September 9 to 17, 1968
47 years ago this week, the Star Trek cast and crew were filming “Plato’s Stepchildren” with guest star Michael Dunn. As any Trekkie worth their weight in salt knows, this was the episode that brought about the first interracial kiss on network TV. It was a whole different world in 1968, but Star Trek was determined to take us into the future. What was the conflict on the set during the filming of this historic episode?
After reading the shooting script, and the scene where the Enterprise officers are forced into romantic situations, Jean Messerschmidt of NBC Broadcast Standards sent a memo to Fred Freiberger, warning:
Caution on the postures and actions of our four principals so no impropriety can be suggested. The embraces must not be such as would embarrass a viewer, and there must be no open-mouth kissing. Further, it must be clear there are no racial overtones to Kirk and Uhura’s dilemma.
Fred Freiberger was willing to show caution, but he was determined the kiss would stay in the script. His daughter Lisa later recalled, “There was one thing that I remember while growing up, that he was very proud that it was the first interracial kiss.”
Freiberger’s son Ben said, “I think he was pretty adamant about it. And, like Lisa said, he was always incredibly proud of that. I think he was the reason that difference in race never meant anything to either Lisa or me. He was way ahead of his time with all of those kinds of issues -- whatever it was, equality of race or women’s rights. He was very liberal -- very liberated.”
Freiberger’s friend, Peter Greenwood said, “NBC didn’t want him to do it, so he said, ‘You know what, I’m going to call Roddenberry and see if he’ll back me on this one because I think it’s an important thing to do, and I would very much like to do it.’ He called Roddenberry and Roddenberry said, ‘I’m 100% for it.’ A lot of people have attributed this scene to Gene Roddenberry and in many ways it was Roddenberry’s decision, but the one who brought it forward was Fred Freiberger. It was his insistence that resulted in the interracial kiss on Star Trek and he has never really been given the credit that he deserves for that.”
Filming commenced on Monday, September 9, 1968, and planned for six days, but they were running late, and it was on the final day of production -- an unplanned seventh day, Tuesday, September 17 -- when “the kiss” was finally ready to be captured on film.
Work took place on the South Wing set, this time with wall panels sliding away, revealing the Platonians seated in theater-type boxes, watching as Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and Chapel are forced to act out numerous romantic scenarios.
Director David Alexander had the final nine pages of the script left to film, which had to be covered this day. No more delays were allowed, no more excuses accepted. Filming began at 8 a.m., but shortly after came to a sudden stop when several NBC executives showed up on set.
Freiberger later said, “The power in Program Practices was in New York.... I got [the script approved] by Program Practices in L.A., [but] when New York discovered what was happening, they came in with the heavy guns.”
William Shatner remembered rehearsing the now famous kiss with Nichelle Nichols, right up to the point of filming. Then David Alexander said, “Okay, take five!” … film company lingo for, “We have a small problem to resolve, so everyone go away for five minutes.”
Nichelle Nichols said, “Taking an unscheduled break seemed a bit odd, and the next thing I know, I’m called up to the front office where this gaggle of ‘suits’ sits me down and says, ‘Now, Nichelle, honey, sweetheart, we’ve got a problem.’ ... ‘What problem?’ I asked them, and they said, ‘You know, the kiss -- the kiss! You can imagine the problem we’ll run into if we shoot this kissing scene, can’t you?’ And only now does it hit me ... WHAM! It’s not the fact that Kirk and Uhura are kissing that bothers them, it’s the fact that a black woman is kissing a white man. And I have to tell you, until the suits made it crystal clear to me, I had absolutely no idea that this was going to be television’s first interracial kiss.... So I argued with them, and I said, ‘Interracial kiss? So what?’! We’re supposed to be in the 23rd century here, and this is Uhura, and we don’t have racism where we are.’”
Guest star Barbara Babcock said, “This was 1968, and nobody -- who was a black person [and] a white person -- had ever touched each other on screen.... There was no romantic involvement even by holding hands, so kissing was a big deal in 1968.”
Freiberger said, “The network at that time was very nervous; they thought we’d lose the whole Southern audience, and all of that stuff.’ They said, ‘Why can’t it be Nimoy who kisses her instead of Shatner?’ I said, ‘For the very reason you want it to be -- because he’s a Vulcan and it’s going to be acceptable to everybody that the black girl is kissed by a Vulcan. I want it to be Shatner; it’s got to be him.’ ... It was really a very big thing, and I wanted Star Trek to do that.”
Nichols continued, “So now I’m pissed on a whole other level, and to a whole new degree.... Somehow, I guess, they found it more acceptable for a Vulcan to kiss me, for this alien to kiss this black woman, than for two humans with different coloring to do the same thing. It was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.... So we keep arguing back and forth, and, by now, of course, Gene Roddenberry has come to the office. And he’s gotten into the act, yelling, ‘This is ridiculous, this is patently ridiculous.’ But the network doesn’t want to budge. And at this point Bill storms off to his dressing room, very upset and very angry, yelling, ‘This is absolutely ludicrous. Let’s just shoot the whole thing and the HELL with the South.’”
Roddenberry later said, “Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura’s kiss was an integral part of the story line, and it never occurred to me to question whether Kirk should kiss a black person or not. I had, by that time, achieved a certain clarity about those things.… As a matter of fact, long before Captain Kirk kissed Lieutenant Uhura, I kissed her many times.”
Roddenberry suggested a compromise for the scene between his star (Shatner) and his former lover (Nichols). The scene could be shot two ways -- one with a kiss, one without, and a decision could later be made in editing.
Shatner remembered how the network men were on the sidelines, watching intently.
The real kiss came first. Alexander was satisfied with the coverage. The blocking had Shatner pull Nichols to him and turn her away from camera just slightly. We see his eyes. We see the two faces come together. But we don’t see the lips actually touch, only an insinuation that they do.
Then the scene was shot again, with Kirk, as a show of defiance to the Platonians, fighting the telekinetic manipulation and struggling to keep his lips from connecting with those of Uhura.
Nichelle Nichols said, “Well, Bill Shatner, bless his heart, was determined the [real] kiss was going to be in, and so he bollixed up every take ... and used up all the time, because it was the last day of the shooting and it was the last scene being shot, and, if we did not get it that day, that scene would not have been in there. And it had to be in there. And, finally, they had about five minutes left, and they’re tearing their hair out. We’ve got to go for the one without the kiss, and [Bill’s] making me giggle, you know, and, when they’re finally shooting it, Bill crossed his eyes in the camera, so there was no way they could use that.”
The NBC men on the sidelines could not see that Shatner had made a face and crossed his eyes. They felt everything had gone right and they would be victorious. Days later, after the sets had been torn out, after the next episode was underway, the footage was screened … and only then did it become clear that there was only one usable ‘take’ -- the real kiss. NBC had no choice but to relent.
Freiberger said, “Of course, as everyone knows, Gene and the cast were unprepared to compromise on such an important issue; the kiss stayed in and the show became famous.”
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