George Takei Uses His Phaser-Sharp Mind to Zero In on the Killer Among Us While He Brings History to Light in Today’s World
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Adam Bouska
Named after Britain’s King George VI, fanboys and fangirls will forever know George Takei as “Sulu,” his character in the iconic sixties TV series, Star Trek. Still seen throughout the universe in reruns, it is eclipsed only by the countless Star Trek film sequels. Takei appeared in all six. “I was named after English royalty and we’re Japanese-American!” ribs George from the living room of his spacious mid-century home that he shares with husband, Brad, in L.A.’s Hancock Park district. Like his father, Takei (pronounced Ta-KAY) is a self-described Anglophile and a self-proclaimed civic busybody.
From the moment when his father urged him to attend the Adlai Stevenson for President campaign rally as a teen (“That’s where I began to understand how our democracy works”), George has been driven to immerse himself in such hot-button issues as equal rights, national defense, ageism, racism, and of course, HIV/AIDS. Media savvy Takei—he even wrote a book about on-line social networking called Oh Myyy (There Goes the Internet)—is daily, sometimes hourly, commenting, advising, venting, or sharing his insights (and humor) on Twitter or on Facebook. In the sixties he attended civil rights rallies led by Dr. Martin Luther King, protested in the streets against the Vietnam War, and, in the eighties, he participated in the first AIDS Walk, which assembled on the Paramount Studios lot.
Clad in jeans and an untucked plaid striped bluish shirt and utterly spry and spirited at age seventy-six, he’s intensely concerned over the high rates of HIV infection among the younger gay generation. “I lived through that period of great anguish and loss. I lost many, many dear friends,” the practicing Buddhist laments.
“Some people today have no historic connection with that. I mean, it’s starting over again!” George shrieks, “and that’s so painful. We experienced that pain and here they….” He’s so distraught that he can’t finish his thought.
“We don’t learn from history. That’s why a publication like A&U is useful, but for some it becomes useful only after they become victims. How do you reach these kids when they’re young, lusty, vigorous, and dynamic?” Just then the housekeeper walks down the hallway off to our side and I hear a hushed conversation with Brad, who first greeted me at the front door. Asian art and antiquities adorn the living room, while framed family photos are displayed on a side table, and multiple copies of George’s 1994 autobiography, To The Stars, occupy a nearby bookcase. An ebony piano dominates a corner of the room. The space is comfortable yet sublimely elegant. Above the fireplace is a large painting of a sporty George in a stately pose, reminiscent of a Gainsborough portrait.
Carrying on, George chuckles, “I remember being that age and feeling lust and that sense of immortality!” He then adds, in his eloquent and mesmerizing crisp diction, that awareness of HIV prevention and keeping abreast of history is the number-one weapon against infection. He raises his voice and intones flatly, “‘Oh those boring people, always lecturing—my parents, my grandparents, my uncle…I’m invincible. I’m immortal. I won’t get AIDS.’ The attitude of young people is the barrier. It’s very difficult to connect with them. I know, I was one of them.”
Takei next broaches the subject of AIDS awareness among Asian Americans. “We say ‘Asian-American’ but that can mean Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino and so on. To reach them you have to play to that diversity. It’s further complicated by their cultural differences. There’s new immigration from Korea, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and consequently, it is very difficult to reach them with prevention campaigns. They’re an amorphous target.”
He briefly gazes down at the coffee table bearing two books, Broadway Musicals and The Vision, and continues. “The immigrant generation doesn’t like to talk about shameful things, so there’s no connection. ‘Your uncle may have died from AIDS,’” George mimicks, and then whispers, “‘but we don’t talk about it.’ Then there’s the Americanized generation….” He trails off, somewhat frustrated. The Hollywood-Walk-of-Fame-and-footprints-in-cement alum has a refreshing gentlemanly quality about him that is a throwback to simpler times. Thoughtfully, George props his elbow up on an acorn-brown pillow and turns toward me. “Silence is a killer,” he profoundly offers with a staid glint in his Eddie Cantor eyes. “It’s also a delusion, a refusal to really connect with history. I also think that a lot of young people, still in this age, lead closeted lives.”
George is intimately aware of such a life choice. For years, he lived in crippling fear of being outed. By age ten, he knew he was gay and that he wasn’t like other boys. “They thought Monica was cute and Sally was hot, but I was excited about Bobby,” he says laughing, a twinkle in his eye. “I wanted to be popular and so I pretended. I dated girls, went to the prom, but I felt isolated. I thought I was the only one.”
Later, when his acting career skyrocketed, George’s celebrity posed a threat to his secret life. One time, he visited an Indianapolis bathhouse. “There was this blonde farm boy, with just a towel around his waist. I followed him to a sitting area. He sat down and I looked at him and smiled. He looked up and…he had that look of recognition in his eyes. The lust suddenly…chilled. Oh my god!, he recognized me. He recognized Sulu,” declares George hauntingly, reliving the moment. “I was always in fear of that look in people’s eyes. The terror. I immediately turned on my heels, went back to my room, got dressed, and I left.” He jolts his head from side to side trying to make logic out of it. “To live in that constant fear and you still go back and enter into that highly charged dangerous environment….”
Although George was not publicly out, his peers and friends knew. “I was out quietly,” he clarifies. Yet, he was a member of the Frontrunners, a gay running group named after Patricia Nell Warren’s groundbreaking novel. During his first run someone recognized him and whispered, “You’re Sulu.”
“The ones who knew that I was gay respected my need for their silence. They knew I had a career that could be damaged,” he says. It was at Frontrunners in 1987 that George fell in love with fellow runner, Brad Altman. Brad, who’s now his manager, even trained George for his first marathon. To date, George has completed six marathons. George and Brad married in 2008; the first couple to tie the knot in West Hollywood.
Fury eventually propelled George to come out. It was 2005 and the California legislature had just passed the marriage equality bill. “All we needed was Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature, but…he didn’t sign,” bemoans George, still shocked at Arnold’s betrayal. “I was enraged—but I was still silent. That night, Brad and I watched the eleven o’clock news and I saw young people pouring out onto Santa Monica Boulevard [in West Hollywood] in protest. Here we were comfortably at home, and I felt a need to speak out. My voice needed to be authentic.”
George spoke to the press, who deemed this act his “coming out.” He corrected them by saying he was out, although the term is a misnomer. “Coming out is not like opening a door and stepping out. Those words are too simple. It’s a long, long process and coming out is part of that process. I describe it as a long walk down an initially darkened corridor, which becomes a little bit wider as you walk down,” he explains, with a tad of Dr. Phil authority. “Then a little window shade opens and there’s light. You walk down further and there’s another open window and more light. You’re still walking down a corridor even though it becomes wider and brighter. Then maybe there’s a door ajar and you peek out,” attests George, summing up. “Isolation and discrimination can certainly be a part of the life of someone living with HIV.”
Discrimination transformed his life at the age of five when George’s family was interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. By Executive Order, Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were forced into detention camps until December 1944. “It was the most egregious violation of our constitution,” he says, enunciating each syllable with stern force. “The pillar of our justice system is when you are arrested and you have the right to know why you’re arrested and then you have the right to challenge those charges in a court of law. In our case there was no due process.”
One early morning, he and his siblings were asleep in their Los Angeles home when they were awakened by their parents and told to pack. “I remember that scary morning,” he recalls, his face fixed with consternation. “My brother and I were in the living room looking out the window and I saw two soldiers march up our driveway with bayonets on their rifles. They stomped up the front porch and BANGED! on the front door. My father answered it and we were ordered out of our house.”
The children stood on the lawn with their father as his mother cried. “That is burnt in my memory, but, I was too young to really understand,” he notes. While the camps were under construction, George’s family was housed in horse stables. Eventually, they were sent on to a camp in the Arkansas swamps.
“Children are amazingly adaptable. It became normal. All a child is concerned with is having living parents, and they were there for us. They loved us. You make the adjustment to the most grotesquely abnormal thing. I mean, machine guns were pointed at us but they were no more intimidating than a light pole. When I made a night run to the latrine, searchlights followed me, but for me, as a kid, I thought it was nice that searchlights lighted the way. For my parents, it was degrading,” states George, as if he had arsenic in his mouth. “It was enraging…it was painful. My father said, ‘They took my business, they took our home, they took our freedom. The one thing I’m not going to give them is my dignity.’”
A musical based on this chapter of George’s life, Allegiance, starring Takei, Lea Salonga, Telly Leung, and Paul Nakauchi premiered at San Diego’s Globe Theatre in 2012. It will open on Broadway in 2014 and will mark George’s Broadway debut. (For his film debut, see sidebar.)
After the war, many of George’s Asian friends’ families would not discuss their internment. “Again, silence kills,” snaps George grimly. But his parents were different. “I was very blessed in having a father who talked to me.” As George entered his teens, there was conflict. “I couldn’t reconcile what I knew to be my childhood imprisonment. I’m reading civic books with shining ideals of our democracy, and history books with glorious chapters, but there wasn’t a reason [stated] for us to be put in prison camps. So I’d sit down with my father after dinner and we’d have long conversations.”
George was an idealistic teenager who was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He challenged his father, asking, “Why did you go? It was unconstitutional. It was not right.” His father responded, “They’re pointing guns at us. If I were single—maybe. But I was responsible for your mother and you. If I did something [rash], I’d be jeopardizing your lives.” And George would press him repeating, “That’s wrong. That’s wrong.”
The confrontations continued. Takei recalls his father’s words: “This is a people’s democracy and they can be as great as the people can be, or it can be as fallible as people are. And that’s why our democracy is virtually dependant on good people being actively engaged in the process.” Looking pensive, George offers a contented smile. Then with a nod and a shrug, he poignantly sums up, “Life is a human comedy!”
George Takei continues to exercise his First Amendment rights in a cosmic way, devoting his time and energy to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, AIDS Project Los Angeles, and other causes. No longer silent, he’s learned many lessons from his public advocacy for justice and equality—but he insists that this is just the beginning.
Here’s to George’s new frontiers!
A STAR ENCOUNTER
George was a UCLA theater student in 1960 when he was suddenly cast in his first film, Ice Palace, starring Richard Burton. He traveled to a tiny Alaskan fishing village for the filming. Based on Edna Ferber’s novel (she also wrote Giant), it follows the lives of three generations of an Alaskan family. Takei played a Chinese worker who ages from seventeen to seventy-seven.
“I was in love with Shakespeare and here’s this great Shakespearian actor from England! I was stage-struck and star-struck and Richard was an absolutely, transportingly, charismatic, fun, charming man.
“I was full of questions!, so I’d sit beside Burton and pepper him with them. I discovered Richard loved talking about himself so we were the perfect match. He would regale me with such stories as when he first did Hamlet. I’m sitting there wrapped [in conversation] and the director’s assistant would approach, and say, ‘Mr. Burton we’re ready for you on the set.’ He would turn to me and say [George imitates the Welshman’s deep distinctive, heavy accent, and the impression is wildly uncanny as he continues to don his voice throughout the narrative] ‘Hang on George. Hang on George.’ He would go on the set and I’d follow. He’d do the scene [he pauses for effect] and…blow…you…away. The director would call ‘Cut’ and he’d come back to me and say, ‘Now George, as I was telling you….Sit down, Sit down,’ he’d instruct. Richard would then continue with the story he was telling me. It was wonderful.
“One day, we were shooting at this cannery at the end of a pier, and after work, we walked back to the hotel together. They’d have a car there waiting for Richard. At that time I was calling him ‘Mr. Burton,’ but he said, ‘If you insist on calling me Mr. Burton, I will call you Mr. Wang,’ the character I was playing. Once we got to his car, the driver opened the door for him and Richard said, ‘Do you expect me to ride in that car?! I’m talking with George here and the hotel’s right there. I can see it. We’ll walk together. Go away.’ And he would send the car away and we’d walk together, him continuing to tell me about himself.
“But when we passed the saloon in this small fishing village, the girls would come out and he’d say, ‘Oh, hello, Isabelle, how are you?’ ‘Oh, Mary, there you are.’ He turned to me and said, ‘And George, I’ll see you later.’”
George laughs uproariously. He tells the story as though it happened only yesterday. Once again he’s a star-struck twenty-three old student.
He concludes with a mischievous chuckle, “And this was before his Elizabethan period…Elizabeth Taylor.”
George weighs in on people who have touched his life
Richard Burton: Magical.
Frank Sinatra: The Voice.
Gene Roddenberry: Visionary.
Cary Grant : Charming.
Jerry Lewis: Innovative.
Jamie Lee Curtis: All embracing.
Alec Guinness: Disappointing.
Howard Stern: Genius.
Raymond Burr: Stolid.
Jackie Chan: Dynamo.
Johnny Galicki: [He laughs.] Charming.
Elton John: Musical.
Tom Bradley: Groundbreaker.
Jack Lord: Granite.
Francis Ford Coppola: Gifted.
Bob Hope: Longevity. [his career]
Robert Young: Religiosity.
Angela Lansbury: Absolutely charming and delightful and longevity, for her too!
Bill Shatner: [He laughs] A rascal.
Name one word to describe George Takei: Me!
For more about Adam Bouska’s photography, log on to: www.bouska.net.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed Anjelica Huston for the November cover story.