George Takei’s Legacy Isn’t ‘Star Trek,’ Or Even ‘Allegiance.’ It’s How He Used Them To Give Himself A Voice.
Back in 1991, I remember my college roommates and I being eager to catch “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” on its opening weekend. When we’re finally seated in the theater and the movie begins with Hikaru Sulu sitting poised in a captain’s chair and issuing orders with authority, I am not only surprised but also get truly excited.
The one Asian face on television I could always count on watching — thank goodness for reruns — while growing up during the ’70s and ’80s was up on the silver screen in front of me, in command of the USS Excelsior and, if I may add, being one bad-ass man in charge.
Now, 25 years later, George Takei is sitting a few feet away from me, poised and engaged, inquisitively asking the makeup artist who is prepping him for his photo shoot about her Filipina heritage with that velvety, deep voice of his.
What pops into my mind is Sulu’s line to close that opening VI scene: “Are you kidding?” I’ve got to pinch myself.
George, at this point in his life, has no resignations talking about “Star Trek” with its die-hard fans, a.k.a. Trekkies or Trekkers, as well as fawning reporters. “It comes with the territory,” he says.
Sure, he was in a memorable episode of “The Twilight Zone” and numerous films, in addition to lending that distinctive voice of his to countless animation roles. But it is the part of Sulu for which he will always be remembered, and beloved. As the helmsman of the USS Enterprise, he went where few Asian American actors had gone — a weekly TV series, when the show debuted on NBC in 1966. And there are few acting ensembles in pop culture more iconic than the original crew of “Star Trek.”
It just might have typecast him, and several of the show’s other actors, preventing them from landing other acting jobs. But George is fine with that.
“I was limited to Asian roles anyway,” George says. “This was an extraordinary, unusual, groundbreaking Asian role. I was proud of what the show symbolized, with the statement that it made. From the very beginning I was telling people I’m proud of it.”
(Jack Blizzard/Kore Asian Media)
If only that promotion to captain had come earlier. “I worked hard for it. I was lobbying from the TV series days,” George says. “Starfleet is supposed to be a meritocracy. … When I went up to cast, [creator] Gene Roddenberry told me that Sulu was No. 1 out of Starfleet Academy.”
So, in that vision of the future, Asians were still a model minority. And even in space there’s a bamboo ceiling. “They kept giving us title advances — lieutenant commander, commander — but I was still anchored to that damn [helmsman] console, saying the same thing, ‘Warp three,'” says George, who jokes that he was a glorified chauffeur.
He says, with a laugh, “I was the best Asian in the galaxy, the best Asian driver in the galaxy.”
George’s reaction, however, upon learning that Sulu in the third film of the revived franchise, “Star Trey Beyond,” was not what you might have expected. “Early on, John [Cho, who’s played Sulu in the reboots] phoned me, and he said, ‘The writers want to pay tribute to you because of your activism for LGBT equality, and they want to make Sulu gay,'” recounts George.
The concern, in George’s mind, was that “Beyond” had a release date scheduled for 2016, which is the 50th anniversary of the original series. George told John: “It shouldn’t be about me or Sulu; it should be about Gene Roddenberry. He’s the one who should be honored.”
George’s admiration and respect for Roddenberry runs deep, like the body of water that was the basis for the character’s name. “[Roddenberry] was looking for a name that suggested pan-Asia,” George says. A name like Takei, or Wong, or Kim, would be too specific to one nation. “He had a map of Asia pinned to his office wall, and he found off the coast of the Philippines the Sulu Sea. He thought, ‘The waters of the sea touch all shores.’”
George recalls the first casting interview he had with Roddenberry, in which they talked about current events and the civil rights movement. When Roddenberry didn’t discuss the show, George assumed he wouldn’t get the part. But George asked him about it anyway. Roddenberry told him: “The strength of this starship is in its diversity coming together. This character that you’re auditioning for represents all of Asia. There will be a character that represents Africa, North America, Europe. It’s this diversity coming together and working in concert, each individual competent of their skills, their problem-solving capabilities, their inventive genius, working as a team.”
During the show’s run in the ‘60s, George tried to get Roddenberry to use the struggle for LGBT equality as a theme in an episode. “I was closeted, but as a liberal, I suggested to him: ‘There’s an important issue we’re not dealing with,’” George says.
There was one key roadblock to that: an episode that featured the white Capt. Kirk kissing the black Uhura had aired, and it was the lowest-rated ever, because several southern states, including Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, refused to broadcast it. “[Roddenberry] said, ‘We’re pushing the envelope. … What I learned from the low rating is the fact that I can’t push too far and still be on the air. I won’t be able to address any issues if we’re off the air,’” remembers George.
So George suggested to the “Beyond” filmmakers to be as imaginative as Roddenberry, telling them: “Create a fresh, new character in that new 23rd century environment who has his own history. Gene created all the of the characters on Star Trek that you know as straight.” George also gave director Justin Lin suggestions on how the movie could pay tribute to Roddenberry.
Since the final film tampered with the integrity of Roddenberry’s vision, George had no hesitation raising public objections. And when “Beyond” finally did come out last summer, there is just a brief moment when Cho’s Sulu kisses a man and their daughter upon his return from a long mission.
“That’s it. I was taken aback by, after all those discussions, that it was such a brief nothing,” George says. He then quotes Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”: “Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
This is one man not afraid to speak his mind, and poetically, at that.
Maybe that’s why Howard Stern keeps having George return as a guest on his radio show, to discuss everything from his books and the Broadway musical about the Japanese American internment to his sex life with his husband Brad Takei (they were married in 2008). And Brad’s fine with it. “It is wonderful that George is reaching a large audience where he can discuss LGBTQ topics from a perspective they might not normally hear,” Brad says.
(Jack Blizzard/Kore Asian Media)
George’s “Oh, my” has reached catchphrase glory. And he boldly goes where few 79-year-olds would probably be willing, traveling an extensive itinerary that takes him to college campuses and conferences from London to Jasper, Canada, speaking about the persecution he’s experienced and his struggles for equality. And with his activity on social media, especially when he clamors for more Asian representation and critiques the whitewashing of Asian characters, it really is remarkable to see the fierce strength and stamina he possesses.
Much of that drive is because of one of this country’s most ignominious acts: the internment of the 120,000 Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Since George was about five years old when his family was rounded up and imprisoned in 1942, his perspective was initially different. “I remember having fun, which is a funny thing to say about being in a barbed-wire prison camp,” George says. “But I was too young to really understand what was going on. I remember the search light that would follow me when I made the night runs to the latrine. For my parents, it was an invasive, humiliating, degrading light. But I loved it; it was nice they lit my way.
“But now, as an adult, I understand and keenly share the pain, the anguish,” George says.
After World War II ended, the family lived on Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles. “We were impoverished, and housing was impossible for Japanese Americans,” George says. “The hatred was still intense.” By 1950, his parents were able to buy a house in the neighborhood that would later become Koreatown. And despite his ordeal, his father maintained an idealism for American democracy. “He said, ‘Our American democracy is still the best because it’s a people’s democracy, and the people have the capacity to do two things. They are capable of doing extraordinary things, amazing things you’re reading about in your civic books. But those same people have human fallibility. They can fail, and fail horrifically, as they did when we were imprisoned.’”
The senior Takei also got George involved in electoral politics, volunteering for the presidential run of Adlai Stevenson, and later the campaign of Tom Bradley, who became the first African American mayor of Los Angeles. George would later even become a candidate for public office, vying for the seat on the L.A. City Council in 1973 vacated by Bradley. “My father was so proud, and my mother was making sushi at home and bringing it over and feeding the campaign volunteers,” says George, who ended up falling short. “Our heart and soul was in it. And I remember Adlai Stevenson when he lost. He said, ‘I’m too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh.’ And I knew exactly what he meant.”
George’s civic participation didn’t end there. Bradley appointed him to the region’s public transportation agency, and during his 11 years on its board of directors, he would have to leave the set of the first “Star Trek” film to cast the vote that would establish L.A.’s subway system. “The press likes to dramatize it,” George says. “Yes, there was an important vote, and they did send me a car to the studio to get me down to headquarters to cast that vote. But it wasn’t that dramatic. It passed comfortably.”
Candor never seems to be an issue with George. But there has been one glaring exception. “Because I wanted my career I stayed closeted,” George says.
“When I started going to gay bars, I thought this was a wonderful place — camaraderie. I could put down all the guards,” George says. But he knew if he ever got caught up in a raid, which happened periodically, his career would be over. “[The police] would march all the patrons out, load them onto paddy wagons, took them to the police station and fingerprinted them, and put their names on a list. If that was exposed, it would have been an absolute disaster for us.”
George had a plan for when he went to these places. “I always looked for the exit sign, hung out near the exit sign,” George says.
But once he publicly revealed he was gay in 2005 during efforts for same-sex marriage to be legal in California, he has been an outspoken proponent for LGBT rights. The process of coming out, says Brad, included challenges. “But George looks at life with optimism; he never dwells on the negative side of things,” Brad says. “He is a social activist and he uses his platform to fight for a more inclusive society.”
This country’s slow march to a more open, inclusive society faces challenges with a Donald Trump presidency, in George’s mind — he supported Hillary Clinton. Then-candidate Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. echoed too much our country’s past disgraces. And that Muslims might have to register is not unlike the “Loyalty Questionnaire” Japanese Americans had to sign after the United States entered World War II. George says, “First of all, the idea of a loyalty questionnaire after they’ve taken everything from you and imprisoned you for a year is outrageous.”
Two questions, in particular, were offensive. “Question 27 asked, Will you bear arms to defend the U.S.A. Question 28 was even more insidious — one sentence with two conflicting ideas,” George says. “It asked, Will you swear your loyalty to the U.S.A. and forswear your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan? … If you answered yes, meaning I do swear my loyalty to the United States, then you were confessing that you had been loyal to the Emperor.”
Some who answered “yes” went on to fight in the war in Europe, being part of highly decorated Army units like the 442nd Regiment or the 100th Battalion. Those who answered those two questions in the negative became known as “No-Nos,” which included his parents. As a result, the Takei family was sent to the harsher prison at Tule Lake in California, after initially being interned in Arkansas.
I asked George, if he was old enough, would he have answered no-no. “That’s an intriguing thought,” he responds. “I have the luxury of seeing myself heroically. I see both. Those people that bit the bullet and swallowed the bitter taste and went and fought, leaving their family [imprisoned]. … But I see the No-No Boys also as gutsy people that took the stand that was as difficult a stand as those that went to fight took. They were fighting for democratic ideals.”
The musical based on George’s life, “Allegiance,” which premiered in 2012 and landed on Broadway in 2015, addresses that turmoil Japanese Americans faced. “We made heroes of both those who went to fight for this country, and those that stood on principle and fought on the battlefields of a federal penitentiary.”
George adds, “I consider [‘Allegiance’] my legacy project.”
When asked what he thinks is his most lasting contribution, between his acting and advocacy for Japanese Americans and LGBT rights, George responds, “They’re all important to me. And they all come [down] to protecting our democracy.
“The internment was an egregious violation of our Constitution. And I draw the parallel between that and equality for LGBT people. We were innocent Americans who had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. But because of who we were, we were seen as the enemy and imprisoned,” George says. “[And gays caught in raids] were criminalized about what? About being who we were?
“So I draw all these parallels; they’re all interrelated. And having good public transportation is the same thing. It’s connecting society.”
He adds, “I’m always mindful of the fact that my acting career has amplified my voice. And particularly ‘Star Trek,’ because it as a show, is a vision for our future and a philosophy of how we can make human existence a better, richer experience.”
This story was originally featured in the Kore 2016 Annual Issue, available now for FREE at https://charactermedia.com/subscribe. Grab your copy today!