BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Although the part of the comely communications officer Uhura on the original series "Star Trek" turned out to be a lifelong role, actress Nichelle Nichols wanted to quit after the first season.
After all, fate had pushed her into the part in the first place. "I loved Uhura," she says. "I just thought it was a segue, a nice experience to give me credits I hadn't had before and would take my career to Broadway."
Ms. Nichols had grown up loving musical theater. "My father used to tease that when he would walk me in the evening in his arms to sleep, he would pick up a bottle in the refrigerator and when he opened the door and the light went on, I went into three choruses of 'Let Me Entertain You,' " she laughs.
"I actually was going to leave the show and spoke to [executive producer] Gene Roddenberry after the first season ... and I don't think any of us realized the magnitude of what Gene had created and how incredible it was that we were chosen to play these people that influenced others and changed people's lives in such dynamic and positive ways.
"When I went in and told him I was thinking of leaving because I was being offered roles that were going where I wanted them to go -- musical theater -- it was a Friday I'll never forget. He said, 'You can't do this. Don't you realize what I'm trying to get done here?' I said, 'Well, I think you've done a fantastic job, Gene.' He said, 'OK, take the weekend and think about it, and if you still feel that way Monday morning you'll go with my blessings.' "
The next day she attended an NAACP fundraiser, when one of the promoters told her there was a fan who wanted to meet her. "So I thought it was a Trekker. And I said, 'Oh, certainly.' I got up and crossed the room to meet the face of Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember thinking, 'Whoever that Trekker is he's going to have to wait.' And he smiled and said, 'I am the biggest Trekkie on the planet.' "
"I've never been at a loss for words," she says, "but my mouth just opened and closed. I was stunned. He told me how important the role was and the manner I'd developed the character, with strength and dignity. All I could say was, 'Thank you so much, Dr. King, I'm going to miss my co-stars.' I said, 'I'm leaving the show.' He said, 'You cannot leave. It can wait. It's part of history now. This man has made this show that projects 300 years from now. This is who we are and we are beginning here, and you're representing us. You cannot leave because nobody can replace you. Only you.'
"I changed my mind right there because I was ordered," she says. "That was my leader. He said lots more. 'Star Trek' was the only series that he and his wife, Coretta, would allow the children to stay up to see. And I was their hero. I could do nothing but, Monday morning, go in and tell Gene Roddenberry what Dr. King had said, and if he still wanted me, I would stay. And I stayed and never looked back."
She's looking back now as PBS presents Season 2 of "Pioneers of Television" beginning Jan. 18. The first segment covers science fiction, and "Star Trek" and its team of intrepid space travelers were among those pioneers.
Ms. Nichols finally triumphed in musical theater but never to the extent she wanted. So she wrote her own musical, a one-woman show, which was very successful. "And every time I got close to starring on Broadway, they'd make a 'Star Trek' motion picture, and they couldn't do it without Uhura," she says, brushing the air with her hand.
"We did six major motion pictures, so I just finally said: 'It's not going to happen because every two years ...' But I don't regret a moment of it. I'm a singer and an actor, I was a dancer, choreographer and writer, but there wasn't enough time in the day for me to do everything I wanted. And so I really realized that 'Star Trek' had truly interrupted my career, but I didn't regret it because I was doing so much. And here I was -- Uhura more and more."
Still beautiful at 78, with a rash of gray hair and dressed all in black, Ms. Nichols has been married and divorced twice and is the mother of a son, of whom she's very proud. As the first black woman ever to assume a non-stereotypical role on television, she feels she owes fate for its fickle turn.
"Somehow I've always felt that everything that happens to me happens for me. It's true," she says.