HELLO AMERICA!—The first time I met Nichelle Nichols was on the campus of The University of Southern California (USC) We were both playing tennis, she was quite good, I was not at my best, but she laughed at all of my attempts to return the ball over the net consistently. Even though Nichelle was rather special, she could have easily been a model or someone ready to receive thunderous applause from an audience.
After a long conversation I quickly was made to understand that she had dreams of becoming a singer as well as an actress. She was proud that she had appeared with the likes of Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton in his own time.
MSJ: How did it feel to work with the likes of Duke Ellington?
NN: It was unbelievable! You know what a dedicated musician he was; it was like taking a “master’s class” in music. I learned so much about rhythm, lyrics, the technical side of being a singer. Whenever he was in rehearsal with the band I was sitting near them listening to everything they did. The word “amazing” really means “Duke Ellington.”
MS: Did you always have dreams of becoming an entertainer?
NN: Oh, yes. Anytime I’d see Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald perform, I was totally inspired. They made you believe everything they said in a song. As for acting, you were not as lucky because there were very few black females in any kind of meaningful roles. They usually played maids or housekeepers, and if they did have dialog it was all ghetto, something that satisfied a white audience. So, I wasn’t that hungry in becoming an actress. Of course, the theatre was something else. There were plays in which an actress of color was able to get decent, human characters which could identify with.Hollywoodwas quite happy with the Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly MaQueens and Louise Beavers types. Don’t get me wrong, I love these actresses. They were simply trapped in doing characters that didn’t show or represent different faces of a minority. This is one reason I gravitated to the stage, it offered much more variety for actors like myself.
MSJ: So “Star Trek” was a major gift to you as an actor?
NN: Of course, it was a first on television to have a black female actor to play a non-stereotypical character on television. Sidney Poitier was the first in films when he played Detective Virgil Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night”. The studio received tons of letters, and they were all positive. Without a doubt, it was an indication that a change in television was taking place. More so when William Shatner and I kissed on the show, it was something that really turn the table on the usual protests.
MSJ: Has your obvious ambitions to stay at the top of your game limited your efforts in living a normal life?
NN: Oh…Michael…Michael… why would you ask a question like that? I’ve been married twice! One man was a dancer when I was eighteen and the other husband was a writer. They were short marriages unfortunately. I learned very early that I could not be the “little woman” at home waiting for the big breadwinner come to make life worthwhile. I was hungry to achieve, to be me, a woman who needed to follow her dreams, a woman who had to find her own place in or own way. The real wonderful result was having my son Kyle who is quite talented and special in every way. As a teenager, he even starred in a film, “The Learning Tree” and he was wonderful.
MSJ: The late actor Frank Silvera meant much to you as an actress, his untimely death must have had quite a devastating affect on you emotionally.
NN: Of course, you knew Frank, too. And he taught me so much about being “real” examining a character from its center. Frank’s theatre was called “The Theatre of Being” and it was so true. As an actor we learned the technique of going beyond the words; we made an exciting journey into making a character come alive and you were put yourself to the side and actually become the character you were playing and yet staying in control. It was a wonderful time in my life.
MSJ: What do you plan on doing next?
NN: Oh, there’s so much going on. I would like to write another book. I’ve had publish two already and I’m ready to write another one. As for acting, I’d consider a stage play, but it would have to be a character that I feel I must play for the creative challenge itself.
MSJ: How much as the actress I knew at U.S.C. (1950s) changed today?
NN: Oh, Michael… I’ve changed so much. And I’ve learned so much more about myself. I’ve let go the unhappy and sad moments of my life so that the very positive, good feeling can take root. I’m less ambitious because I’m really content with the things I’ve been able to make possible. Yes, I think Nichelle Nichols has turned out rather good.
By Michael St. John