By Shani R. Friedman
This past Monday, George Takei sat down for a Q&A on his night off from starring in Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures at The Classic Stage Company. Described as “America’s favorite uncle” by host Jay Kuo, the actor, author, LGBTQ advocate and Twitter master said it was an auspicious date being there on May 1st, “when we march for labor rights.” Kuo is head of “Team Takei” and the writer/lyricist for Allegiance—which had a Broadway run last year—a show based on Takei’s family’s experience being interned during World War II.
Takei, who turned 80 last month, lived an admittedly closeted life into his 60’s and until 2005 when then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the state’s same-sex marriage act that had passed the state legislature. Takei took the opportunity to speak as a gay man for the first time when he publicity criticized the governor, who had incorporated his support for the gay and lesbian community into his campaign. But the seeds of Takei’s activism had been planted more than 60 years before, when his family was removed from their Los Angeles home at gunpoint in 1942, rounded up along with 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent. The memory of that morning, not long after his fifth birthday, was still vividly visceral for him as he recalled the sound of the soldiers pounding on their door, reverberating throughout the house, and seeing “my mother coming out of the bedroom with tears streaming down her face as she carried my baby sister.”
Takei had many conversations with his father while they were at the camp in Arkansas and in the years after when the family returned to a hostile Los Angeles, where the only housing open to them was on Skid Row. The anguish and helplessness his father had felt about Takei and his sibling’s futures during the internment stuck with Takei. When he found himself in the audience for In the Heights a decade ago he recounted that he wept when the father in the show sang about feeling helpless. An audience member asked if Takei forgave America for his time in the camp. He explained what his father had taught him: “our democracy was the people’s democracy. Great men have human fallibilities.”
Another man who’s had a tremendous influence on Takei’s life is, not surprisingly, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” for whom the actor still has tremendous respect and affection. Roddenberry had, according to Takei, “wanted to use television more meaningfully than what was on” in the 1960’s. For Roddenberry, the show was “to serve as a metaphor for Earth with a diverse cast.” When asked what his favorite episode was, Takei answered “The Naked Time,” echoing the murmurs from the crowd. He had told the writers and costumers who were outfitting him to look like a pirate that he knew how to fence. He had just seen an Errol Flynn movie and thought a foil would be more interesting than a Samurai sword. “I had my first fencing lesson that weekend,” he confessed to knowing laughs from the BAM audience.
Although his sexuality was an open secret to many in Hollywood for years and Takei had been with his now-husband Brad for a long time, he had carefully chosen to not reveal the truth. Part of his reasoning was seeing the smear campaigns that his closeted teen idol crush Tab Hunter had been subjected to in the 1950’s. On top of being Asian, Takei said, “I could not be an actor and gay at that time.” Even 12 years ago he wasn’t sure if his career would be over. But instead, “my career blossomed.” As he was showered with roles in movies, television and commercials, he also used PSAs and social media to take on homophobic politicians and elected officials, athletes (NBA player Tim Hardaway), and performers such as Saturday Night Live veterans Tracy Morgan and Victoria Jackson. Kuo had a bemused Takei read a number of Tweets, which were great fun to hear.
Takei is enjoying an amazing and hard-won new act in his life as an advocate for human rights and as he fulfills what he sees as his legacy: educating people about the Japanese internment and the current dangerous political rhetoric against immigrants.
You can see George Takei in Pacific Overtures at the Classic Stage Company through June 18.