Nichols’ death was confirmed by her talent manager and business partner of 15 years, Gilbert Bell, to Variety on Sunday. She died in Silver City, New Mexico.
A representative for Nichols did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
Last December, the star made her final convention appearance before her many fans as part of a three-day farewell celebration at L.A. Comic-Con. Nichols was seen waving, blowing kisses and flashing Star Trek’s famous Vulcan salute to the many fans who turned out to bid her farewell. She was surrounded by members of her family and longtime friends including Nichols’ son Kyle Johnson, who served as her spokesperson; her younger sister Marian Michaels; actresses Judy Pace and Beverly Todd; and former astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, who joined NASA as a result of Nichols’ role in recruiting women and minorities into the space program in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of her Star Trek fame.
Nichols enjoyed decades in the spotlight thanks to her screen work, her music career and her activism to help more women succeed in the field of astronomy.
Born Grace Dell Nichols in Robbins, Illinois, Nichols studied dance at the Chicago Ballet Academy as a teenager before she was discovered by jazz legend Duke Ellington. Nichols joined Ellington’s tour as a ballet dancer, but ended up as the lead singer, touring all over North America and Europe.
In 1959, she made her big-screen debut as a dancer in Sammy Davis Jr.’s Porgy and Bess. She went on to act in other films and TV series, including making a guest appearance in Gene Roddenberry’s show, The Lieutenant, in 1964.
But Nichols’ breakout role came when Roddenberry cast the actress as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek series. When the show first aired in 1966, Nichols was one of the first Black women to play a major role on primetime television.
She is popularly cited as having the first interracial kiss on American television, when her character famously locked lips with white leading man William Shatner‘s Captain James T. Kirk. Martin Luther King Jr. once called Nichols’ role “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a black woman in television history.”
Following the end of the science-fiction series, Nichols worked to recruit diverse astronauts to NASA, including women and ethnic minorities. Among those who were recruited as a result of the program was Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut.
During her acting career, Nichols starred in six Star Trek movies from 1979–91. Some of her most recent work included the 2002 Disney picture Snow Dogs, in which she played Cuba Gooding Jr.‘s mother. In 2005, she acted alongside Ice Cube as Miss Mable in the comedy Are We There Yet?, and in 2007, she had a reoccurring role on the NBC series Heroes as Nana Dawson. Nichols appeared in the long-running daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless as recently as 2016.
In 1992, Nichols was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And when the original Star Trek cast was honored in front of Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1991, she became the first African-American to place her handprints and signature at the iconic spot.
In addition to acting, Nichols also recorded two albums, Down to Earth and Out of This World.
Nichols’ death comes after a battle for her conservatorship was revealed in May 2019, when her manager Gilbert Bell provided Atlanta’s CBS46 with a disturbing video apparently taken by him. In the video, the actress could be heard screaming in protest as she held what Bell claimed were legal guardianship documents filed by her son, Kyle Johnson, who was named her legal conservator by a court.
Bell told PEOPLE at the time the situation was “devastating.” Nichols’ close friend Angelique Fawcette told PEOPLE she was shocked by the video, which was reportedly recorded on April 23.
“I knew [Nichols and her son] had a bad relationship,” she said. “I’ve never seen Nichelle scream like that. It’s like, what is going on behind closed doors every day?”
Nichols has one son from her first marriage to Foster Johnson. She later remarried songwriter Duke Mondy. The pair divorced in 1972.