Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Episode #118: MegaCon 2010 Day 2 Part II: The Nichelle Nichols Panel!

Note: This is the third of a series of blog posts about MegaCon, 2010, Day 2, but the audio podcast on MegaCon will be a single episode. I attended MegaCon, as I said in the Day 1 post, with Jeffrey Taylor O'Brien. To read his coverage of MegaCon, click on the following links:

To see more of my photos from MegaCon 2010, click on the following link to go to my facebook MegaCon 2010 photo album:

Nichelle Nichols began the panel discussion by taking a question from the audience. The first question was an obvious one: What she thought of the new movie. Nichelle liked the new Star Trek movie a lot. She liked its energy, the tech, J. J. Abrams enthusiasm. He brought a vitality to the project that was carried through by the actors in their performances.

Nichelle then had the convention volunteer move the tables back from the edge of the stage so that she could sit on the corner of one of the tables, closer to the audience. Someone said, "You need a piano." Nichelle answered, "I don't need no piano." Everyone laughed and applauded, because we knew she was right.

The next question was how much she enjoyed roasting William Shatner. Nichelle replied that she had a lot of fun. She then gave a short history of the comedy "Roast:", which led her into talking about Gene Roddenberry's development of Star Trek.

Gene wanted to bring more of a sense of reality to TV, along with gender equality and diversity. Hollywood executives told him that America wasn't ready for racial equality, especially in the deep south. Maybe in 300 years, they told him. As Nichelle put it, Gene told them thank you and then wrote Star Trek. No studio would buy it until another TV pioneer, Lucille Ball, head of Desilu Studios, bought Star Trek. She really didn't know exactly what it was. She thought it was a kid's show similar to the then popular Lost In Space. After Star Trek went into production, Desilu was bought by Paramount Studios. As most Trek fans know, the first pilot, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Pike, was rejected. A second pilot, starring the now familiar original cast, was picked up by NBC.

Of course, the show did not have smooth sailing with studio executives. They thought that Spock's ears made him look develish and would scare kids.

Gene had called Nichelle's agent, requesting she audition for Star Trek. Nichelle had just closed a singing engagement at a London supper club, and so her agent was unable to get in touch with her. She was very tired and had not had a vacation in a very long time. Her plans were to fly to Paris and go on a skiing vacation. In fact, she was considering bringing her son over from the United States and moving to Europe. When her agent finally got in contact with her and told her the news, Nichelle at first declined. she was tired and just wanted some time away from work.

After a brief argument, her agent told Nichelle to get to the airport, where she would find a trans-Atlantic ticket waiting for her. He made a deal: if she didn't get the part she could fly back to Europe and take her vacation; if she got the part she could repay him the cost of the ticket.

During the flight she was reading a book about African history titled Uhuru, which is Swahili for "freedom". Nichelle carried the book with her to the audition to read while she waited for her turn. When she got to the studio there were other actresses waiting to audition for the part also. They looked down their noses at Nichelle, who described her attire as a modern 1960's black woman. Nichelle was told to go on in, much to the other actresses' surprise.

Nichelle briefly discussed the book with the director. there were other people in the room also. Her audition consisted of reading some lines. The dialogue involved Kirk, McCoy and Spock. Nichelle read Spock's lines. She thought that was the role she was auditioning for, so Nichelle asked, "What kind of woman is she?" It was explained to her that her role as Communications Officer had not been written yet. Nichelle's next question was, "Could Spock be a woman?" the response was, "Leonard Nimoy wouldn't like it." After being given some basic information about Spock, she read the three pages of lines as if Spock was a woman.

Nichelle noticed Gene Roddenberry sitting in the back of the room. She asked him what he was doing there. Gene told her that he had a little bit to do with the TV show she was auditioning for. Nichelle informed the audience at the panel that Gene gave her her first television role in his TV show The Lieutenant. Nichelle also told the audience that at that point she didn't know that Gene had asked specifically for her. At the end of the audition Nichelle was asked to sit in the other room. Later, when the Director saw her still there, he asked her why she was still there. He informed her that she had the role when she left.

In the earliest episodes Nichelle wore the same color uniform as Captain Kirk, a color Nichelle described as "cat-puke green".

Over dinner, Gene and Nichelle discussed a name for her character. Nichelle wanted to name her after the title of the book she had been reading, but Gene thought Uhuru sounded too harsh. She then suggested Uhura, which had a softer sound. Gene liked it, and that's how Nichelle's character got her name.

But things didn't go smoothly for Nichelle after that. After production began, she received a call from her agent. The studio didn't want to honor her contract, and wanted to buy her out. Nichelle did not give any reasons for this decision, but I had to wonder if race didn't have something to do about it. Her agent then told her that Gene wanted her to trust him. that sent Nichelle's temper through the roof. Nichelle told the audience that was her ego talking. She eventually calmed down and agreed to trust Gene. As it turned out, Gene knew how to make the system work for him when he needed to. He had her report as a day player. Nichelle would often stay after regular filming hours to do pick-up shots, etc. With overtime, she wound up making more money than she would have under her original contract.

At the same time Nichelle had a small role as a nurse on the TV show Peyton Place, although only the back of her head was shown.

When studio executives saw the dailies and asked Gene what Nichelle was doing on the set, he told them she was a day player. They said that they thought he was going to add a little color to the set. And so Gene had Nichelle's uniform color changed from "cat-puke green" to the now familiar red.

Her next projects include returning to the TV show Heroes. Her storyline had been cut from a previous season, when it was determined that there were too many plots going on at the same time. Her plotline is returning. She is also involved with several movies, one as an Executive Producer.

A fan asked her what was her favorite episode from the original series was. Nichelle answered that it was anytime Uhurua got off the bridge. A specific favorite episode was The Trouble With Tribbles. She then talked about how she knew Star Trek would be cancelled after only one season, because every episode kept getting better and better.

Nichelle ended the panel sharing how Uhura got her first name. Writer Steve Whitfield wrote a fictional history of Star Trek and its back story, and gave her the Swahili name Niota - Star.

Next: MegaCon 2010 Day 2: Part III!

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