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It almost seems like the phrase can take on different meanings depending on the context and your inflection.
It's taken on many, many nuances. When you see the space shuttle go off, that's certainly an "Oh My!"You know something awe-inspiring, "Oh My."Something outrageous "Oh! My!"And something ugly and smelly is "Ohhhhh Myyyyyy!"It all depends on the delivery.
Going back to your childhood, how did the time spent in the Japanese-American internment camps shape your view of the world as you became a young man and became involved in social-justice issues?
One memory I have that is burned into my mind is one morning – and I'm five-years-old at this time – our parents got my siblings and me up early and my parents were in the back packing and my brother and I were in the living room looking out the front window and I saw two soldiers with bayonets on their rifles – I remember the sparkle on the bayonets from the sun – coming up the driveway and stomping onto our porch and we were ordered out of our home. My father and brother and I went outside and my mother was the last to come out. She came out with my baby sister in one hand and a large duffle bag in the other and tears were streaming down her cheek. A child never forgets that image. It was terrifying.
At that time the camps weren't built and we were taken to live in the stables at the Santa Anita race track. We were housed in this narrow, smelly horse stall. As a five-year-old boy I remember thinking, I get to sleep where the horsies sleep, I thought it was fun. We were there for a few months and then we were put on a train and sent two-thirds of the way across the country to the swamps of Southeast Arkansas. I remember the barbed-wire fence and the sentry towers with the machine guns pointed at us but as a child it all just became part of the landscape. A child is amazingly adaptable and what can be seen as grotesquely abnormal in normal times became my normality.
Although I will say I remember with quite a bit of irony starting school in that camp every morning by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I could see that barbed wire fence every morning as I recited those words, "And Liberty and Justice for All."
When did you start to realize that what you had gone through wasn't right?
I guess I was a teenager living out of the camps and I was reading my civic books with all of these high ideals about our democracy and the history books with all of these stories about the wonderful heroics of our founding fathers. I just couldn't reconcile that with my childhood imprisonment. I started having long conversations with my father after dinner and what I got from those conversations was him telling me that our democracy was the people's democracy and it's as great as its people can be and it's also as fallible as its people are. He said our democracy is vitally dependent on good people being engaged in the democratic process.
Shortly after those discussions he took me to the Adlai Stevenson for President headquarters – he was a great admirer of Adlai Stevenson – and he volunteered me. It was my father's influence that taught me that citizens must be actively engaged and when necessary hold democracy's feet to the fire which was not done at the beginning of World War II when the Japanese-American internment camps were opened. So ever since then I have been involved in electoral politics.
Although I supported Stevenson and he lost. Then I worked for Jerry Waldie for the governor of California and he lost. Then I supported George Brown for the U.S. Senate and he lost. So When I was asked by our city councilman Tom Bradley to head up his Asian-American committee, I said to him, are you sure? I have been the curse of loss for so many candidates. But finally with Tom Bradley, we won and he became the first African American mayor for the city of Los Angeles and the only mayor to serve five terms.
You came out for all of these different social justice issues over the years, but it wasn't until the mid-2000s that you came out in support of the LGBT community. Do you regret not coming out sooner to stand up for LGBT equality? What kept you behind the scenes in that fight?
Honestly, it was the reality of the times. I was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. I did a civil rights musical back in the 1960s. I was involved in the anti-Vietnam War issue. I was involved in all of these things but when it came to LGBT issues, I was silent throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s because I was pursuing a career as an actor. In television you want ratings, in movies you want box office and unfortunately at that time the feeling was you wouldn't get any of that if you are known as a gay actor. Early in my career, I was young, no-name actor going up for part after part and getting rejected time and time again because you're too tall, too short, too skinny, too fat, too Asian, or not Asian enough. To be out as an actor, well you weren't really an actor at all because you couldn't work. Sadly, that was the reality of the time.
What was that like, hiding who you were?
By being silent I was living with an ever-present fear of being exposed because I was living a double life. For publicity purposes I had female friends that I took to parties and openings, but then I was also going to gay bars. You live in perpetual fear because I'm in the most public business that you could ever go into. The climate of the times determined my silence. But then in the 1980s when AIDS struck, the fear was turned into terror. That was now a crucial life and death issue for the LGBT community and at that time I started silently contributing funds. We marched in AIDS walks as allies of the LGBT community to try and bring attention and funding to AIDS research. We marched under that cloak because I still wanted that career.
The battle for marriage equality changed things for you didn't it.
Well, the climate began to change. In 2002, Massachusetts got marriage equality through its supreme court. In California, the state legislature approved marriage equality, it was a landmark moment, and the bill went to the governor's desk, who happened to be Arnold Schwarzenegger at the time. When he ran he said he was from Hollywood and he worked with actors who were gays and lesbians – he had friends who were gays and lesbians, you know the whole cliché bit. And honestly, as a friend, I thought he would sign it, but he was a Republican and his base was the right wing.
He vetoed the bill and we were shattered; disappointed is too mild a word. Brad and I were at home watching TV and young people were raging in the streets at Gov. Schwarzenegger. We were raging too, but we were comfortable at home. So, we talked about it and we said, "I have to speak out."We came so close, just one signature and this governor vetoed it. If I was going to speak out then my voice had to be authentic and I addressed the press for the first time as a gay man. I had been quietly out for awhile. My colleagues knew, but they were very sophisticated people who weren't going to ruin my career by outing me. But that press conference in 2005 is what that press considers my coming out.
You came out publicly in 2005; your career has seen a huge re-emergence. Do you feel like maybe these last several years moving into the future are your salad days?
I try to make my life salad throughout. Yes I'd lived with that tension in my life of being quiet on issues that were the closest and most important to me, but I enjoyed my life back then, even though I certainly have regrets.
I love children and I never had children. My surrogate children have been my nieces and nephews. My nephew who lives closest to us has children of his own and it's provided us with surrogate grandchildren and we love them deeply. But at the airport or traveling, I see the little kiddies and I do wish we could have had those experiences as parents, for example, I never got to get up with them in the middle of the night and soon my nephew will have the experience of his daughter who is 14 dating. I do see those experiences romantically and I've vicariously through my nephew and I do envy him those precious times. But yes, these are my salad days, just as I've had throughout my life. You have to approach everyday like it's going to be a wonderful day. And sure it may rain or get cold but you have to find something everyday to be thankful for and turn that into your salad days. Everyday should be a salad day, as long as we're mindful of the fact that there's always room for improvement.