Bob speaks to Star Trek icon turned multimedia phenomenon George Takei.
On Thursday, for a group of marketing executives hosted by the software firm Adobe, I sat down with Star Trek icon tuned multimedia phenomenon George Takei. Here’s a sampling, edited...by Brooke.
BOB: Thank you ladies and gentlemen. My partner in conversation today was a young character actor in 1966 when he was cast for a role that would make him instantly pretty obscure, actually. Star Trek such an enduring worldwide phenomenon that we forget how it struggled as a first run series. But it enjoyed a cult following that has grown and grown and with it the fame of steady-at-the-helm Mr. Sulu. When the series was cancelled, the plucky third officer might have been consigned to being famous for being famous. But what happened to his careers and continues to happen is a phenomenon as well. He's an actor. He's been an appointed and elective politics in Southern California. He's a passionate advocate for gay Americans and especially marital rights. He's at the forefront at the movement to redress the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. And of late, he has become a social media darling. With Facebook likes exceeding 8 million.
It seems that people have been mispronouncing his name for at least 50 years so here's a little mnemonic trick: OH...MY...IT'S GEORGE TAKEI (Teh-KAY). Ladies and gentlemen, George Takei.
BOB: I have turned this first question over and over in my head. And what I've come up with is more of an assertion and I humbly request your comment.
BOB: Dude, what a bizarre career.
TAKEI: [Laughs] Yes, it's true. When I was a very young actor I cruised around in a pretty cool vehicle called the Starship Enterprise. Oh we have Trekkies here! Live Long and Prosper.
That gave me some kind of cache. Together with that came, I thought, a responsibility. Because actually my life story begins with December 7th, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed and overnight, American citizens of Japanese ancestry were looked at with suspicion and fear and hysteria grew and grew. Where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used Executive Order 9066 which ordered all Japanese-Americans to be summarily rounded up and put in 10 barbed-wire prison camps simply because we happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. I remember the barbed-wire fence. The sentry towers with the machine guns pointed at us. I remember the search light that followed me when I made the night runs to the latrine from our barrack. I thought it was kind of nice that they lit the way for me to pee.
It became normal for me to go with my father to a mass shower, line up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall. Go to school in a black tar paper barrack. Begin the day with the pledge of allegiance to the flag. That's what made me an activist. I've been an activist in the social justice movement, in political campaigns, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, was in the peace movement during the Vietnam War. Was engaged in the redress for Japanese Americans. Concurrently, I was pursuing an acting career. I was able to parlay whatever microphone or camera that Star Trek offered me to, uh, amplify my voice on the issues that I was campaigning for.
BOB: You had a bully Star pulpit. I feel kind of silly now, but I want to ask you some questions about Star Trek. It made you immortal.
TAKEI: Not really. We had seven regular characters and I was like the fourth banana...
BOB: He, 'live long and prosper' over there...is he or is he not immortal.
[SHOUT FROM OFF-STAGE]
TAKEI: Did I hear 'immoral'? A little bit of that too.
BOB: As I was saying earlier, people forget that the show really struggled and it was getting clobbered week after week by like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
TAKEI: You know what the lowest rated episode we ever had was? Where Captain Kirk kissed Uhuru - a white man kissing an African-American woman. All the stations in the American South, in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana refused to air it. And so our ratings plummeted. It was because Star Trek was using science fiction as a metaphor for contemporary issues of the time and those people that became Star Trek fans watched to see what the subtext of each episode.
BOB: And the crew of the Enterprise included, a black woman - Uhura, a Russian - Chekov, a Scotsman, and Spock- who I think was a two-fer: both Vulcan and Asperger's. And one closeted, gay Japanese American.
TAKEI: That was a hidden special.
BOB: Was Gene Roddenberry a multicultural visionary or an intergalactic tokenist? What was he up to?
TAKEI: I think he was both. But he was extraordinary in that he was both. Because, as you say at that time what they had on television was Gomer Pyle and I Love Lucy - which I love too - but they were pure entertainment. Gene Roddenbury felt that television was being wasted. That it had the potential for enlightenment and even inspiration.
BOB: One of your key areas is marital rights. You came out in 2007, right?
TAKEI: 2005. In 2005, both Houses of the California state legislature passed the marriage equality bill. However, at that time our governor was a movie star; Arnold Schwarzenegger. He ran by saying, 'I'm from Hollywood - I've worked with gays and lesbians. Some of my best friends are." And I must say that some of my gay friends did vote for him because of that statement. But, his base was the conservative right wing Republican base. So when the bill came to his desk, he vetoed it. That got me so angry. My blood was boiling. That I felt that I needed to speak out. And for me to speak out - my voice needed to be authentic. And so I spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man.
BOB: After Arnold Schwarzen-renegger decided... You were 68 when you came out.
TAKEI: I could not have had a career if I were out. No producer would hire you. So I was closeted for most of my life. I was out to family and very close friends. And my Star Trek colleagues knew. And the end of the week we would have our wrap parties. And the beer would be rolled out and the pizza would be brought in. And people would bring their wives or husbands or boyfriends or girlfriends with them. And I frequently had 'buddies' with me. And so, you know, my colleagues, are hip. They said, 'Oh George, I get it.' But they also knew that if they spoke about it - they would damage my career. So you know, my colleagues knew but in 2005 when Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill I had to speak out. And I was mindful of the fact that it would probably have an adverse impact on my career. But as it turned out, it blossomed. And I was being cast in TV episodes as a character named George Takei. And that character was gay. So I was playing gay George Takei.
BOB: You play gay George Takei on The Howard Stern Show and it's been a wonderful platform for you.
TAKEI: Well, after I came out we got a phone call from Howard Stern's office offering me a job of being their official announcer. You know, here I've been going out on speaking tours to universities and various other corporate gatherings on marriage equality. But I was essentially talking to allies or people who are LGBT. People that are already with us. In the United States we have a large, broad middle that are decent fair-minded people who are too busy to really think about issues other than their next paycheck. Those are the people that we want to get to, in order to change the social climate. And Howard Stern has that audience. So I said, let's boldly go where I've never been before.
TAKEI: But, I'm an actor, not a radio announcer. So I agreed to do it a week every three months. And I had fun, it's, it's a party. Which begins very early in the morning. And I became a hit on the Howard Stern Show. Who knew?
BOB: Oh my.
TAKEI: Oh my indeed.
BOB: Is that where it came from?
TAKEI: When I first met him, and this is long before the invitation to be his announcer. I was doing a play in New York. And, when you're doing a play, the publicist gives you a list of promotional missions. And that particular morning I had this address on Madison Aveune. I went there. Leafing through some magazines, and they had this radio show on. I said to the guy sitting next to me, 'Why can't they get some nice music? That discussion on the air is disgusting.' And he said 'That's the show we're waiting to go on.' I thought, 'good lord.' And then that's when they came and got me. I walked in and here's this skinny guy with wild hair. And I said, good morning to him and he said, 'Oh, you have a deep voice. Anyone with a voice that deep has to have a big dong.'
TAKEI: I said, 'Are we on the air?' And he said, 'Yes.' And I said 'Oh My.'
TAKEI: And he had that on tape, and so from that point on, when someone says or does something outrageous, he presses that button and my voice 'Oh My' comes on. And now he's made it my signature.
BOB: I don't remember the last time anyone had a catchphrase. Fred Flintstone. Yabba Dabba Do. Jimmy Walker, DYNOMITE, and then nothing until, "Oh My."
TAKEI: Jimmy Durante, "Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are."
BOB: You have just dated yourself.
TAKEI: I'm 77. And proud of it.
BOB: I want to come back to those four years in the internment camp mostly in Arkansas and then later, I guess, back on the West Coast. Obviously when you're taking the pledge of allegiance to the country that is put you behind barbed wire, even a little child understands the bitter irony of that. Now, 70-some later you're working on a political level but you are also working on an artistic level you have a musical 'Allegiance' that is opening on Broadway in the next season. Tell me about 'Allegiance.'
TAKEI: 'Allegiance' is about one Japanese-American family during the time of the internment. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, young Japanese-Americans like all young Americans rushed to their recruitment centers to volunteer to serve in the military. That act of patriotism was answered with a slap in the face. And then they imprisoned us. But a year into imprisonment the government realized that there's a wartime manpower shortage. And so they came down with another cruel and degrading program called 'The Loyalty Questionnaire' it was a series of questions but the most intimidating and enraging question was, 'will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan.' The word 'forswear' assumes that we have an inborn existing genetic loyalty to the emperor. So if you answered 'no' you were answering no to the first part 'will you swear your loyalty to the United States.' If you answered 'yes' you were then confessing that you had been loyal to the emperor and were now willing to set that aside and swear your loyalty to the United States. My parents said, 'I am not going to grovel before this government.' They both answered 'no.' Which had them categorized as disloyal. And then there's another group who swallowed their pride and answered that question the way the government wanted them to. And the men were put into a segregated all Japanese-American unit. The women were put into the WACs. And they were sent to the European battlefields. And they came back to the United States as the most decorated unit of the entire Second World War. And it's this story that we tell in the context of one family in 'Allegiance' we broke all box office records, in part my social media campaign. I started my social media campaign primarily for 'Allegiance.'
BOB: And now you're the Ashton Kutcher of senior citizens.
TAKEI: This day is an important day for me. I'll never be any younger than I am now.
BOB: Ladies and gentleman, George Takei.
TAKEI: Thank you very much.