HELLO AMERICA!—Iconic star Nichelle Nichols known affectionately for her role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the “Star Trek” series and I met on a very idyllic warm morning on the U.S.C. campus tennis court. Her playing partner was Teddy Jones (U.S.C. pre-law student & son of super star Lena Horne) and my tennis support was Gerald Hill Bradley, one of L.A.’s finest future medical physicians. During that time, we were both members of the Trojan Marching Band and we were extremely proud of that and it was something which brought Nichelle and Teddy and us together.
It was the beginning of my long history with Nichelle. She was beautiful, kind and extremely sensitive about genuine talent and what it might take to survive in Hollywood. Since I had just completed work on film “Carmen Jones” which starred Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey she was totally impressed and we ended up chatting for hours.
Not long after, I was on the Sam Goldwyn lot being interviewed for Porgy ‘n’ Bess and there was my friend dancing and singing as if she had done it for a life time. Nichelle “owned” the stage, she was absolute magic! Watching her I suddenly felt that I could never follow someone like her. When she spotted me, we laughed and talked and when I admitted that I felt that I shouldn’t audition. She looked at me, and shook me a bit and said, “Listen, Mike, that’s so dumb. You get over there and sing your ass off. Do you hear me!”
Her reaction scared me a bit, reminding me of my fifth grade teacher, Rosa L. Watson, at my Phyllis Wheatley School in Morton, PA. who had so much faith in me and my dreams, and now it was Nichelle. Again, I had to face director Otto Preminger a man who gave me a rough time during the film shoot of “Carmen Jones.” Of course, my book “Hollywood Through the Back Door” has that dramatic turn.
As for my creative history involving Nichelle, it continued down the years which involved classes with the noted actor Frank Silvera. We both studied with this master of the theatre. Any serious actor hungered to get close to this man. Actors Marlon Brando, Oliver Reed, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier all clamored to get close to Silvera. However, he worshiped Nichelle and it was obvious every time she made an entrance on the stage of the small theatre where we worked each week. She had such an indescribable dignity which radiated throughout the room whenever she uttered a word or sang a note.
Eventually, I was contracted by producer Allen Factor Jr. to write a musical which would star Louis Armstrong, I was determined to compose something which might include Nichelle. I called the show “Jenny” which also would feature Bill Withers, Virginia Capers and Nichelle would be the young star. Rehearsals were outstanding, exciting, Mr. Factor was overwhelmed with every step we made. He determined that we would open in Vegas, after all, it was all about Armstrong. Several weeks later, I received a call that Louis Armstrong had died!
Even though Nichelle was devastated, she picked herself up and was noticed by producer Gene Roddenberry to join the cast of “Star Trek” and the rest is history. Since that time in her career she has never stop working, writing, composing or making an effort to help someone who needed her. I should know because this great lady has always been there for me.
When I viewed Nichelle on “Young and the Restless” drama recently portraying an alcoholic mother who had sacrificed a relationship with her son (Kristoff St. John) it was the culmination of everything she had learned, experienced all the years she had put in building her genius as an actor. Her brilliant performance brought me to tears. Nichelle Nichols had arrived and it just wasn’t for the moment but for always. I urge the EMMY organization to take note!