Johnson says the trigger for filing a conservatorship petition was learning that Bell in 2017 had transferred Nichols’ home into his name as power of attorney. The petition kicked off three years of legal proceedings — with objections and battles over the cost of legal representation.

In 2019 court documents, Johnson indicated that for one 144-day period, Nichols’ temporary conservator had requested nearly $115,000 to cover fiduciary and attorney fees. Fighting over conservatorship can be so costly it often hurts the conservatee, says Kurt Eggert, director of the Elder Law Center at Chapman University’s Dale E. Fowler School of Law. “It’s a tragedy if fighting over who gets to control the estate chews up too much of that estate; the conservatee is powerless to stop that.”

After filing the petition, the probate court suspended Bell’s power of attorney, and Nichols’ home was transferred back into her name. Johnson moved to L.A. to serve as Nichols’ sole caregiver and mapped out appearances at conventions, “which allowed us to pull her back from the brink, financially,” he says. “She was completely underwater at her own bank.”

A woman stands against a blank wall holding a photo of her and her friend.
Producer Angelique Fawcette holds a photograph taken in 2016 of her and Nichols. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In August 2018, Fawcette went to court to object to Johnson’s petition for conservatorship, arguing that Nichols was able to manage her personal and financial affairs with limited help from a caregiver or assistant. Fawcette accused Johnson of primarily wanting access to Nichols’ income and personal property. In a court response he filed to Fawcette’s petition to enforce visitation rights, Johnson accused the producer of wanting to profit from Nichols’ fame.

In January 2019, Johnson was appointed conservator of Nichols’ person and estate, but the battle continued.

In a video Bell recorded in April of that year, Nichols reads conservatorship documents in her guesthouse. “I didn’t give permission to have conservatorship over me,” she says to Bell. When Johnson enters and leads her back to her main house, she shrieks, “You get your hands off of me.”

The video, first reported by a CBS station in Atlanta, cast doubt not only on Johnson but also on Bell, criticized for releasing upsetting footage of a dementia patient who might not have had the capacity to approve of its public release.

People with dementia often “object to somebody else making decisions for them. Even if it’s necessary, even if they are no longer able to make their own decisions,” Eggert says. “You can imagine how frustrating it is to feel like your decision-making power is being taken away from you.”

A 2020 deposition of the former court-appointed temporary conservator of the estate, licensed professional fiduciary BJ Hawkins, shed additional light on the substantial financial difficulties Nichols faced. In an analysis, Hawkins cited money that couldn’t be accounted for, poorly written contracts and a significant amount of debt.

“It was clear that other people had handled her financial affairs and that there was no evidence that they handled them in a way that was to her best benefit,” Hawkins told The Times, echoing her court testimony.

In the deposition, Hawkins also said that in her experience with Johnson, he was prone to explosive outbursts of anger and that she had “areas of deep and grave concern that he would not be able to act in the best interest of the conservatee, despite the fact that it was his mother and despite the fact that it is my general position that a member of the family is in the best position to act in the role of conservatorship of the person.”

° ° °

What is Nichols’ condition these days? How exactly does the “Star Trek” legend want to live out her final years? And if her wish was to be cared for at home in Woodland Hills, as friends suggest, would that even be an option, given her financial problems and the high cost of in-home care?

The answers remain unclear. After initially talking with The Times, Johnson largely declined to respond to subsequent requests for comment.

For many people struggling with dementia — financially, logistically, emotionally — moving in with family or even into a care facility sometimes is the best choice, especially as needs increase. But while Johnson says the isolation in New Mexico protects Nichols from exploitation, others say she’s being deprived of the love and support of friends. Sci-fi magazine founder Kerry O’Quinn, who has been close with Nichols since they met 40 years ago at a “Star Trek” convention, hasn’t seen his friend in more than two years.

Fawcette, who last saw Nichols in mid-2019, is working with an attorney to win the right to visit in New Mexico.

Meanwhile the progression of Nichols’ dementia is unclear. Smothers says her sister has had considerable memory loss.

“I feel like I’ve already lost my sister in so many ways,” Smothers says. “She’s not the person she used to be, the vibrant, in-charge, take care of everything person.”

“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” actor Nana Visitor, who last saw Nichols two years ago at a Las Vegas convention, says Nichols appeared frightened and confused at times. Even though they had appeared at conventions together for more than 20 years, Nichols didn’t recognize Visitor. “I would say something, and then she would ask immediately,” Visitor says. “It was as if I had not said it.”

What some are calling a farewell tour, organized by Johnson and agent Sky Conway, is moving forward despite Nichols’ condition. In March, Nichols visited L.A. to shoot a scene for the pilot “Renegades: Ominara,” billed on Kickstarter as her final performance. While shooting, Nichols needed a teleprompter to recite her lines.

A woman with white hair smiles and spreads her fingers in a "Star Trek" symbol
Nichols on the set of "Renegades: Ominara" this spring. (Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

“She likes attention, so when she was on set, she was fine,” producer Frank Zanca says.

Nichols was scheduled to sign autographs at a Creation Entertainment “Star Trek” convention running this weekend, along with fellow headliners William Shatner, George Takei and Walter Koenig, but she canceled her appearance for unknown reasons. The Times reached out to the original “Star Trek” actors for comment, but none responded.

Nichols was scheduled for a visit in September to the Ohio headquarters of the International Federation of Trekkers, a “Star Trek” fan club created in 1984. The live event, recently canceled because of the nationwide surge in COVID-19, was described as Nichols’ “last public appearance east of Los Angeles before she enters retirement.”

One year ago Smothers launched a GoFundMe campaign to support Johnson on behalf of Nichols’ family — including her sister Diane Robinson and older brother Samuel Nichols. The campaign has raised about $146,000.

A man stands in front of a home outside.
Bell is photographed earlier this year by Nichols' guest home. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Bell continued to live in Nichols’ neighboring property and last saw her about two years ago. In his lawsuit, Johnson alleges that in 2015, Bell “induced” Nichols to procure a reverse mortgage on the property for more than $400,000. Bell says that he had nothing to do with the reverse mortgage and that Nichols pursued it independently.

He denies the allegations that he mishandled Nichols’ income. And he says he misses her “tremendously.”

Fawcette is upset that Nichols is not in her own house.

“She’s not getting the life that she wished for,” Fawcette says. “She’s getting the life that other people have chosen for her.”

The quest to bring Nichols home to Woodland Hills appears to be futile, however. Property records show that her house and guesthouse were sold last week for nearly $2.2 million to Baron Construction & Remodeling Co. On Friday, Bell confirmed that he moved out two weeks prior; in a brief email Saturday, Johnson says proceeds from the sale were placed in his mother’s conservatorship account to ensure her continued care.

Johnson says Nichols is living in a rental house in an undisclosed New Mexico location, where he serves as the primary caregiver.

“There’s still some sensitive issues,” Johnson says, explaining why he is declining The Times’ request to speak with Nichols. He’s just trying to protect his mother’s privacy, he says.

“We have moved here, and we’re going to remain here,” Johnson says from New Mexico. Nichols still has “financial issues that need to be settled.”

In the meantime, he says, Nichols’ home in New Mexico is “a nice place. Smaller, a little more modest than being in Los Angeles, but meeting our needs.”

A woman sits on a rock and smiles
Nichols in 2017 in Malibu, where she was working on the movie "Unbelievable!!!!!" (Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.