Grace Dell Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, near Chicago, to Samuel Earl Nichols, a factory worker who was elected both town mayor of Robbins and its chief magistrate, and his wife, Lishia (Parks) Nichols Later, the family moved to Chicago.
She studied in Chicago as well as New York and Los Angeles. Her break came in an appearance in Kicks and Co., Oscar Brown’s highly touted, but ill-fated 1961 musical. In a thinly veiled satire of Playboy magazine, she played Hazel Sharpe, a voluptuous campus queen who was being tempted by the devil and Orgy Magazine to become “Orgy Maiden of the Month”. This attracted the attention of Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, who booked her for his Chicago Playboy Club.
While still in Chicago, she performed at the “Blue Angel”, and in New York, Nichols appeared at that city’s Blue Angel as a dancer and singer. She also appeared in the role of Carmen for a Chicago stock company production of Carmen Jones and performed in a New York production of Porgy and Bess.
In 1967, Nichols also was featured on the cover of Ebony magazine. Nichols toured the United States, Canada and Europe as a singer with the Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton bands. she also appeared in The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, For My People, and garnered high praise for her performance in the James Baldwin play Blues for Mister Charlie. Prior to being cast as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, Nichols was a guest actress on television producer Gene Roddenberry’s first series The Lieutenant (1964) in an episode, “To Set It Right”, which dealt with racial prejudice.
Following her appearance On Star Trek, Nichols gained popular recognition by being one of the first black women featured in a major television series not portraying a servant; her prominent supporting role as a bridge officer was unprecedented. During the first year of the series, Nichols was tempted to leave the show, as she wanted to pursue a Broadway career; however, a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a fund-raiser at the NAACP changed her mind when King personally told her he was her biggest fan and encouraged her to stay on Star Trek because she was playing a vital role model for black children and young women across the country, as well as for other children who would see blacks appearing as equals. In her role as Lieutenant Uhura, Nichols famously kissed white actor William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in the November 22, 1968, Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”. Former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison has cited Nichols’ role of Lieutenant Uhura as her inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut and Whoopi Goldberg has also spoken of Nichols’ influence. Goldberg asked for a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation,and the character of Guinan was specially created, while Jemison appeared in an episode of the series.
Sadly Star Trek was cancelled in 1969. Despite this, Star Trek lived on in other ways, and continued to play a part in Nichols’ life. She again provided the voice of Uhura in Star Trek: The Animated Series; in one episode, “The Lorelei Signal”, Uhura assumes command of the Enterprise. Nichols has also co-starred in six Star Trek films, the last one being Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Following the cancellation of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols volunteered her time in a special project with NASA called Women in Motion which recruits minority and female personnel for the space agency. Members of Women in Motion included Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and United States Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, as well as Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair, who both flew successful missions during the Space Shuttle program before their deaths in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986. Recruits also included Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator and veteran of four shuttle missions, Frederick D. Gregory, former deputy administrator and a veteran of three shuttle missions and Lori Garver, former deputy administrator.
Nichols is An enthusiastic advocate of space exploration, and has served since the mid-1980s on the board of governors of the National Space Society, a nonprofit, educational space advocacy organization founded by Dr. Wernher von Braun. In 2015 Nichols flew aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Boeing 747SP, which analyzed the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn on an eight-hour, high-altitude mission. She was also a special guest at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in 1976, to view the Viking 1 soft landing on Mars. She also attended the christening of the first space shuttle, Enterprise, at the North American Rockwell assembly facility in Palmdale, California together with other cast members from the original Star Trek series.
In 1994, Nichols published her autobiography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. Between 1970 and 1979 Nichols appeared in small television and film roles Such as a secretary in Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding! (1967), and a foul-mouthed madam in Truck Turner (1974) opposite Isaac Hayes. Nichols appeared in animated form as one of Al Gore’s Vice Presidential Action Rangers in the “Anthology of Interest I” episode of Futurama, and she provided the voice of her own head in a glass jar in the episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before”. She voiced the recurring role of Elisa Maza’s mother Diane Maza in the animated series Gargoyles, and played Thoth-Kopeira in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. In 2004, she appeared in animated form in The Simpsons episode “Simple Simpson”. In the 2002 comedy Snow Dogs, Nichols appeared as the mother of the male lead, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. In 2006, she appeared as the title character in the film Lady Magdalene’s, the madam of a legal Nevada brothel in tax default. She also served as executive producer and choreographer, and sang three songs in the film, composing two. Nichols is also an accomplished dancer and singer.
She has twice been nominated for the Chicago theatrical Sarah Siddons Award for Best Actress. The first nomination was for her portrayal of Hazel Sharpe in Kicks and Co.; the second for her performance in The Blacks. Nichols also played a recurring role on the second season of the NBC drama Heroes. Her first appearance was on the episode “Kindred”, aired 2007. She portrayed Nana Dawson, the matriarch of a New Orleans family financially and personally devastated by Hurricane Katrina, who cares for her orphaned grandchildren and her great-nephew, Micah Sanders. In 2008, she starred in the film The Torturer, playing the role of a psychiatrist. In 2009, she joined the cast of The Cabonauts, a sci-fi musical comedy that debuted on the Internet. Playing CJ, the CEO of the Cabonauts Inc, Nichols is also featured singing and dancing. In 2010, she toured the space shuttle simulator and Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center and In 2016, she was introduced as the aging mother of Neil Winters on the long-standing soap opera The Young and the Restless. She received her first Daytime Emmy nomination in the “Outstanding Guest Performer in a Drama Series” category for this role March 22, 2017. Nichols has also released two music albums. Down to Earth which is a collection of standards released in 1967, during the original run of Star Trek and Out of This World, released in 1991, which is more rock oriented and is themed around Star Trek and space exploration.