BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — A funny thing happened on Nichelle Nichols' road to Broadway stardom. She signed on for a five-year mission on the starship Enterprise.
The original "Star Trek" didn't run five years, of course. But three years and 68 (of 79 total) episodes later, Nichols was forever firmly identified as Lieutenant Uhura.
"It was rather interesting to me to be cast on the show, because I came up in musical theater," Nichols said. "And somehow I was, like, really on my way to break through and do all of the things that I really wanted to do on Broadway. And I took 'Star Trek' because I thought it would be a nice adjunct to my résumé and I'd get to Broadway quicker and as a star.
"And I still think that way, but 'Star Trek' interrupted my career."
Not that she sounds bitter about that. She has a long list of credits that stretch back to the 1950s — although a whole lot of them are "Star Trek" related.
(She talks about her "Trek" experiences in an upcoming installment of "Pioneers of Television," which will air on PBS in the winter of 2011.)
"I kind of got stuck there," Nichols said. "As a matter of fact, I even tried to leave after the first season, because I thought, 'Oh, this is going nowhere for me.' "
At which point she retold the familiar story of how she was persuaded to stay with the show by none other than Martin Luther King Jr., whom she had run into at an NAACP benefit shortly after she'd told "Star Trek" creator/producer Gene Roddenberry she wanted out.
"One of the fundraisers came up to the dais and said, 'Ms. Nichols, there's a person here who says he's a big, big fan of yours. He's your biggest fan.' And I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, 'Sure,' " Nichols said. "And I stood up, and I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking toward me with this big grin on his face."
King told her "that 'Star Trek' was the only show that he and his wife, Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch," in no small part because Nichols was one of the stars.
"Every night (on the news) you could see people who looked like me being hosed down with a fire hose and dogs jumping on them because they wanted to eat in a restaurant," Nichols said. "The (civil rights) marches began, and here I was playing an astronaut in the 23rd century."
And King told her in no uncertain terms that she couldn't leave "Star Trek."
"He was dead serious. He said, 'You're part of history, and this is your responsibility, even though it might not have been your career choice,' " Nichols said.
So she went back to Roddenberry and told him she'd changed her mind.
"And Gene Roddenberry was a 6-foot-3 guy with muscles. He was a big hack-nosed guy. He had been a motorcycle cop and flying hero in the Second World War," Nichols said. "And he sat there with tears in his eyes. He said, 'Thank God that someone knows what I'm trying to do. Thank God for Dr. Martin Luther King.'
"And I stayed, and I've never looked back. I'm glad I did."
FOURTH IN COMMAND? The importance of having a character who was not only African-American but a woman on the bridge of the USS Enterprise in the 1960s cannot be overstated.
But Nichols, like many of her castmates, has perhaps overstated her place in "Trek" as the years have passed.
She referred to Lt. Uhura as "fourth in command" of the Enterprise. Twice.
Which is sort of an interesting interpretation.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner) was clearly in command. Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the first officer, was second in command.
Lt. Commander Scott (James Doohan) was third.
Then there was Lt. Commander McCoy (DeForrest Kelly), who outranked Lt. Uhura. Even if McCoy, the chief medical officer, was outside the command structure, Uhura was just one of several lieutenants on the ship.
And one of those lieutenants, Sulu (George Takei) was left in command of the Enterprise on several occasions. Not Uhura.
Maybe Rodenberry told her she was fourth in command at some point. But there was no evidence of that on the series.