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France Nuyen: 'Star Trek' And 'South Pacific' Icon, Then and Now

Entertainment | December 13, 2019

Left: France Nuyen, French actress, wearing a print pattern swimsuit, posing with her arms wrapped around her legs as she sits on a piece of driftwood, circa 1960. Right: Nuyen on 'Star Trek.' Sources: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images; trekcore.com

France Nuyen is one of those character actors you know you’ve seen but you just can’t place. She’s been on screens big and small since 1958, and while she never reached the heights of some of the actors she worked with she remains a cult favorite among fans of Star Trek and St. Elsewhere. Nuyen acted until the 2000s, and while she left the cameras behind she hasn’t stopped working. Nuyen regularly appears at science fiction conventions and works as a psychological counselor to women in need. This stunning Vietnamese and French actress may have left the glitz and glamor of Hollywood behind, but she’s not forgotten. 

Nuyen Was Raised In France And Hit It Big When She Moved To New York

source: getty images

Born in France abandoned by her father, Nuyen was raised in Marseille by a cousin and her mother in order to avoid persecution during World War II. However, that doesn’t mean that things were easy. In 2019 she told the Mansfield News Journal:

There were times we only had beans or lentils to eat, which the merchants mixed with dirt so they would weigh more when we bought it. At the end of the war, my mother weighed only [84 pounds] with eyes sunk into her face. To make matters worse, she looked Jewish so the Gestapo was always harassing her.

Once the war ended Nuyen and her mother fled to New York where she started modeling for Candy Jones in spite of the fact that she didn’t speak much English. Following a brief interview with 20th Century Fox she was cast in South Pacific as a barefoot island girl before following the film’s director to the stage where she took on the role of Suzie Wong in The World of Suzie Wong where she memorized her lines phonetically while learning to speak English. Although she was considered for the movie version of Suzie Wong, the role ultimately went to Nancy Kwan, her Broadway understudy.

Her Exotic Looks Eased Her Into The Hollywood System

source: reddit

Following her brief foray onto Broadway Nuyen went back to the screen in a myriad of roles that saw her taking on a variety of “exotic” looks. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s she appeared on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Gunsmoke, I Spy, Kung Fu, and pretty much every prime time television show that needed a beautiful woman who wasn’t white. In 2019 Nuyen said:

Hollywood didn’t have many oriental, Indian, or Hawaiian actresses in those days, so I was one of their first exotic commodities — a little pile of gold for the studio! I was blessed with a career that just fell from the sky.

She met her first husband, Robert Culp, on the set of I Spy and the two married in 1967. Unfortunately the marriage wasn’t long for this world and the pair split in 1970. 

She Made Her Biggest Splash On 'Star Trek'

source: CBS

Nuyen’s most recognizable role came from her old scene partner in The World of Suzie Wong, William Shatner. She appeared in the 1968 episode of Star Trek, “Elaan of Troyius" where she played an arrogant queen in a Cleopatra wig who wrapped men around her little finger. In an interview from 2015, Nuyen said that she knew she had the role in the bag, and that she didn’t even have to speak in her camera test at Desilu Productions:

They had me come, but I think they’d made up their minds and had me come in just in case I had green hair or something. I went in. I didn’t read. They asked me if I wanted to do the show. I said, ‘Yes, I’m interested.’ They said, ‘Well, can you start Monday?’ I think they handed me the script and I went straight from their office to have my fittings.

France Nuyen And William Shatner Were Constantly On Screen With One Another

source: CBS

Nuyen may have only been in one episode of Star Trek, but she spent quite a bit of time with Captain Kirk, or rather William Shatner. She and the groovy Canadian hunk appeared with one another throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s because they worked so well together. She explained:

The more someone you’re working with is confident, the more confident you feel. Bill is a professional actor. We’d done stage together for two years, more than 100 performances. And after Star Trek, we did Kung Fu, where I played his wife, and also The Horror at 37,000 Feet. So I know the man is capable of producing whatever is needed for a scene. That allows an actor or actress to relax, knowing that the tree in the corner is not going to collapse, that the person you’re acting with is holding up his end of the scene.

She Transitioned Out Of Television And Into Psychology

source: wikipedia

In the 1980s Nuyen continued working on TV, often as a doctor in roles on shows like St. Elsewhere and Knots Landing, and while she continued to act into the 2000s she started focusing on a different life track - psychologist. In 1986 she received her clinical psychology degree and started working with women and children who suffered from abuse as well as women in the prison system. While speaking with the Mansfield News Journal in 2019 she spoke about the joy she gets from helping people without the same resources that she has, and said that her time as a psychologist was not only eye opening but enriching: 

It was a tremendous enrichment of my mind and heart to help people who were neglected by society.

Tags: France Nuyen | Ladies | South Pacific | Star Trek | The World Of Suzie Wong | Then And Now | What Did She Do?... | William Shatner

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.