News of Nichelle Nichols’ death July 30 saddened fans of Lt. Nyota Uhura, Nichols’ character on the original “Star Trek” television series in the 1960s.
What folks might not know is the important role she played in changing the NASA space program. Todd Thompson, a Dr. Phillips resident, was director and producer of the recently released “Woman in Motion,” a documentary produced in Central Florida that recognizes Nichols' achievements, both in science fiction and science fact.
Thompson was heading to the airport when he got the call regarding Nichols’ death.
“I heard the heaviness in (my friend’s) voice, and he said, ‘Hey, Nichelle just passed,’” Thompson said. “We all knew the day was going to come, but you are never totally ready for the news. It just hit me.
“I was saddened by the news, but part of me couldn’t help but be happy for her,” Thompson said. “I think her greatest asset was her mind, and when you have dementia, your mind is the first that’s attacked.”
Nichols, who was 89 at her time of death, suffered a stroke in 2015 and was diagnosed with dementia in 2018. Before her diagnosis, she regularly participated in “Star Trek” conventions and events.
Nichols began her career in show business at age 16 as a singer and dancer with Duke Ellington and his band. She added acting to her repertoire and twice was nominated for the Sarah Siddons Award for best actress.
She joined the cast of “Star Trek” as communications officer Uhura in 1966 and stayed in that role for three years.
In 1977, the actress was invited to join the board of directors of the National Space Institute and asked to aid in recruiting scientists, engineers and astronauts for its new space shuttle project.
She challenged NASA by asking the question, “Where are my people?” and embarked on a four-month national campaign. She recruited 8,000 of the nation’s best and brightest, including the trailblazing astronauts who became the first black, Asian and Latino men and women to fly in space.
Upon successfully completing her mission with NASA, Nichols submitted a 400-page report documenting every moment of her daunting journey.
Four decades later, she would be the subject of her own documentary directed by Thompson and written by John McCall, Joe Millin and Benjamin Crump. Tim Franta and David Teek assisted in telling the story and producing the film. Nichols was listed as co-producer.
Thompson said the idea for the film came from Teek, one of his producing partners. Teek, Thompson and Franza are all huge “Star Trek” fans, so they jumped at the chance to work with Nichols.
“They pitched the idea for the film about Nichelle,” Thompson said. “The driving force at the time was we were coming up on the 50th anniversary of ‘Star Trek.’”
It was in the spring of 2015, when Nichols was having Easter brunch with her publicist and manager that the pitch was made to her.
“She loved the idea, and I think it was that day that he called from brunch and we were all on the phone and I said, ‘Hello,’ to her for the first time,” Thompson said.
After securing financing for the project, the crew headed to California to start filming at Nichols’ home. They also filmed her at MegaCon events in Orlando and Tampa.
Working with Nichols was magical, Thompson said.
“She was Hollywood royalty in every sense of the word,” he said. “When we showed up at her house … maybe 9 a.m. — there’s always set-up time. She was either still getting ready or sleeping, she wasn’t there with us yet. We found our spot and started setting up. Her manager, Gilbert (Bell), who lives on the property, said, ‘Set up and do what you need to do, but then I need you to leave and come back to the door and let her welcome you to her home.’
“The time came … and we walked out the front door and then went out by the van and waited for a few minutes and waited for her to come out,” Thompson said. “We knocked, and she opened the door and graciously welcomed us. … She’s extremely elegant and beautiful. It was very warm and very endearing and very magnetic.”
That was the beginning of five days with Nichols, Thompson said. They talked and cried and enjoyed lunch and their time together as she took him and his crew through her entire life.
“It was just a great, cool experience that I’ll never forget,” Thompson said.
“Nichelle, we will eternally be grateful for the opportunity to tell your story and share it with the world,” Thompson said in a press release. “You entertained us, you inspired us, you showed all humankind how easy it can be to love and respect one another. Live long and prosper.”
Thompson is an award-winning director and producer, and his Stars North Films created a movie and documentary based on the story of The Highwaymen landscape artists.