Sep 11, 2020
Did Star Trek really show TV’s first interracial kiss?
[Note: This is an update to an article I posted one year ago today. Read on to learn about several scenes I’ve come across in the past year that are even stronger contenders for TV’s first interracial kiss. Also: GIFs of all the kisses being discussed!]
On November 22, 1968, exactly 46 years ago today, NBC aired the Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”, in which William Shatner’s Captain Kirk kissed Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura and they made TV history. Or did they?
Nowadays, it’s generally accepted that this episode depicted TV’s first interracial kiss, which was all the more historically significant considering the civil rights struggles of the time. Over the years, I’ve seen various books and articles and blog posts assert that the episode was highly controversial in its original airing, with some NBC affiliates (usually only identified as being in “the south”) refusing to air the episode, sponsors threatening to pull their ads, and viewers subsequently responding with an avalanche of hate mail. Given the times, it certainly sounds plausible enough, right?
Being the child of an interracial couple myself, I’ve long wondered what actually went down back then. Figuring that an episode that provoked such strong reactions must have made news at the time, I decided to dig through online archives of newspapers, books, and various periodicals to see what the media was saying about it in November of 1968.
Alas, I found virtually no mention of the episode being any sort of milestone or noteworthy event at the time it aired, or even for many years afterwards.
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Take Ebony magazine, for instance: it didn’t mention Star Trek at all until the following February, when it published a lengthy feature profiling most of the black actors on TV during the 1968-1969 season, including Nichelle Nichols. But it never mentioned the kiss. Somehow, Ebony, of all magazines, didn’t find the supposed first kiss between a white actor and black actress on primetime TV to be worthy of note.
As it turns out, the first references in the media to Star Trek having “TV’s first interracial kiss” don’t show up until over a decade later. And yet, the assertion was pretty much taken at face value, and by the early 1990s, the idea of this kiss being the “first” was ingrained enough into popular culture for both Shatner and Nichols to talk about it at length in both of their memoirs.
They each tell a slightly different tale: Shatner describes how NBC executives were afraid that some of their affiliates might refuse to air “Plato’s Stepchildren”, and wanted to remove the kiss completely, so they compromised and filmed it in such a way that you never see Kirk and Uhura’s lips touching. Shatner even writes that “the widely held assumption that Star Trek features the first interracial kiss in the history of television is absolutely untrue,” due to the fact that their lips never touched, though Nichols insists in her memoir that they did kiss for real.
In her version, the network instead demanded the filming of alternate takes where the two actors never kissed at all, and so Shatner goofed off in every attempt at filming those takes, forcing them to use the shot of them kissing that we see in the finished episode.
While Shatner’s account appears the most accurate upon viewing the actual scene, I find both stories easy to believe. There’s a long, documented history of skittish network executives and censors meddling in the creative affairs of TV shows, particularly when it comes to matters of sexuality. I have no reason to doubt that NBC feared backlash from affiliates, sponsors, and of course the viewers over Kirk and Uhura’s kiss.
However, that’s the network’s reaction. The anecdotes don’t say much about the actual public reaction to the kiss, leading some to mistakenly believe there was massive outrage over a white man kissing a black woman on TV. Casual fans today might be under the impression the episode resulted in boycotts, death threats, and people marching in the streets, but the contemporary record tells a different story:
On a Star Trek episode this fall, William Shatner, a white actor, kissed Nichele [sic] Nichols, a black actress.
“There were no repercussions that I know of,” Miss Nichols says. “A lot of my friends congratulated me, because it was the best part I had on the series so far, but that’s all.”
This January 1969 article was syndicated in several newspapers and goes on to discuss how blacks were depicted on other shows of the day. But nowhere does it suggest that Shatner kissing Nichols was the first interracial kiss on TV, or that it even had much in the way of historical importance.
In fact, the closest thing I could find to a suggestion that the kiss was significant or controversial at the time is the review of “Plato’s Stepchildren” in the issue of Variety immediately following its airing.
They almost blew the south, not to mention certain other sectors, on “Star Trek.” Late in the running of a rather bad show, William Shatner kisses Nichelle Nichols. Kisses aren’t new to tv, but bussing of a Negro doll by a white man is.
Non-PC language aside, it’s interesting that the reviewer never suggests the kiss was the first; only that it was “new”. In fact, the review goes on to call the script a “cop-out” and adds, “Shatner most reluctantly smooches Miss Nichols, a beautiful femme, and only because he is compelled to by the villain’s evil powers. This neat little compromise acquits Shatner of crossing the line, because he has no control of his senses.” To put it another way, not only was the episode not considered a landmark event, but Variety accused the show of not going far enough.
And indeed, it’s funny how a review published within a few days of the episode’s original airing completely nails all the criticisms that would be directed at it over the next 46 years. When you think about it, it’s pretty disturbing that the scene in question is now celebrated as some sort of great historical moment in interracial romance, when in actuality, it’s about two characters being telekinetically forced to kiss against their wills.
Certainly, part of the reason why this supposedly momentous kiss went unnoticed at the time had to have been because the third season of Star Trek was airing in the Friday Night Death Slot at 10PM. And given the quality of the episode, I would imagine the few people who actually caught it when it first aired were likely nodding off by the time the kiss occurred.
But I think it’s probably just as likely that interracial kisses in entertainment simply weren’t that big of a deal by then. It’s not that unreasonable of a thought; With plenty of interracial romances seen on the big screen in mainstream films like A Patch of Blue, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, several Dorothy Dandridge films, and both versions of Imitation of Life, would a kiss on a relatively low-rated TV show really have caused that much of stir? (Especially considering some of these films probably would have already been shown on TV, thus laying claim to the title of “TV’s first interracial kiss” on a technicality.)
As for why the kiss became so noteworthy decades after the fact, the reason is obvious: We’re talking about Star Trek, after all. The first interracial kiss could have actually happened on My Mother the Car, but no one would ever know, because there haven’t been My Mother the Car conventions happening steadily since the 1970s, where cast and crew can reunite and tell the same anecdotes over and over until they become generally accepted truths.
Also, the legend of “TV’s first interracial kiss” feeds into the popular narrative of Star Trek as a progressive, socially conscious television program that was way ahead of its time on race relations (though, one really should compare and contrast Uhura’s role with lead roles for black actors on shows like I Spy, Mission: Impossible, and Mannix before making that assertion). Plus, “TV’s first interracial kiss” makes for very nice-sounding copy when you’ve got a few column inches to fill when you’re writing about Star Trek.
The kiss was a great moment, and it was a ballsy move to ignore the network and air it anyway. But in retroactively ascribing a lot of controversy to “Plato’s Stepchildren”, Trek fans have inadvertently helped propagate the notion that America at the time was a country full of raging bigots screaming loudly on network switchboards about miscegenation, when in reality, racism by then had become a far more quiet, unspoken, and insidious affair. (Which is pretty much where it remains today, unfortunately.)
But this raises the question: If Star Trek wasn’t the first TV show to feature an interracial kiss, then what was? If Kirk and Uhura weren’t the first, then it should only follow that there should be some previous interracial kisses we can point to, right?
In fact, there are many. Here are some other contenders for the title, and why each of them might or might not be worthy of being called “TV’s first interracial kiss”.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy, 1951
Why it might be TV’s first interracial kiss: Ball was a woman of Irish/English descent married to Cuban-born Arnaz. 17 years before “Plato’s Stepchildren”, they played a married couple and frequently kissed on camera (with censors only taking issue when their kisses occasionally lasted a few seconds too long).
Why it might not: Suggesting that Lucy and Ricky Ricardo qualify as an “interracial couple” usually instigates the worst kind of pedantic online discussions, where the language police show up to point out that Hispanics/Latinos are not a “race”, but rather an “ethnicity”, and that there can be both white Hispanics and black Hispanics, and the Ricardos can’t be considered “interracial” because they both come from European lineage.
I’m not all that interested in getting into racially charged semantics, but I will admit that, historically speaking, there’s always been a much stronger taboo against relationships involving a dark-skinned person and a light-skinned person, for whatever reasons. Ball and Arnaz may have raised a few eyebrows in their day, but they surely faced nothing like the prejudice a black/white couple would have endured in the 1950s.
(But Desi and Lucy stealing the “first interracial kiss” title away from Star Trek would be ironic, given that the two were instrumental in bringing Star Trek to air through their production company Desilu.)
John White and Joan Hooley, Emergency — Ward 10, 1964
Why it might be TV’s first interracial kiss: Four years before “Plato’s Stepchildren”, a hospital-based British soap opera aired an episode where a white doctor (White) and a black nurse (Hooley) shared a kiss. And unlike on Star Trek, the characters were willing participants, and as you can see in this clip from the episode, their lips most definitely touched.
Why it might not: If I’m being completely honest, this moment is way more deserving of the title of TV’s first interracial kiss than the Star Trek episode, except for the nitpicky fact that it took place on British TV. And being an American, I’m obligated to regard anything happening in other countries as completely irrelevant, so it unfortunately doesn’t count.
But in all seriousness, one could argue the kiss wasn’t that much of a historical event, given that the UK didn’t have a huge black population and never had the same legally-sanctioned racial segregation as the US. Though reportedly, there was some controversy in England over the kiss at the time it aired, so I guess you could go either way on this one.
Robert Culp and France Nuyen, I Spy, 1966
Why it might be TV’s first interracial kiss: Two years before “Plato’s Stepchildren”, I Spy aired the episode “The Tiger”, where Robert Culp travels to Vietnam and meets up with a former flame played by France Nuyen, and the two lock lips. And while some might be able to split hairs over a white person kissing a Latino, there’s no denying that a white man kissing a woman of Vietnamese descent is an “interracial” kiss in the way pretty much everybody defines the word. (In a random footnote, the two actors soon became a couple in real life, with Culp scandalously leaving his wife to marry Nuyen.)
Why it might not: There’s a lengthy tradition of white men romancing Asian women in TV and movies, and it’s rarely been seen as taboo or offensive, and western entertainment has long promoted the stereotype of Asian women as more sensual and exotic and desirable than all other kinds of women. In short, there was never any real chance of complaints or boycotts over airing this kiss on TV.
And I’ll just go ahead and make this a catch-all entry for several other white man/Asian woman couplings bandied about on various websites as potential candidates for “TV’s first interracial kiss”, including:
- Darren McGavin and Sondi Sodsai, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, 1959
- Nobu McCarthy and Lloyd Bridges, Sea Hunt, 1959
- Robert Fuller and Nobu McCarthy, Laramie, 1961
- Pilar Seurat and Robert Conrad, The Wild Wild West, 1966
- David McCallum and Victoria Young, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., 1966
- France Nuyen and William Shatner, Star Trek, 1968 (Yes, amusingly enough, while Star Trek fans were busy touting the kiss between Kirk and Uhura as making TV history, they completely overlooked an interracial kiss just a few episodes later between Shatner and Nuyen. Actually, Nuyen has about forty guest-starring roles on her resume in the 1960s, and it’s probably safe to assume at least half of them feature her kissing each show’s respective white lead.)
Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., Movin’ with Nancy, 1967
Why it might be TV’s first interracial kiss: Nearly a year before “Plato’s Stepchildren”, Davis guest-starred on this Nancy Sinatra TV special. At the end of a segment devoted to a decidedly non-soulful cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” where Nancy plays a model and Sammy is her photographer, the two share an affectionate kiss. Unlike the Star Trek kiss, this wasn’t forced upon either of them by evil aliens, and in a reversal from Star Trek, it involves a black male and a white female, which is generally considered a much more salacious pairing.
Why it might not: As you can see in the clip, it’s really just a friendly, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it peck on the cheek—but then again, Shatner and Nichols technically didn’t kiss on the lips, either. But the lack of any romantic or sexual undertones makes this kiss a whole lot less controversial, and explains why it went completely unnoticed by the general public until very recently.
Dean Martin, Diahann Carroll, and Frank Sinatra, The Dean Martin Show, 1965
Why it might be TV’s first interracial kiss: Three years before “Plato’s Stepchildren”, these singers came together on the premiere episode of The Dean Martin Show for a performance of “Witchcraft”, a song originally made famous by Sinatra. The two Rat Packers finished the tune by simultaneously planting kisses on Carroll, and who can blame them? Plus, it’s the only kiss on this list that’s also a freaky interracial three-way, which has to count for something.
Why it might not: As you can clearly tell from the clip, these are just friendly kisses on the cheek. But if Movin’ with Nancy deserves consideration, then so does this. (Also, for those who may have noticed that Dino appears to be bombed out of his skull in the clip, it seems looking and sounding drunk was a regular part of his act, and the guy wasn’t much of a drinker in real life—allegedly.)
Obviously, this kiss caused absolutely no controversy at the time, and other than one stray YouTube comment that led me to the video, you’ll find no one talking about it at all these days. In fact, there’s a good chance I’m the first person to suggest this might have been one of TV’s first interracial kisses.
Rosey Grier and “Mama” Cass Elliot, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 1968
Why it might be TV’s first interracial kiss: Just a few months before “Plato’s Stepchildren”, the Smothers Brothers performed a skit that parodied both Bonanza, the show they were up against in their timeslot, as well as their own well-documented struggles with CBS censors. The skit features guest stars Grier, Elliot, and Harry Belafonte as the “Cartwrong” clan, and towards the end, Grier plants a kiss right on Elliot’s forehead. Honestly, if I tried to explain any more of the content of this sketch, you’d probably think I was also bombed out of my skull, so just watch it for yourself.
Why it might not: Do forehead kisses count? Also, considering the skit itself ended up being heavily censored by the network for other reasons, I’m guessing the “interracial kiss” was the least controversial thing going on here. And there are clearly no romantic/sexual aspects here, as Grier is supposedly the “mother” while Cass is playing her “son”. As I said, it’s a weird sketch.
Honorable Mention: When Sidney Poitier won the Oscar in 1964 for his performance in Lilies of the Field, it was the first time a black actor won the award for a leading role. And it may have been a historic occasion in more ways than one: During the telecast, when he stepped up to the podium, he gave presenter Anne Bancroft what appears to be a kiss on the cheek, but it happens so quickly that it’s unclear if they kissed or he simply said something in her ear. And of course, all previous caveats about friendly pecks apply here as well.
Update – Nov. 22, 2015
Since posting this article a year ago, a few people have come forward here and elsewhere to share other potential candidates for TV’s first interracial kiss, the most notable of which I’ve listed below.
William Shatner and Pilar Seurat, Naked City, 1962
Why it might be TV’s first interracial kiss: It probably isn’t; I just find it amusing that in all the hoopla surrounding the Kirk and Uhura kiss, Shatner never recalled that he himself kissed an Asian actress six years prior on this ABC series, especially considering the actress, Pilar Seurat, would later guest star on the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold”.
Why it might not: An important caveat here is that Shatner is playing a Burmese sailor named Maung Tun. Yep, Shatner is supposed to be Asian in this episode (which sounds crazy, granted, but is it any crazier than Sean Connery trying to pass as Japanese?), so having him kiss an Asian actress probably wouldn’t have even registered as an interracial kiss in the minds of viewers at the time. Add to that the fact that, as already pointed out, there are numerous earlier examples of white men kissing Asian women on TV, and I have to say this one isn’t a very strong contender for the title of TV’s first interracial kiss.
Lloyd Reckord and Elizabeth MacLennan, You in Your Small Corner, 1962
Why it might be TV’s first interracial kiss: The British Film Institute just unearthed this one a few days ago, and is proudly claiming it as the “world’s first interracial TV kiss”. You in Your Small Corner was a one-off broadcast of a stage play adapted for British television, and here’s the BFI summary:
You in Your Small Corner follows the arrival of a young man from Jamaica to Brixton, where he is staying with his mother before going up to Cambridge to study for an undergraduate degree. He meets a young woman on the rebound and they become lovers. The play is a sophisticated dissection of the subtleties and difficulties which affect the couple across race and class lines.
And this aired two years before the Emergency—Ward 10 episode mentioned above, which means that, sadly, that kiss has been officially knocked out of the running.
Why it might not: It’s a very strong contender, but based on the scene that’s next on the list, perhaps this kiss (as well as every other kiss already mentioned) is about to lose out on its shot at the big title.
Donald Jones and Roekie Aronds, Pension Hommeles, 1959
Why it might be TV’s first interracial kiss: Reportedly, this kiss aired in the Netherlands in April of 1959, while the Sea Hunt episode mentioned above aired in August of that year, and the Mike Hammer episode aired in September, which means this scene predates all entries on the list besides I Love Lucy.
Information about this show is tough to come by, because almost everything written about it online is in Dutch, but here’s what I got from a website devoted to the show’s writer, which I ran through Google Translate:
Pension Hommeles is the first Dutch television series and is about the adventures of the residents of a boarding house. The landlady holds sway. There are songs and the comparison with the radio series De Familie Doorsnee is obvious. A traditional Dutch atmosphere and characters that the audience can identify with.
(I know, right? Totally a De Familie Doorsnee clone.)
Donald Jones (as the name indicates) was an American actor. He was born in Harlem, and then moved to the Netherlands and became the first major black Dutch star, mostly thanks to the release of the song he sings in this scene, titled “Ik zou je het liefste in een doosje willen doen” (which Google translates as “I’d like to do most in a box” …with a fox?).
Why it might not: It didn’t air in America, and it’s more of an affectionate peck than a full-on kiss, but I would have to say that until an earlier kiss is discovered, this is the strongest candidate yet for TV’s actual first interracial kiss.
Honorable Mention #2: Some have wondered why no consideration was given to Kirk kissing Marlena Moreau in “Mirror, Mirror”, a Star Trek episode that aired the year before “Plato’s Stepchildren” that’s obviously near and dear to my heart. Moreau was played by mixed-race actress Barbara Luna, who according to the IMDb is Italian, Hungarian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Filipino, which apparently gave her Lou Diamond Philips-type superpowers to play pretty much any ethnicity. Does Kirk and Moreau count as an interracial kiss? Sure, why not? Though, let’s face it, after the many examples listed above, the question is basically moot.
This isn’t meant to be a fully comprehensive list, of course. As mentioned above, the media of the day took almost no notice of interracial kisses on TV. It appears to be something that very few people outside of nervous network executives ever gave any thought.
So short of watching hundreds of hours of TV programming produced prior to 1968, much of which isn’t currently available to watch in any form, there’s no way to conclusively state that any of these kisses were truly “the first”. But simply going by the list above, were Kirk and Uhura really TV’s first interracial kiss? Heck, no; I think even that episode of Sea Hunt is more deserving of the title than Star Trek.
Unfortunately for Star Trek fans, Shatner and Nichols may have to settle for the qualified title of “first black/white kiss on a scripted American TV series”, which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. But this may be our answer for why the kiss, as brave and daring as it was, went almost completely unnoticed by the public for years: there were so many noteworthy kisses that came before it that by the time Star Trek shattered that particular taboo, it wasn’t much of a taboo anymore. And I think recognizing that fact is far more important than bestowing a questionable accolade upon a TV show decades later.