Thursday, January 22, 2004

Nichelle Nichols figures in a special moment I had at the Scotty convention. Her participation in Star Trek is uniquely intriguing. Though she had a complicated relationship with GR, she has remained steadfast in her loyalty to him as Star Trek’s creator and visionary. Before Star Trek, she was a unique and highly successful dancer and singer. After Star Trek, she continued her immersion in music and added writing---several forms of nonfiction, and her science fiction novels. But for most of her time on Star Trek, the prominent role she was promised got eroded to very little.

Everyone must know the story by now of how she almost left the show after the first season, but was persuaded to remain by Martin Luther King, Jr. Like several other cast members, she did not get the kind of acting roles she otherwise might have, and certainly was capable of doing. But entertainment is a strange business, and talent is no guarantee of anything. Character, however, gives you a life.

Nichelle Nichols is universally recognized as a great lady. It is obvious seeing her. She is not at all pretentious, but she has great dignity, and kindness. Fortunately for me, I was not only to witness a demonstration of all this, but to be its beneficiary.

It was at the benefit dinner before the convention, in James Doohan’s honor. I was seated with a group of fans, including the man who won the Scotty lookalike contest, a few tables deep from the dias. But I could see Nichelle Nichols at a front table with several other people. I hadn’t spoken with her yet, but I knew she would be appearing at the convention over the weekend, and I wanted to secure a brief interview then. So I decided to introduce myself now, and let her know my intentions.

I walked past the table from behind and came around to her side, careful to let her see me approach. I intended to be very brief, so I wouldn’t interrupt her evening. I told her my name and that I was representing the New York Times, and that I wanted to introduce myself now, and would be asking for a few minutes of her time at the convention. Her response startled me.

She immediately said, “And I’d like to introduce you to someone,” and she turned to the man on her left. The man popped up from his chair, and I was even more startled to see it was Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. She did introduce us, saying my name correctly---astonishing me, partly because few people do, and because I tended to rush through it to get to the New York Times part, and also because I hardly ever remember a stranger’s name immediately after hearing it.

I was pretty much a loss for words at that point. But I got to shake hands with Neil Armstrong. One degree of separation between me and another world. Nichelle Nichols did that for me, about half a second after seeing me for the first time. If you need a definition of graciousness, this is it.

These actors took their life experiences into a decade of change, of activism on many levels of doing, thinking and feeling. They were part of our common adventure, exploring racism and diversity, the perils and opportunities of technology, the deadly diversion of greed, and the costs of war versus the perilous building of peace. They were--and are-- part of our exploration of our time, its bearing on the future, and its insights into the human soul.

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