George Takei spent three seasons playing Lt. Sulu on the original Star Trek television series. Now, more than 40 years later, he's entertaining a new generation of fans, thanks partly to a social-media presence that includes a Facebook page with nearly 5.2 million likes and a Twitter account with more than 916,000 followers.
Imprisoned in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, Takei has become a civil-rights activist, having been a vocal supporter of marriage equality and LGBT rights. In 2005, he came out as a gay man and in 2008 married Brad Altman, his partner of 26 years. Takei, who appears Dec. 6-8 at the Steel City Con at the Monroeville Convention Center, talked to City Paper from his home in Los Angeles.
You've visited Pittsburgh several times over the years. What are some of your impressions of our city?
I've been coming to Pittsburgh quite frequently over the years, primarily for Star Trek conventions. Last year I was there for four months working on a Nickelodeon show called Supah Ninjas. We were quite the presence there in your city for awhile and as a matter of fact, our soundstage was an old, abandoned steel mill. And it felt like a steel mill when we worked there in the summertime.
I have nephews who will be amazed that I'm talking to Hologramps. They'll finally believe I do something worthwhile for a living.
Well, I'm glad I can help raise your esteem within your family. [Laughing] You know, when I first arrived in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, I was expecting the classic, industrial, soot-covered city, but you guys really know how to make a first impression on a visitor. You come through that tunnel and see that skyline with that black, gothic glass tower and those two great historic rivers coming together -- the Monongahela and the Allegheny – at a triangle. It really is Gotham City. You have that gothic, urbanized part of downtown and you have your industrial history right there along the river with the bridges going across.
You were here for four months; did you get a chance to take in much of the sites?
The delights and cultural grace of your city are also incredible. I'm a theatre person and your public theatre is a real theatrical pleasure. I think you're most blessed because you have people who are proud of their city and bring imagination to your built heritage. The very fact that we worked in a former steel mill; you know it could have laid there derelict and empty, but you had entrepreneurs who had a creative idea and transformed it into a soundstage. It's the human resources of a city that really keeps a city vibrant and alive.
You're coming into town for the Steel City Con and you're no stranger to these types of events. Have you done them consistently throughout your career?
I have because I think it's one of the responsibilities that we have. You know, Star Trek is still very popular. We have a new cast now playing our parts in the movies and three years from now, Star Trek will be 50 years old. With this kind of longevity comes amazing, dedicated, devoted support from the fans. I think it's important that we who benefitted from that support go out there in person and thank them personally for it. And it's not just the original fans now, most of them are now members of the AARP. Now it's their children – who are also fast approaching AARP age – who are the dedicated Sci-Fi geeks and nerds. I've now added to that fan base with my work on Supah Ninjas, so I'm insuring the longevity of my career for years to come. Just like that Vulcan greeting, "Live long and prosper," Star Trek has certainly lived a long time and we have all prospered from it so I think it's important that we go to conventions to personally thank the fans who made this longevity possible.
What is it about Star Trek that people have connected to so strongly?
I think there are four things. One is the optimistic view of the future that the show had. So much of science fiction depicts a ruined civilization with humans rummaging around in the ruins, but Star Trek looked at the future with an optimistic view. Two, we told very good personal stories. We were characters that the audience could identify with; the human relationships that we had held the audience's interest. Number three, the technology was fascinating to people, particularly geeks and nerds. And number four, Gene Roddenberry believed in using science fiction as a metaphor for contemporary issues. Whether it was the civil rights movement at the time or the Vietnam War which was tearing the country apart, Sci-Fi was a metaphor for all of those issues.
The Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth and the strength of the Starship lay in its diversity coming together and working in concert as a team and that's what made it possible for the Enterprise to move forward and upwards. I think those four things are still very relevant today, although the issues may be different.
A lot of people believe that show was way ahead of its time. Did you realize that as you were doing it?
I did. We broke ground then and we're way past that now. We had technology that was astounding. We had this little device on our hip which we tore off, flipped open and started talking into and there were no cords attached. This was 1966. Today not only do we talk into it, we text with it, we watch movies on it and we take pictures with it. What the show thought might be possible in 300 years was accomplished in less than 50. Star Trek was groundbreaking then and today we're breaking new ground in reality.
Some Star Trek fans have been known to be pretty rabid and into the show. Do you have any memorable interactions with fans at these conventions?
At one of the early conventions I was asked a question from one of the gathered fans there. This person asked, "When you left Alpha Ceti IV, you left at Warp 3. So why did it take you so long to reach Centauri 14?" [Laughs] That made me think I'd better be prepared for those types of questions in the future. Needless to say, that day I failed.
What about autographs, did anyone ever ask you to sign their kid or sign their body in a strange place?
Oh Yes! I've signed alllll kinds of body parts! Name it. I've signed it. I'll let your imagination run wiiild! [Laughs]
In addition to Star Trek, you've become known to a new generation of fans as George Takei, social media darling/king of the Internet. How did you become so engaged in social media?
I grew up imprisoned as a child in U.S. internment camps and it's been my mission in life to raise the awareness of Americans on that very dark chapter in our history. To really get people to connect emotionally to that story I thought it was important — and remember I'm a theater person — to dramatize it. And even better to develop a Broadway musical on that subject. ...
So we [put] a lot of our time, energy, talent and money into that project and we were able to get the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego to produce it. But before we did any of that, we needed to have an audience prepared for it. So, I thought, "Well, social media is a wonderful way to get the word out and to raise the awareness, but how do we do that?"
My primary social media base was primarily sci-fi geeks and nerds and I had to build that audience base much larger. So I just started through trial and error making some funny commentaries about Star Trek and sci-fi and that started getting a lot of likes and shares ... and my audience base started to grow.
At that point I had to introduce another component of this, and that was social justice. So I started talking about equality for the gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people and I discovered that there was a big overlap between sci-fi geeks and nerds and LGBT people. From there my audience exploded and it got big enough that I then introduced the subject of the Japanese-American internment camps, and that brought in an even larger community, particularly Asian-Americans. From there I started bringing up the musical because I needed to develop them into potential ticket-buyers. I began sharing a few songs and a few scenes from the musical, Allegiance, and it got even bigger.
... And that's it, that's how my social-media escapades began: primarily to get the word out about a project that was very close to me.
You really seem to reach a cross-section of people. I have friends on social media who I'm sorry to say are homophobic or really far right-wing conservatives and I'm always amazed when I see even them on occasion share a George Takei meme or photo.
[Laughing] Well, thank you for telling me that. And thank your friends.
I will. What do you think it is about what you're doing on social media that reaches people of various backgrounds despite your positions on certain social justice issues?
I really do think the connective glue is humor. Humor is what binds us all together regardless of what our politics or phobias are. We as human beings are all connected by the ludicrousness of life.
I want to ask you about your two-word catch phrase, and of course you know what two words I'm referring to. Where did the catch-phrase "Oh My" from. Is that something you've always said and it just became more noticeable as you became more popular?
Absolutely. Haven't you ever said "oh my" when you hear something outrageous or when you see a breathtaking sunrise or sunset? It's just "Oh my!"in awe. It's a common phrase and I've used it my whole life.
But the fatal flaw was when I first went on the Howard Stern Show to promote a play I was doing in New York. There are so many outrageous things that are said on that show and I said "Ohhh Myyyy!"and he had it on tape so from that point on whether I'm there or not when someone says something outrageous, he presses a button and my voice comes on saying "Ohh Myyy." So he'd done that for years. Once when I was having a book signing a young man comes up to me and slips me the book and says "please sign it: To Jack, Oh My."And then it hit me he was a fan of the Howard Stern Show. That's when I realized it had become my signature phrase.
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.