Losing Bill Russell, Pat Carroll, and Nichelle Nichols, All In One Day
A little over a week ago, the rapid-fire media announcements of the passings of three entertainment industry titans, Bill Russell, Pat Carroll, and Nichelle Nichols, shook me. It has taken me days to process my thoughts about their deaths. I don’t want to date myself, but I’d not been that shocked since we lost Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jim Henson on the same day, back in 1990. Even losing Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett on the same day, in 2009, hadn’t been so hard.
First, news of Russell’s death, at 88 years old, came across my iPhone. I grew up watching him lead the Boston Celtics to many a victory over my beloved Detroit Pistons as they more often than not dominated the NBA’s Eastern Conference. During that pre-Michael Jordan era, Russell was a force. As he led both on the basketball court and in the civil right arena, the 6’10” Russell was larger than life in many more ways than a tape measure could gauge.
I wistfully wished Russell’s spirit well and tried to go on with a day that would end with news of Carroll’s death, at the age of 95, hitting by phone. I first encountered her comedic genius watching annual television showings of a 1965 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” which introduced a 17-year-old Lesley Ann Warren to the world. Carroll played one of the title character’s evil stepsisters.
If you’re struggling to remember which sister she played, I’ll help you out: her knee creaked. If you’ve seen the production, you’ll smile at that reference, as I always did, each year during the 70s and even into the early 90s, watching with my eldest daughter, Janet. That version was the definitive one until Brandy led a multicultural, all-star cast featuring Whitney Houston in 1996.
Carroll was funny, but that performance was nothing like her career-defining turn voicing Ursula, the Sea Witch in Disney’s 1989 animated feature “The Little Mermaid.” It was the first movie we took my eldest daughter to see in the theatre, and she and I watched it almost daily from the time it debuted on VHS until Disney mercifully released “Beauty & The Beast” a few years later. Even after that, “The Little Mermaid” remained Janet’s favorite — she still collects mermaid memorabilia — and Carroll provided a lot of good laughs and memories.
“You’ve got your looks,” Ursula encouraged Ariel, “your pretty face! And don’t underestimate the importance of BODY LANGUAGE,” Carroll bellowed, over Ursula’s ample shoulder, as she shook that squid behind of hers, much to the delight of anyone who has seen the film.
As sad as the news of Russell’s and Carrol’s deaths was, neither of those reports hit me like word of the passing of “Star Trek” star Nichelle Nichols, at the age of 89. Nichols was a critical part of another multicultural cast, but one that was set in the 23rd century, as the series aired on television in the mid-1960s.
Before Diahann Carroll starred as “Julia,” and before the producers behind television’s campy “Batman” series finally decided to cast Eartha Kitt as their third Catwoman, Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura sat on the bridge of the USS Starship Enterprise, beginning in the series’ 1965 premiere. It was an era when other popular television universes didn’t have a single black person in them. “I Dream Of Jeannie’s Major Tony Nelson didn’t have a colleague of color on that military base in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and for years Darrin and Samatha Stevens had the whitest group of neighbors and colleagues you could possibly imagine, on “Bewitched.” Both Barbara Eden and Elizabeth Montgomery, the respective female leads in those series, represented the prevailing U.S. standard of beauty in the 1960s: white, blond, and blue eyed.
No one in my neighborhood looked like that.
But the gorgeous Nichols held it down as Uhura on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, boldly going where no African American, male or female, had gone before. Even as I preferred “Lost In Space” to my older brother’s beloved “Star Trek,” the stunning Nichols drew me in.
Whoopi Goldberg perhaps said it best: Uhura let us all know that African Americans would make it through the tumultuous 60s. If space really was “the final frontier,” it was good to know that we’d get there, too.
Maybe that’s why Nichols’ death hit me so hard. In these times we’re living in — COVID, mass shootings, police brutality, monkeypox — maybe we need to look to the heavens — or to streaming services — again, and give Uhura a chance to remind us that we’ll make it through these times, too.
In 2017, years after discovering Lt. Uhura, I got to interview Nichols, and later meet her when when she came to Sacramento for a Comic-con a few years ago. As we posed for a photo, Nichols expressed exasperation at my inability to do the Vulcan hand greeting thing. You know the one, where you hold up a palm displaying two pairs of two fingers.
“Give me your hand,” she laughed after a few unsuccessful attempts to teach me how to do the hand gesture, grabbing my hand and holding it tightly. She told me no one had ever told her that they couldn’t do it! I’d inadvertently made Nichols laugh, which gave me a bit of joy, given the hours of joy and inspiration she’d given me, kneeling in front of that 25 inch color console TV in metro Detroit.
I’ll miss all three of these entertainment titans: Russell, Carroll, and Nichols. The next time I watch “The Little Mermaid” (which may be this weekend), I’ll be a little wistful when Ursula swims on screen.
But I’ll really miss Nichelle Nichols. She lived long. She prospered. And she made a difference in the life of a little black boy in Detroit.
And last weekend, a full week after those legends passed on the same day, I turned my iPhone news notifications off.
RIP Bill Russell, Pat Carroll, and Nichelle Nichols.