Nichelle Nichols Appears for Final Comic-Con Events in L.A. amid Conservatorship Battle
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Nichelle Nichols, one of the stars of the original Star Trek series and a pioneering recruiter of women and minorities for America's space program, made her final convention appearance before her many fans as part of a three-day farewell celebration at L.A. Comic-Con over the weekend.
Best known for playing communications officer Nyota Uhura aboard the starship Enterprise, the iconic actress, singer and dancer — who turns 89 on Dec. 28 — signed autographs, posed for photos and attended an early birthday celebration, where she briefly but joyfully kicked up her heels and danced. Nichols was also the subject of tribute panels throughout the convention, though she did not make any public statements.
An active figure on stage, TV and music since the early 1960s, Nichols' public and professional life has been slowed since she was diagnosed with dementia in 2018, and she has also been at the center of a conservatorship battle. However, she was all smiles during her many appearances on her retirement tour at Comic-Con LA. Nichols was seen waving, blowing kisses and flashing Star Trek's famous Vulcan salute to the many fans who turned out to bid her farewell.
The actress, who did chat privately with various people close to her, was surrounded by members of her family and longtime friends including Nichols' son Kyle Johnson, who served as her spokesperson; her younger sister Marian Michaels; actresses Judy Pace and Beverly Todd; and former astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, who joined NASA as a result of Nichols' role in recruiting women and minorities into the space program in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of her Star Trek fame.
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In a moving moment during Nichols' farewell panel on Sunday, NASA Astronaut Appearance Specialist Denise Young – who said she too was inspired to pursue a career at the agency due to the inspiration provided by Nichols' Star Trek role – bestowed the actress with the space agency's prestigious NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for her four decades of activism in diversifying NASA's ranks. During the panel, Nichols rose from her wheelchair to accept the award as the audience gave her a standing ovation.
"A life well-lived is reward enough, every day, and my mother's certainly had a life well lived in many respects," her son Johnson told the audience. "This is an exceptional recognition, and I'm of course very proud of her for all that she's done, and the value and the meaning of her work. Not just as an actress, but very real and important work that she inspired and enabled people to understand."
In a video tribute, Star Trek: Discovery actress Sonequa Martin-Green spoke of the debt that she owed to Nichols, who in her Star Trek role was one of the very first Black actors to appear in a regular television role with a highly skilled profession. Nichols also shared the first interracial on-camera kiss with costar William Shatner and her very presence on the series signaled to viewers, watching at the height of the Civil Rights conflicts of the 1960s, that Black people had a place of equality in the future.
Martin-Green, who plays the sci-fi franchise's first Black female starship captain in a leading role, recalled meeting Nichols at the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery. "I remember the great ball of nervousness that was in my stomach as I was approaching her, but she whispered to me in my ear so delicately she said 'Take care. It's yours now,' " Martin-Green, 36, recalled.
"And I melted. And I needed that. I needed that blessing. She made me feel welcomed. She made me feel justified and she made me feel empowered," said Martin-Green, who also recounted the now-famous incident in which Nichols was planning to exit Star Trek and return to her principal performing love, Broadway. That all changed when Nichols had a chance encounter at a party with civil rights leader — and Star Trek fan — Dr. Martin Luther King, who convinced the actress to remain in the role of Uhura because of what her representation on the series meant to viewers.
"Nichelle's legacy can be described as that of sacrificial, heroic contribution," said Martin-Green. "She decided to stay, and ultimately devoted her entire self to the progression of Black people, people of color and women. And she gave everything. She gave her time, her energy. She gave her intelligence, her wisdom, her leadership, and her heart for the betterment of the world and the future. I am only here because of her.
Martin-Green continued, "I also owe it to Nichelle to continue her legacy of heroism through sacrifice. And that is what she has taught me. That is how her words have been reverberating in my heart here lately, is making that choice to step away from self-interest, and instead devote yourself to the interests of others."
Others who honored Nichols virtually were Rod Roddenberry, the son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry; retired U.S. Ambassador and current Diversty & Inclusion Officer at the U.S. State Department Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley; and current and former NASA administrators Sen. Bill Nelson and Gen. Charles Bolden.
"It's really amazing how many different ways people are impacted [by her]," said Dr. Jemison, who met Nichols early in her NASA career and subsequently opened all of her on-air communications with Nichols' signature Star Trek dialogue: "Hailing frequencies open."
"One of the things that you've heard everyone say when they talk about meeting and spending any time in Miss Nichelle Nichols' presence is warmth and generosity. And you feel like you've known her, because she is that real, not just relatable, but that important and sentient in our lives," she shared.
"She said to me, 'Life is what the universe gave you for free when you were born. But style is what you do with it,' " Jemison added.
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On Friday, several of Nichols' loved ones assembled for a special panel sharing stories and behind-the-scenes details about the actress, known to her family as "Auntie Chellie-Mom." Although the conservatorship issues and Nichols' current health were not directly addressed, the panel appeared to signal tacit familial support for her son Johnson and his management of his mother's affairs.
Recounting how Nichols raised him largely prior to her Star Trek fame, Johnson praised the way his mother, with the help of family, navigated the role of mother, star, activist and, for him, role model.
"I'll just say very succinctly that I am the child that my mother raised, and I'll be eternally grateful to her for how she executed that role as a mother," Johnson. "I can't imagine that anyone could have done a better job of it. And it's not because I'm bragging about myself. It's because of my deep appreciation for her sensitivity, support, encouragement and example as a mother."
Ultimately, the farewell convention afforded Nichols one final opportunity to connect with the fandom that has kept her in the public eye for over 50 years, family members agreed. "The thing is that her fans are the world to her," said Nichols' sister Marian on the family panel. "She wouldn't be who she is without you fans, and she knows that. And she loves the fans. She really, really loves you."