HELLO AMERICA!—Upon hearing about my friend Nichelle Nichols’ mild stroke, I quickly contacted her manager Gilbert Bell. He informed me that the news was correct; Nichelle was in the hospital receiving emergency help. He further assured me that her illness was not critical and she would be back on her feet without question.
Since I had known Nichelle since my years at USC there was a natural flow of love and concern that is very deep and genuine. We had been through so many changes and efforts of survival in the entertainment business. I even penned “Jenny” a musical which would have introduced her as the female lead, along with Bill Withers, Virginia Capers (“A Raisin in the Sun”) and starring Louis Armstrong. Nichelle was performing beautifully during rehearsals, she was excited with the produced and backed musical by Alan Factor (Max Factor dynasty).
Then the news broke announcing the sudden death of Louis Armstrong. It was a shock to all of us who loved this man who impacted nearly every aspect or facet of show biz. Appearing with Armstrong was something we had fantasized about for years. Even though I had appeared with him on the same bill in Philadelphia as a contest winner, the idea of his starring in a show I had created would have been icing on the cake. My early meeting with Louis was one of the reasons for his interest in taking on the production.
Nichelle was devastated as well. We had long discussions concerning alternatives and what other performing possibilities were open to us. Alan Factor worshiped Armstrong and could not conceive of producing the show without him, so the musical was canceled. Within weeks, the other leads of the show quickly contracted with other productions. Virginia Caper signed to star in “Raisin in the Sun”, Bill Withers returned to more recording sessions, Nichelle signed to do “Star Trek” (a historical move), and I signed as the first Afro American director at NBC.
Down through the years Nichelle and I have continued to remain connected professionally and personally. Through many of my low moments and emotional concerns, she was the first to show up at my door offering help or advice. She was like the big sister I never really had and it is something I will always remember and respect. When watching her being interviewed on television after being released from the hospital, my respect and love for her deepened.
Her determination not to allow her physical problems to impede her dreams or desire to continue a life she has always loved was inspiring and extremely moving. She was still the girl with whom I played tennis on the USC campus and laughed loudly when she won, but did so even louder when she lost a match. After all, she was Nichelle Nichols, a woman who refused to look back or give in!
As a footnote to this column, in 2014 I signed the late actress Juanita Moore to star in my play “I Feel Sin Comin’ On” and during one of the early rehearsals, my dear friend died of a heart attack. I quickly contacted Nichelle and she quickly agreed to replace Juanita. A few weeks followed when her manager called to inform me that Nichelle possibly would have problems remembering her lines, she was showing signs of memory lost. Further, I should consider replacing her. We took his suggestion seriously and committed Marla Gibbs, another friend of many years. The results was fantastic.