Book Review 20: Beyond Uhura -- Star Trek and Other Memories

I derive great person satisfaction from getting to know some of the fans. I've heard woman say, "I came to this convention just to tell you that because of Uhura , I'm a physicist," or "Thanks to Uhura's inspiration I was able to handle the military," and so on. Having met and spoken to tens of thousands of them, I can attest that none of them need to "get a life."

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We conclude Star Trek Book Week with Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories by Nichelle Nichols. Special thanks to Jon Clarke at Not in My Book for loaning me Star Trek Memories, Star Trek Movie Memories, and I Am Spock

Nichols has had a fascinating career, starting as a singer and dancer before moving on to acting. In the 1970s she became less of an actress and more of a consultant, developing educational materials and working with NASA to help recruit qualified women and minorities into the astronaut corps. Her involvement with the space program seems genuine, and not just an attempt to stretch our her Uhura fame.

Her book gets off to a bit of a slow start. The first 80 pages or so cover her childhood and early career. There are a lot of important anecdotes and facts in this section of the book, but the narrative isn’t terribly compelling. It’s mostly a case of this happened, then this happened, then this happened, etc. While there’s great material in there, the story part of it is lacking.

But after the first part of the book, thinks get much better. While the book remains largely chronological, the narrative is more compelling and it becomes easier to read. I became much more invested to the stories Nichols tells.

Nichols talks about her relationship with Gene Roddenberry, the significance of Uhura’s role, and William Shatner.

Nichols grew up in a supportive household with strong parents. Her personal integrity and courage undoubtedly comes from them. She’s tells the story of her grandparents’ racially mixed marriage and of her father standing up to Al Capone.

Her parents wanted their children to work hard and be the best at whatever they chose to do.

No matter what our interests, our parents always made sure we had whatever we needed to excel.

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My parents' progressive attitudes extended to religion, as well. Every Sunday morning, all the children were obligated to attend church…the denomination didn't matter as much as the fact that you were in God's house. As my father often said, "God and church should be about loving and living with all people. You are going to pay your respects and tithe your time to God, not to the minister or the priest. It's there for you to set aside an hour to celebrate God and life, to give thanks for who you are and where you are. It doesn't matter what the philosophy of that particular church is.

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Such an approach worked well with Nichols, who early on wanted to be a performer.

By the time I was five, my destiny appeared set, at least as far as I was concerned: I would be on stage. My mother told me that after only a couple of reads, I could memorize reams of poetry, which I would not merely recite, but dramatize, with great flair. Of course, my first love was singing, and my "concerts" were anything but impromptu. If you wanted to see my show, you had to sit down and be quiet. As I grew older, I developed a diverse repertoire (which was subject to change depending on my latest fixation), and designed an act that opened with a slow torch song, followed by something up-tempo, with maybe a skit or two I'd written and rehearsed to perfection. Naturally, I always saved the best for last, and when it was over, I'd take my bow, blow kisses, and walk off to wait for the requisite applause to peak before I returned for my encore. But no second encore: Even then, I knew to always leave them begging for more.

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Nichol’s desire for success bore fruit early on and while a teenager she was already stage performer in Chicago. She grew up fast.

However, for someone who never wanted to be a child, and more importantly never wanted to be treated like a child, working among adults, meeting adult responsibilities, and making adult money made me mature beyond my years.

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While her childhood was not perfect, she did develop tremendous personal strength and the courage to do what she felt was right. Early in her career, she took jobs that her agent had not properly screened, and she had to deal with the consequences. She describes the sticky situation of getting out of a deal with a mob run club in Wisconsin, and how refused demands to switch to a career in prostitution.

Where the book begins to come to life is when she tells the story of her worst gig in Canada. Nichols had long avoided male-only lodge events, but ended up at one anyway. On the drive back, on the attendees beat and attempted to rape her. She fought him off. Then she took her complaint to the police and returned to Canada months later for the trial. The attacker told her that no one would believe a young black woman singer from out side the country, against his word. It might have been easier to let it go, but Nichols was committed to see justice done.

It did cost her, though. And that incident prompter her to focus more on her local career.

When I force myself to think back to this, however, I cannot simply "remember." Instead I become a horrified spectator who sees it all as if for the first time yet is powerless to make it stop. After that night, my days on the road were over.

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Nichols also stood up to prominent people in her industry. After landing a part in a show that would have helped her career as a dancer, she joined the cast for blisteringly condescending orientation speech by the director/star. Nichols was not willing to put up with it.

"Pearl, I'm really proud you want me in your show, but I've decided to stay in L.A. and work on my own singing career. I hope to be a star someday, like you."

My knees grew weak as I braced myself for her blistering reply. Instead, she looked at me and softly said, "That's beautiful dahlin'. That's the way to do it." Smiling, she put her arm around my shoulder and said, "You got class, honey. You gonna make it, and you got a friend in Pearlie Mae. Don't you forget it!"

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Just as her career was starting to take off, she was offered a contract with MGM. The catch was, the executive who offered the contract expected Nichols to sleep with him.

I stood up, barely knowing how I forced one foot in front of the other, and walked out, slamming the heavy door behind me. Once glance through th eouter office told me that the secartearies has heard us or had been through this many times before; probably a little of both. As I strode angrily by, not daring to look at anyone, one of them said softly, "God bless you, Miss Nichols."

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But it doesn’t end there. Nichols wasn’t about to be chased away by anyone. She ran into her agents on the way out of the building and told them what happened. They wanted to take her to lunch to talk about it and figure out their next steps.

"Where would you like to go?" they asked.

"The MGM commissary," I replied.

…Apparently word of Mr. X's rebuffed proposal had spread across the lot like wildfire, and as we walked through the commissary to our table, I could feel all eyes on me. I walked though with my head held high. No matter what I'd lost -- and believe me, I did lose -- it would be his shame, not mine.

Once we were seated, several producers, directors, and agents came over to me commend Hy, Harry, and me, their incredibly brave client. Soon the news was all over town, and before long independent producers, some of whom hated Mr. X, hired me for their films. The industry has its own way of meting our justice.

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Nichols also resisted the ever present Hollywood pressure to drop weight. Bill Theiss, Star Trek’s costume designer insisted the women lose weight, even suggesting diet pills in some cases. Nichols would not change for him, though.

Theiss had a fit whenever the script called for a curvaceous actress, especially when that meant fitting her into something sexy. Judging by some of those revealing outfits, you might deduce that Bill Theiss enjoyed working with the female form. Hardly. He could be seen wandering about the se muttering, "All those curves! All those bulges! Oh, God…" In fact, Bill Theiss preferred girls who looked like boys. Periodically he would tell me that he wanted me to lose weight, even though I was a perfect size 8 and in excellent shape. "It's impossible. No matter how much weight you lose, you'll never lose those." I came to suspect that Bill Theiss considered having a butt and breasts signs of genetic inferiority.

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Like many Star Trek cast members, Nichols had worked with Gene Roddenberry on earlier projects. She knew him from her work on The Lieutenant. She met him early on but got to know him when he engaged in one of his famous practical jokes (which today would likely raise HR concerns over a hostile and sexually charged workspace, but that’s another matter).

It wasn't easy, but I almost managed to forget about the stranger until I felt him push up against me. That was it: I didn't give a damn whose obnoxious relative he was. " I spun around with an upraised fist and came within an inch of socking him right in the nose when I noticed something else very odd about him. …

"Mr. Roddenberry!" I screeched.

"Cut!!" Vince shouted.

Oh, God! I've ruined another scene, I thought. I'll never work in this town again. As I waited for Vince to devour me, I heard the cast and crew break into laughter as the creep yanked off his big fake nose and red wig and became Gene Roddenberry. This was my first -- but not the last -- experience with Gene's elaborately planned and carefully executed practical jokes.

Thus began my long and fascinating relationship with the man who would come to be known as the Great Bird of the Galaxy and who would change my life.

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Obviously, Star Trek would never exist without Roddenberry. He gave birth to the concept, and pushed through all the obstacles the studios though up in his path. Nichols and Rodenberry were romantically involved before Star Trek began. While that relationship ended before filming the series began, Roddenberry and Nichols remained close, and supported one another throughout the following decades. But there was no separating Rodenberry from Star Trek.

As he explained in an interview published in The Humanist just a few months before he died, "Understand that Star Trek is more than just my political philosophy. It is my social philosophy, my racial philosophy, my overview on life and the human condition." You could no more separate who Gene was from what he thought and believed than you could take a slice out of the sky. They were one. That was Gene.

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In a world of phasers, transporters, dilithium crystals, and Dr, McCoy's amazing arrays of instant antidotes, ultimately the outcome relied on human beings doing the right thing.

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Through the years, so much has been said and written about Gene. Perhaps because he was so complex and intense, and so stubborn in his beliefs, he inspired very strong emotions in others. If you liked him, you loved him, warts and all. Those who didn't tried to destroy him, in life and in death.

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One thing that is evident form the various books I’ve read is that as brilliant as Rodenberry was, he seemed to have the maturity of a junior high school student. That’s demonstrated in the various practical jokes he played (often using a semi-naked woman to put someone in an awkward situation). That quality may be the reason Star Trek even got on the air. There are few people as convinced they are right as teen agers are. That sheer stubbornness is the key to his success and probably the reason he was ultimately pushed out of the franchise.

But that immaturity is evident in how he ended his relationship with Nichols. He picked her up and instead of taking her out on a traditional date, he took her to meet Majel Barret (the other woman he was dating) at her house. At the time, Rodenberry was still married to someone else.

But I also knew that he wanted what he wanted, and it was conceivable that we might continue in this triangle indefinitely. I loved Gene, but the situation was simply untenable. Maybe it was my ego, maybe it was my commitment to my career -- I don't know. What I did know was that Gene had placed the decision in my hands, and there was no choice for me but to end our romance. Out of deference to Majel, who I soon realized was dedicated to Gene above all else, and for my own salvation, I could not be the other woman to the other woman. And so I fled. Typical of Gene, however, he could not accept my rejection of him.

"How can you do this? How can you just walk away?" he asked me several times. Granted, it was not easy. It broke my heart. But it sure as hell was not the end of the world for me, either. How I could and did go on with out him is something Gene never quite understood.

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But neither of them held a grudge and soon Nichols joined the cast of Star Trek.

By having to report to the studio so ungodly early each day, we got to know each other quite well. Leonard Nimoy and I were always in the make up chairs first, since our characters required more intricate make up than the others. Leonard was, and is, a thoroughly charming, ethical, and thoughtful man. Grace Lee Whitney, who played Yeoman Janice Rand during our first season, was warm, vivacious, and hilarious, while DeForest Kelly (whom we called Dee) was every bit the proverbial southern gentleman. Jimmy Doohan was jovial and friendly, if a bit blustery at times, and Bill, who had a weird sense of humor, would hold forth and regale us with some stupid story. We'd all laugh because the stories were so stupid, but Bill, who thought they were hilarious, laughed the whole way through, sometimes so hard he couldn't finish telling us anyway. Gregarious George Takei, ever the bon vivant, invariably strode in at seven A. M. with an inexcusably cheery "Good Morning!" to which we would all growl menacingly, "Shut up, George!"

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Nichols and Rodenberry worked to develop the Uhura character. Putting an African woman on the bridge in a position of authority and as an equal with the men was an unusual move in television of the 1960s, and, while she didn’t know it at the time, Nichols would come to learn just how important her character was.

Whoopi Goldberg spoke at Rodenberry’s funeral.

In her eulogy, Whoopi remarked that twenty-five years before, she was a "kid from the projects" who saw in Star Trek's Lieutenant Uhura "the only vision [of] black people in the future."

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Unfortunately, due limitations imposed by the studios (and various script revisions) Uhura wasn’t developed on the show as deeply as initially intended. The character had a lot more responsibility than we ever saw on screen.

According to the "biography" Gene and I developed for my character, Uhura was far more than an intergalactic telephone operator. As head of communications, she commanded a corps of largely unseen communication technicians, linguists, and other specialists who worked in the bowels of the Enterprise, in the "comm-center." A linguistics scholar and top graduate of Starfleet Academy, she was a protégée of Mr. Spock, whom she admired for his daring, his intelligence, his stoicism, and especially his logic.

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The continual script revision process was frustrating for Nichols however. Initial drafts would give Uhura a prominent role, but here part would gradually be chopped down and her lines cut.

Nichol’s got so frustrated she actually quit the show. That night, however, she met Martin Luther King Jr. at an event and mentioned her plans to quit the show. He asked her to reconsider.

"You must not leave. You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close. I'm sure you have taken a lot of grief, or probably will for what you're doing. But you changed the face of television forever. You have created a character of dignity and grace and beauty and intelligence. Don't you see that you've not just a role model for little Black children? You've more important for people who don't look like us. For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people -- as we should be. There will always be role models for Black children; you are a role model for everyone."

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Adding to Nichol’s frustration was that she wasn’t even officially part of the cast. Rather than being under contract to the show, she was instead a day player. The studio objected to Rodenberry hiring her. So Rodenberry brought her in everyday anyway. It took Nichols a while to realize just how Rodenberry was helping her out.

Further, quite frankly, I resented being one of the first actors on the set each day and among the alst to leave. Whenever and assistant director remarked lat in the day, "Stick around, Nichelle. We may need you for Bill's closeup," I felt like the scullery maid. It was only after endorsing a few paychecks that I began to see the method to Gene's madness. Theis was Gene's way of getting back at the suits in the front office. Not only did Gene get what he wanted, he made sure they paid -- literally and dearly -- for it.

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No discussion of Star Trek would be complete without talking about Shatner, however. And Nichols had much to be frustrated about in dealing with him. At times, she felt great compassion for him. She praises him for how he helped her after a car accident. And she recognizes how much he was hurting when he went through his divorce.

We sat facing each other, knee to knee, holding hands and softly crying. In rare moments like these, Bill was like a little boy shouldering the problems and emotions of a man. In him that evening I saw love and tenderness, and I felt tremendous compassion for him. And love.

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And, of course, Nichols tells the oft repeated story of how Shatner stole Leonard Nimoy’s bike. I think this story appears in every Star Trek book. Nichol’s add a little more depth to the story, though. She’s not just making fun of Nimoy or Shatner.

We were so jealous of him having a bike, yet none of us ran out and got one of our own. We didn't want to be copycats. Besides, it was more fun to trash Leonard for being smart enough to have a bike than it would have been to join him.

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Nichols enjoyed popping Shatner’s ego when he got to big for himself. Shatner talked about an acting gig he had in the 50s where the schedule was adjusted o accomdate a well know mobster. Shatner would not disclose who it was, thinking he was the only one to have dealt with such an exciting and dangerous situation.

Bill clearly relished keeping such a fascinating secret.

"Oh, Bill," I piped up calmly. "You mean Frankie Balistrieri."

Bill spun around and demanded, "How the hell would you know?"

I arched one brow conspiratorially, kissed me fist, and replied, "Simple. Frankie Balistrieri is my godfather."

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But as the third season of Star Trek rolled around, Nichols tells how Shatner claimed more and more authority.

Without anyone's consent, Bill Shatner stepped into the role, bossing around and intimidating the directors and guest stars, cutting other actors lines and scenes, and generally taking enough control to disrupt the sense of family we had shared during the first season.

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The rest of the cast, obviously objected to Shatner’s behavior, but there was little they could do about it.

George Takei often stated, "Bill is not going to be satisfied until we're all gone and he gets to do all our parts," then proceeded to imitate Captain Kirk, delivering all our trademark lines: "Hail! Ing! Fre! Quencies! O! Pen! Cap! Tain," "Fas! Cin! A! Ting!" or "He's! Dead! Jim!" We would all squeal in painful laughter until tears rolled down our cheeks.

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And Shatner seemed clueless in how the other cast member felt. He simply did not appear concerned with them. Several years after Star Trek ended, it was brought back as an animated series. The studio initially planned to hire just Shatner and Nimoy for the show, and replace everyone else with other voiceover actors.

Bill saw nothing wrong with this plan and agreed to do it. Leonard, however, asked, "Where are George and Nichelle and the others?" When he was told they did not have us, he replied, "Well, then you don't have me."

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Despite her frustrations with Shatner, Nichols can still find good things to say about Shatner. She began to appreciate him during the movies.

While working on Star Trek V: The Final Frontier I discovered something about Bill Shatner: He was a wonderful director to work for. Supportive, encouraging inspiring -- Bill turned out to be among the most respectful directors I've ever worked with. Even Jimmy Doohan, whose dislike of Bill is quite well known, admitted that he was terrific in the director's chair. Ironically, Bill became more of a human being than he'd ever been as an actor. I realized that what drove us all crazy about him when he was acting was that he was directing.

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But even as Nichols was beginning to respect Shatner, he was undermining that respect with his book Star Trek Memories. While Shatner’s book is a great history of Star Trek, Nichol’s says that he got plenty of stuff wrong.

To begin with, Shatner claims in his book that the interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura in Plato’s Stepchildren didn’t actually happen. Nichols says it actually did happen. They shot a bunch of takes and filmed the scene both ways. But the next day, the cast and crew watched the various takes of the scene.

And I'd like to set the record straight: Although Kirk and Uhura fought it, they did kiss in every single scene. When the non-kissing scene came up, everyone in the room cracked up. The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad, it was unusable.

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Nichols is angry at Shatner for his book and spends several pages discussing it. She felt betrayed by the way he handled it and was upset at his arrogance and obliviousness to the cast.

I was more than upset by Bill's book. No wonder he didn't offer to let me review my comments, as he'd promised. I gather he didn't want me to know his book contained pages of my allegedly direct quotations, virtually all taken out of context. His attitude toward Gene and the rest of the cast -- with the exception of Leonard -- was patronizing, and his take on a number of events, particularly the interracial kiss, was just plain wrong. I did not, as Bill claims, raise a big fuss. And we did kiss. I could go on point by point, but suffice it to say this is my rebuttal to his distortions and outright lies.

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Just as fascinating as Uhura’s Star Trek career is her post Star Trek career. Throughout the 70s and 80s she worked with various federal agencies promoting the space program and astronaut recruitment. She brought not just celebrity status, but a true commitment to her cause. And she brought her own expertise.

The book does have some flaws. In addition to the slow way it starts, Nichols has a tendency to name drop. Of course she has to talk about other famous people because of the influence they had on her life and career. But she has a tendency to talk about how she met a person, what they did, and then give their name. I don’t have a problem with the stories; it the structure of those stories.

As she recounted having toured Russia with the show as the lead dancer, I remember thinking to my self, Sure, and I'm the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi. Yet she has such stature and eloquence, and a peculiar grace, that by the time Hermes Pan and his entourage finally showed up, I didn't care what the truth was. Her name was Maya Angelou, and we began a close friendship that continues to this day.

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After my [voice lessons], as I descended into the lobby, I'd look across and wave at the young woman ascending in the other elevator, his next student. Her name was Barbara Streisand. That was not the first or last time our paths crossed, though.

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For some reason I find the structure off putting. It reminds me of the “Theater Stories” sketches on Saturday Night Live in the 80s.

Nichols also throws in Star Trek references through the text that just seem a bit force. The section dividers in the book are Star Fleet Symbols, for instance. And there are references like these:

Usually with Kyle [Nichols’ son], all you had to do was explain it once. His grasp and love of logic was positively Vulcan.

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For six months I reorganized the filing system, learned bookkeeping, and mastered the switchboard. (Are you surprised?)

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Such asides may be more natural in conversation but in the text (especially at this point in the book) they just seem a bit awkward.

Those are personal preferences, however. Nichols book is great story of a strong woman making her way in show business and helping to transform the landscape of television. Her book is especially interesting when read side by side with Grace Lee Whitney’s book, since they both cover slightly different aspects of the same industry and time though a different lens.

I gained new respect of Nichols after reading this book.

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