Lt. Uhura & the Historic Star Trek Kiss; Happy Birthday, Nichelle Nichols, Maggie Smith & Denzel Washington
She was hot, she was classy, she was black - and prime-time TV had never seen anything like her. I once had the pleasure of meeting the beautiful Nichelle Nichols when she spoke at the Fifth Annual Awards Luncheon for Distinguished Women, sponsored by the Girls Club of the Mid-peninsula (near Stanford University), Raychem and the Saga Corporation. The year was 1977, and I was still working as an ambivalent, if not entirely reluctant, TV news anchor at KPIX-TV, Channel 5, in San Francisco. By this time, I had already seen and interviewed a celebrity or two, so why was my heart thrumming at the thought of introducing the actress from a TV science fiction drama?
Because this particular actress was Lt. Uhura from the early days of Star Trek, and she was right up there with St. Theresa of Avila and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as role models during my upbringing - the kind of person one might not only aspire to be but actually become in the new world that was unfolding in the 1960's. On the day of that luncheon, I was not yet the writer I had always dreamed of being. My HIDDEN CROW novel series was still a long way off. So was the voice I would need to write it. During that time, I took advantage of close encounters with stellar individuals like Nichelle Nichols to feel their authenticity in hopes of one day finding my own. If the mask you've created for yourself is making you wagon-loads of money, taking it off can seem pretty risky. I realize I'm talking about an actress here, someone for whom artifice is livelihood. So maybe I was fooled by her kindness, but I don't think so. Like an over-aged Holden Caulfield, I had seen my share of phonies. I don't think I'd be remembering Nichelle Nichols today if she had been one of them.
The following clip puts her historic presence on TV - and the provocative kiss with Capt. Kirk - into a thimbleful of historical perspective. I will only add here that any nervousness I felt quickly dissipated when Ms. Nichols and I shook hands. She was warm, she was kind, she was genuine. And at 81 years young (today), from all available accounts, she still is. Happy Birthday, Lt. Uhura, you heart-throb!
As long as I'm dredging up memories of meeting remarkable people, I might as well confess to doing something I probably would not do today. This also happened in the late 1970's (I must have been time-traveling. This can't possibly have happened in chronological time). I had been wanting an Irish knit cardigan for a while and finally made my way to the Kilkenny Shop in San Francisco to peruse the offerings. And there she was, the lovely Maggie Smith, quietly shopping alone. No cameras, no entourage, no fake anything. To say that I was an admirer in those days was to put it mildly. She was, it seemed to me, a cross between Brigitte Bardot and every nun under the age of 50 who had ever taught me in school. I know, sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? But you can't for a moment think that the women who gave up their sentient lives in order to pound some schooling into my head did not also exude an energy that might be repressed but never fully eliminated.
I knew her mainly from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Travels with My Aunt, and Olivier's Othello, in which she was fated to be loved not wisely but too well. It was amazing to me that an actor of her caliber should be without a coterie of adoring fans. But then she is English, and this was San Francisco. Although I knew better, I could not resist the urge to ask for an autograph. And she obliged, ever so kindly, with those eyes and that voice, acting quite surprised that anyone should notice her at all. (It was, as the saying goes, the kind of encounter I was more likely to remember than she.)
Which psychologist was it who said every communication is a transaction? (Eric Berne, Games People Play. That's right.) In our brief "transaction," Maggie Smith gave me something money can't buy. The handmade Irish sweater I bought that day has disappeared along with so many other material possessions. But you see, I was at a turning point in my own life at the time. And this encounter, away from the TV cameras that captured my usual celebrity interviews, felt like a moment of authenticity. (There's that word again.) I had come to see that people really do behave differently when no one is watching.
How very gracious, patient, and generous Maggie Smith was that day. This is how one wants to be, I thought. Really good at your craft, kind, and not the least bit puffed up when someone pays you a compliment or distracts you from your solitude to beg an autograph.
What I said above about acting easily applies here too. So I must amend what I say about authenticity with this caveat about uncertainty. You never really know another person. You can never really tell if (like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally) she's faking it. And despite my wish for authenticity, I say that's okay.
The question is whether she's faking it to make you feel bad, or to make you feel appreciated. The actor, like the writer, must have a diverse lot of characters at her disposal. So if there's doubt as to whether she's being "real" at any given moment, let's err on the side of kindness and intention - and give her the benefit of the doubt.
For those who question my assessment of Maggie Smith as half-nun/half French sex symbol, consider the following scene from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She may be better known these days as the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey and Professor Minerva McGonnagall in the Harry Potter films, but you don't get all the best lines in the most popular TV drama in PBS history without knowing the value of every word in every role you play. Happy 79th birthday, Maggie Smith, and many happy returns of the day.
Talk about being really good at something - look no further than the great Denzel Washington. I don't have any stories of meeting this awesome performer. But that doesn't stop me from admiring his work. It's not easy to take on the mantle once owned by Sidney Poitier and bring it to another level. While Poitier's challenge was to present to mainstream audiences an image of decency, Denzel's has been to represent a broad panoply of personalities and characters - both good and bad, strong and weak - and he has pulled it off beautifully. Here's a list of his Top 10 performances put together by mojo users on YouTube. Of this actor, it can be said without hesitation - "He got game." Happy Birthday, Denzel Washington, born this day, 1954.
TAGS: Famous Birthdays
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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