George Takei finds new success in activism, social media

The OlympianMarch 30, 2012 

Once only a lieutenant on the fabled Starship Enterprise, George Takei has become a captain in pop culture and the most visible alum of that 1960s sci-fi television show, “Star Trek.”

Takei will appear at 5 p.m. Saturday at Emerald City Comicon. Some of Takei’s young fans have never seen an episode of “Star Trek” or the six subsequent motion pictures based on it. But they’ve gotten to know the 74-year-old Takei as he continues to act, works as an activist and, until recently, was a contestant on Donald Trump’s “The Celebrity Apprentice,” and has become a titan of social media.

Takei has 1.3 million followers on Facebook where he posts humorous captioned photos and the occasional shoutout to his two favorite issues: the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) equality.

In the 2000s, the actor came out as gay, married his partner, and got in a very public dust-up with fellow “Star Trek” actor William Shatner.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Takei exclaims when reminded of his legions of Facebook fans. “It’s a matter of knowing who your audience base is.”

The actor cites his “Star Trek” history as a major hook for his popularity but also mentions his social causes. “I found that humor can be a powerful way to reach people on serious issues.”

Fans supply Takei and his husband, Brad Altman, with most of the material they post, but lately he’s become a victim of his own popularity.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s a tsunami,” he says of his Facebook popularity. “I’ve got a life to live as well. Brad has been helping me, but now we’ve had to take on an intern.”

Until a few weeks ago, Takei was a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” In the season opener, fellow contestant Paul Teutul Sr. (“Orange County Choppers”) called him “meek.” It didn’t sit well with Takei.

“I think it more describes Paul than it describes me. He struggled for that word. I don’t think he has a command of the English language. I am the farthest thing from that as I have more than proved,” Takei says.

On the show’s second episode, Takei was the project manager for a window display the men had to create. Trump, dissatisfied with the results, fired Takei.

“I guess I joined the legion of people that have been fired by Donald Trump,” Takei says. “I still maintain that we had the more classier, the more elegant, the more sophisticated window. The women’s team window had everything but the kitchen sink. I thought ours was Fifth Avenue. Theirs was 34th Street. Sell, sell, sell.”

INTERNMENT EXPERIENCE

The next big project Takei is working on is a musical based on his and other Japanese-Americans’ experiences of being interned during World War II.

Takei had just turned 5 in April 1942 when his family was ordered from their Los Angeles home to an internment camp in Tule Lake, Calif., as part of the massive relocation and imprisonment of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry living along the U.S. Pacific Coast.

For Takei, too young to understand what was going on, it was just another childhood adventure.

“My real memories are fun memories. Catching pollywogs in the creek and watching them turn into frogs.” But he also remembers the barbed wire, the sentry tours, the machine guns and the searchlights.

“When I ran to the latrine at night, I thought it was kind of nice that they lit the way for me.” Only later did he realize the guards weren’t doing it to be kind.

After Takei’s family returned to Los Angeles, “It was impossible for Japanese Americans to find decent housing or a job. Our first home was on Skid Row with scary, ugly people staggering around and leaning on walls. The stench of urine was everywhere. I started school and the teacher referred to me as ‘the Jap boy’ – which stung.”

Takei’s father got the only job he was offered: dishwashing in a Chinatown restaurant. “I thought, ‘People hate us out here.’ I remember my baby sister saying, ‘Mama, let’s go home.’ Meaning back behind the barbed wire fences. That was home to us.”

As a teen, he began to reflect on his internment and saw it for what it was. “They taught me the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and I could see the barbed wire fence and sentry tower right outside the schoolhouse window as I recited the words, ‘With liberty and justice for all.’ ”

Takei says Japanese Americans of his parents’ era wouldn’t talk about the internment. “They thought it was shameful and a disgrace.” But his father was different, he says, and they had many discussions about it.

One of those talks – when Takei was a self-described “arrogant, know-it-all teenager” – he wishes he could take back.

“One conversation that I will always regret and I never apologized for ...” Takei’s gravelly voice grows soft and he pauses to collect himself as he recalls it.

“ ‘Daddy, you led us like sheep to slaughter when you took us to the internment camp.’ He was silent for the longest time. That’s when I knew I had hurt him. He said, ‘Well, maybe you are right.’ He got up and walked to the bedroom and closed the door. I was stunned and also deeply sorry. I didn’t apologize. And I didn’t apologize the following morning. The more time that passed, it became more difficult. And now I can’t apologize. That’s one of the guilts that I will carry with me through my life.”

It’s those discussions with his father and the public’s lack of knowledge that inspire him to keep the lessons of the internment fresh in the minds of Americans.

“It’s an important part of American history. It’s as important as slavery – not as long-lasting, and not to as many people – but it certainly is a failure of our democracy. What was most grievously violated was the United States Constitution,” Takei says.

TAKING ON RACISM

In September, Takei will premiere his musical “Allegiance” at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. He says it weds his passion for theater with his mission to educate the American public about internment.

The storyline centers on a family from Salinas, Calif., that is interned at a camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo. It chronicles the destructive effect internment had on the Japanese-American family and the larger community, Takei says. “The music is soaring, heartbreaking, stirring and ultimately uplifting.”

Takei narrates the story as a World War II veteran. He recounts the patriotism and contributions of Japanese-American soldiers in Europe despite being labeled enemy aliens. “They went from behind those barbed wire fences to fight for their country. They fought with incredible heroism.”

Takei still sees old Asian-American stereotypes surface in popular culture. He mentions several public slurs aimed at New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin.

“It seems that there has been that element that has been under the rug that’s creeping out – the use of certain words. We are a small minority.

We haven’t been as vocal. But the word ‘chink’ is as offensive to Asian Americans as the word ‘nigger’ is to African Americans,” Takei says.

But he’s thrilled for what Lin, an American of Taiwanese descent, has brought to basketball and society.

“He has become a hero to all of us. He has extraordinary skills and athlete prowess. It gives a lot of Asian Americans and particularly Asian American boys the kind of confidence and hope that they might play in that league as well.”

When Takei is reminded that another Asian American was breaking stereotypes back in the ’60s, he allows himself a little pride.

“Young people have come up to me and told me that,” he said. “I was the only Asian-American presence on television that they could be proud of.”

He said, until then, Asian characters on TV were the old stereotypes: “the silent servant, the buffoon, the villain. I owe a lot to Gene Roddenberry, the man who created ‘Star Trek.’ It was specifically meant to be a multiracial and multicultural team. He used to remind us quite regularly that the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for starship Earth.”

COMING OUT

As hard as it was for Takei and other Asian-American actors to find decent roles in the 1950s and 1960s, he knew it would have been even harder if he was known to be gay. “As a gay actor, it would have been suicidal. I was in the closet throughout" my early career.

It wasn’t until Takei was in his 30s that he started to become visible in the gay community. An avid runner, he joined a gay running club. “I found compatible people there,” including his future partner. It wasn’t until 2005 that he came out publicly. The California Legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. “That night I was watching the news and I saw all these young people on Santa Monica Boulevard out protesting. I was with them in terms of the blood that was boiling in me, but I was home comfortable. I knew I had to come out publicly. To the press.”

The publicity seems to have given his career a boost. He was cast in the hit TV show “Heroes” and became a regular on-air personality on the Howard Stern show.

In 2008, he and Altman wed. Two months later, Shatner raised a stink, claiming that Takei didn’t invite him to the wedding.

“That is so totally untrue,” Takei says. “We sent invitations to everyone and Bill didn’t respond – which is typical because he never joins us (“Star Trek” alumni) in any of our collective social activities.”

“I now know his strategy. Whenever he needs to get some attention, he’s found that using me gets him a lot. A week after that, we happened to be driving down Sunset Boulevard and here’s this billboard: ‘William Shatner in his new talk show.’ And I said, ‘Brad, that’s why he complained about not getting an invitation two months after the wedding.’ It was just for attention’s sake.”

Shatner, Takei says, disregards his fans. He cites an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in which Shatner, playing himself at a Comicon-like convention, tells his fans to get a life.

“That’s insulting to fans,” Takei says. “He bites the hand that feeds him.”

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