Nichelle Nichols, turning 85 today and still busy acting, talks about life after ‘Star Trek’

Nichelle Nichols, on location in Malibu, where she was working on the movie "Unbelievable!!!!"
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Diversity and inclusion on the screen — and behind the scenes — wasn't a hot topic when, on Sept. 8, 1966, "Star Trek" premiered. Yet when Gene Roddenberry's little show introduced Nichelle Nichols to the world as Lt. Nyota Uhura of the Starship Enterprise, she unknowingly inspired millions of young girls and boys, African American and otherwise.

A black woman being given the responsibilities of a bridge crew officer — even in the fictional setting of space — was unheard of in the TV landscape of the 1960s. But Nichols’ performance, with little fanfare at the time, gave generations to come a template of what a sophisticated, multi-talented actress could do.

More than 50 years later, Nichols is still going strong. The musician-turned-actress turns 85 on Thursday and hasn’t stopped working. Just this week, a couple of days before her birthday, she was on set filming the sci-fi parody "Unbelievable!!!" The film, which boasts 40 former “Star Trek” actors — including Michael Dorn, Nana Visitor, Tim Russ, Marina Sirtis and Nichols' onetime "Trek" co-star Walter Koenig — follows the exploits of four astronauts (one is an animatronic marionette) who travel to the moon on a rescue mission.

Nichols is also working on "Noah's Room," a film about a black family that takes in a white youth who's been abused by the foster care system. She plays the matriarch of the family in the faith-based drama.

The octogenarian, who constantly reminds others that it's the fans who gave her a career, is having a birthday celebration/fan meet-and-greet in Los Angeles tonight (mega fans, get last-minute tickets here). We caught up to Nichols before the party, right after she filmed scenes for "Unbelievable!!!" — including one with Tim Russ, who played Tuvok on "Star Trek: Voyager." Nearby, Snoop Dogg, who plays Major LeGrande Bushe, roamed the Malibu set. We asked Nichols about "Star Trek," her impact on television, and what she'd like for her 85th birthday.

When you began acting, what drove you and what was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in the industry?

What drove me was probably what drove most performers: I'm an artist, and performing is what I do. So it's my passion that drives me. There's never been anything that can hold me back. Maybe it was my passion blinding me, but I never saw myself as a actress; I saw myself as me, Nichelle Nichols. My biggest obstacle, if anything, was trying to decide where to focus — on music or acting. They are both my passion.

Nichelle Nichols on set in Malibu.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Were you a fan of any particular science fiction before getting the role of Lt. Nyota Uhura?

I spent so much time focusing on music and Broadway that I hadn't really gotten into any of it until I met Gene Roddenberry, and his passion was contagious.

We'll get this out of the way ... You’ve probably been asked this hundreds of times, but do you have a favorite moment or scene from “Star Trek”?

Any time Uhura got to get off the bridge. All those times she had to run the show from her seated position...

“Star Trek” has become known for putting African American actors in visible and important roles — among them, LeVar Burton, Whoopi Goldberg, Avery Brooks, Zoe Saldana and Sonequa Martin-Green. You’ve most likely thought about your role in opening those doors. Where do you see the franchise and the genre going — especially in relation to the times we’re in now?

I think "Star Trek" is always going to be a window into what lies ahead of us. I'm happy to see another generation of actors and actresses leading the charge. And now there are so many fans being a part of it. If it weren't for the fans, there'd be nothing to do.

How is it being on the set of "Unbelievable”?

It's just wonderful seeing all these friends.

I loved your role on “Heroes” as Nana Dawson, and thought there was so much more there to explore. Outside of Uhura, what’s been your favorite role?

Well, there've been so many. You can watch me play a female pimp in the ’70s or a wise grandmother on the "Young and the Restless" just last year. I just love performing.

What do you want for your birthday?

All I want for my birthday is my two front teeth. Well, I have all my teeth ... I just want to keep on keeping on. I love what I do.

Follow me on Twitter: @Storiz


'Star Trek: Discovery' marks a welcome return to TV and upholds the legacy of the famed space drama

CBS explores the digital frontier with 'Star Trek: Discovery'

'Star Trek' at 50: Pop music boldly goes to space

William Shatner, Brent Spiner and more celebrate the legacy of 'Star Trek' during 50th anniversary panel at Comic-Con