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TV URBAN LEGEND: Did Martin Luther King Jr. keep Nichelle Nichols from leaving Star Trek after the first season?
One of the things we often overlook with regard to television, especially in an era where there are so many more cable channels with original programming that the percentage of the viewing audience that even the most popular shows receive is seemingly quite small, is that even the least-popular television series on the non-cable channels are still seen by a relatively large number people. The recently canceled drama Zero Hour, which had the worst debut of a scripted television program in ABC history, was still seen by more than 6 million people! As a result, it’s easy to forget that even when your show is struggling it’s still reaching a sizable audience and possibly having a major effect. That’s what Nichelle Nichols learned in 1967 when she decided to leave Star Trek following the first season only to be talked out of it by a very famous fan she never knew watched the series: Martin Luther King, Jr.!
Before she was cast on Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols was best known as a singer, touring with both Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton and their respective bands. She was also in a West Coast production of the then-new musical The Roar of the Greasepaint — the Smell of the Crowd (where the pop standard “Feeling Good” came from). In 1964, she was cast in an episode of The Lieutenant (about a group of Marines in what was still then peacetime), the first television series produced by Gene Roddenberry. Sadly, the episode Nichols appeared in (where she played the girlfriend of a white Marine, a pairing to which another Marine, played by Dennis Hopper, objected) was never actually broadcast because NBC found the topic too controversial. Years later, Roddenberry recalled his problems with that episode having an influence on his decision to make Star Trek as diverse as he could.
In any event, when it came time to cast his new series Star Trek in 1966, Roddenberry recalled Nichols and wanted her for the role of the chief communications officer. The part was originally written for a man, but Roddenberry felt it proper to have at least one of the department heads on the starship Enterprise be a woman. As a demonstration of what the atmosphere was like at the time, Desilu producer (Desilu Studios produced the first season of Star Trek) Herb Solow remarked in a 1967 Ebony interview that they were surprised by how good of an actress Nichols turned out to be, noting they were only looking for a “shapely broad.”
In a wonderful interview with the Archive of American Television, Nichols explains that once filming finished on the first season, she was offered a contract for Season 2, but she had also been asked to appear in a play that was headed to Broadway. As that had always been her passion, she decided she would leave Star Trek and pursue this new theater offer. Nichols specifically recalled that producers never told the stars on the show just how much fan mail they had been receiving, so she had no real idea that the show (which never did particularly well in the ratings during its three seasons, although the ratings problems in the first season have likely been overblown a bit) had such a rabid fan base. Heck, Nichols recalled that she rarely even saw the series when it aired, as she was often out at night.
When she told Roddenberry she wished to resign, he tried to talk her out of it, explaining that her role was an important part of his vision. He asked that she take the weekend to think it over. The first season of Star Trek finished filming on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 1967, so their meeting took place on either that Thursday or Friday. That Saturday, Nichols attended an event at the Beverley Hills Hilton. Decades later, Nichols doesn’t remember what the event was (recalling it was likely a NAACP fundraiser), but as it turns out it was a major point in the history of the anti-Vietnam War movement. You see, while famed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. never supported the war, it wasn’t until his speech at the Beverly Hills Hilton on Feb. 25 that he roundly came out against the Vietnam War and specifically began to tie the civil rights movement with the anti-war movement. Here is a snippet from King’s classic speech, “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam”
I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. There can be no great disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster.
It was at this event Nichols was told a fan wanted to talk to her. As you might have guessed, the fan turned out to be King, who told her how much he loved her and Star Trek and how it was the only show he and his wife Corretta would allow their two young children to stay up late to watch (Star Trek aired at 9 p.m.). She thanked King and told him how much she’d miss the show and her co-stars. He was taken aback, saying, “You cannot!” Nichols, naturally, was taken aback herself. He continued to tell her she had to realize how important Roddenberry’s message was, explaining that “for the first time on television, we are seen as we should be seen,” and that she was a role model, as hers was not a “black” role, it was a role that African-American actors and actresses normally would never get. He continued with the powerful line, “Gene Roddenbery has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed.” Nichols took his message to heart. She spent Sunday actually somewhat irritated at the situation, essentially asking the question, “Why me?” However, on Monday she went back to Roddenberry and asked for her resignation letter back.
Years later, the first female African-American to reach outer space, Mae Jemison, would specifically cite Nichols’ influence upon her career choice (Jemison appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993, a year after she became the first African-American woman in space).
The legend as…
Thanks to reader Jim S. for suggestion this one and thanks to the Archive of American Television and Nichelle Nichols for the information.
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