Neil deGrasse Tyson came onto the science-themed, late night talk show circuit with some clout. The "Cosmos" host, author, educator, and Hayden Planetarium director's first guest when StarTalk "jumped species" from podcast to television was Whoopi Goldberg.
On Friday June 9, 2017, Tyson opened up a screening of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre in Santa Monica with a talk on his career as an astrophysicist-turned-broadcaster. Access Hollywood's film critic, Scott Mantz, moderated the event and asked Tyson for his three favorite StarTalk guests.
1. Nichelle Nichols
While StarTalk was still just a podcast, Nichols appeared on StarTalk twice. Tyson learned that Star Trek had been a holdover gig for Nichols while paying her dues to land dancing parts on Broadway. Tyson didn't think being Lieutenant Uhura was anything to sneeze at. "She is actually in the chain of command to be captain of the ship," remarked Tyson.
Early on into the series, Nichols decided it was time to go back to New York and find her dream job, Tyson said. However, before leaving she attended a party where she bumped into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"And he says, 'Oh, my children! We line up at night, and you make us all proud.' And she said, 'Oh, thank you, but I'm going back to New York,' and he said, 'You can't do that. There are no other black people on television. Much less, what there are, they're not in any kind of role of responsibility, and integrity, and dignity.' And he convinced her to stay with the series." - Neil deGrasse Tyson
Tyson teared up, searched for tissues, and said he opened up a bottle of wine at eleven in the morning during the taping with Nichols. "And then, I think it was only one and a half glasses of wine," Tyson said, before he asked Nichols about her and William Shatner's interracial kiss on Star Trek, one of the first interracial kisses on television. Tyson said Nichols told him that the producers of the show wanted to film a version of the scene without the kiss, but that she and Shatner purposefully kept messing up the non-kiss until they ran out of filming time so that the editors of the show wouldn't have any such scene to work with.
Nichols then asked Tyson if he wanted to see what a "racial kiss" was, and then she kissed him.
Tyson also recognized Nichols for her role in recruiting women and people of color for NASA space missions from engineering schools across the United States. Tyson said Nichols was able to find these recruits by looking where NASA had not been looking.
"You were only looking at the U.S. Naval Academy and not Tuskegee Institute where they have a huge engineering group. So she laid out this recipe, and that first astronaut class: it had black people, it had Asians, it had women. And they were at the top of their class when they came out of college and graduate school, so she shaped the modern view of NASA."
2. Biz Stone
"The name doesn't even sound real," said Tyson, referring to the co-founder of Twitter. Tyson counts Stone among the great entrepreneurs who never finished college: Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg.
"Until he described how he envisioned Twitter, I had not fully appreciated what it was," said Tyson. Stone asked Tyson if he had ever seen birds suddenly take flight and flock together after behaving independently, and then, just as swiftly as they started, return to their posts and be "individuals again."
"Twitter is a flocking mechanism for humans," Tyson said. "I live near Ground Zero in New York City," Tyson recalled what could be described as a Twitter moment from 2011. "I'm watching TV, all of a sudden I heard noises in the street. Crowds were developing. I said, 'What's going on?'" While Tyson was sitting in his home, it had been announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
Tyson got on the internet and read the news. "I missed all that, but all these people got the tweet, and everyone gathered back at Ground Zero." That realization of the nature of social media made Biz Stone Tyson's number two guest.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Jabbar's appearance on StarTalk is from the upcoming season, so Tyson did not want to reveal the topics of the episode, but he could not resist including Jabbar because of his numerous qualifications.
- He has written a novel about Sherlock Holmes' older brother, Mycroft Holmes (which Jabbar talked with Off-Ramp about in 2015)
- He had a column in Time Magazine
- His high scores on Celebrity Jeopardy
- He's the highest scorer ever for the NBA, with 38,387 career points (Kobe Bryan is third with 33,643 points)
- He played in the All-Star Game 19 times out of his 20 NBA seasons
- He has six NBA Championship rings
- And he was in "Airplane!" and Bruce Lee's "Game of Death"
Tyson gives us one giveaway though, from Jabbar's interview. The one film role that Jabbar is disappointed about never being cast in was Chewbacca in "Star Wars."
Neil deGrasse Tyson's new book is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Thanks to him and the American Cinematheque for allowing us to excerpt their presentation on Off-Ramp.