George Takei on “Pioneers Of Television – Breaking Barriers”
By Abbie Bernstein
On PBS’ documentary series PIONEERS OF TELEVISION, the “Breaking Barriers” segment, which airs Tuesday May 6, features actor/producer/social media star George Takei. Today, almost everyone online knows Takei for his hilarious Facebook and Twitter feeds, but when the original STAR TREK first aired in 1966, he was the first Asian-American hero on television. His character Hikaru Sulu was the helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which made him the best pilot in the universe, as well as an expert swordsman and a loyal, accomplished Starfleet officer. Elsewhere, Asian-Americans were cast as either stereotyped comedy relief, vicious bad guys or simply not on camera at all.
Takei is present at a Q&A panel PBS holds for PIONEERS OF TELEVISION and the Television Critics Association. Other panelists include Leslie Uggams and Jimmie Walker, both also here on behalf of “Breaking Barriers,” plus Ray Romano and Bob Newhart from the “Standup to Sitcom” episode.
Asked about breaking barriers with STAR TREK, Takei responds, “The inclusion of an Asian character was organic to [creator] Gene Roddenberry’s vision for STAR TREK and for our future. He told us that 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. And so you saw an African woman [Nichelle Nichols], an Asian man – Europe was represented by a Scotsman, Scotty, Montgomery Scott, played incidentally by an Irishman [James Doohan], Irish-Canadian at that. And North America was represented by Captain Kirk [played by William Shatner], who was also a Canadian. So Canadians dominated that set.”
As to whether that inclusiveness it part of what has made STAR TREK so beloved for so many decades and generations, Takei says, “Well, I think that was Gene Roddenberry’s vision. But the real audience that was watching the show was diverse. And so it was inspiring to think that this kind of future lay ahead in the twenty-third century. The diversity was a reality here, but in many ways, Nichelle and I were groundbreakers in terms of people of color being depicted as part of that diversity. And Nichelle is a woman to boot,” he notes, referring to the fact that females were seldom depicted elsewhere at that time as being meaningfully involved in space exploration.
“We’re now into about the fourth generation of our audience, [which] is diverse, and not only African and Asian and white and Latino and all, but now the fourth generation is a mixture of all those, Asian and white, black and Asian, Latino and black. So our audience is really reflecting that diversity that Gene Roddenberry envisioned, and that’s why, I think, it’s enjoyed this popularity and this longevity. You know the Vulcan greeting,” Takei raises his hand and demonstrates, “says, ‘Live long and prosper.’ We’ve lived much longer than we ever dreamed, despite our cancellation after the third season. In two more years, STAR TREK will be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. So we’ve prospered in many, many wonderful ways.”
STAR TREK did indeed break barriers. Takei says, “So many Asian Americans have come up to me and said, ‘I decided to go into a specific area of study’ because they saw me as a helmsman of a galactic starship. To me, one of the most touching things I was told was by B.D. Wong, who is a very fine actor, ‘I decided to become an actor because I saw you on television.’ Because until then, he said, all we saw [of Asian Americans in the media] were either comic buffoons or silent servants of coldhearted evil villains, usually playing the Japanese soldier, that sort of stereotyped characterization. And here, they saw me on STAR TREK as a full member of the leadership team, the best helmsman in the galaxies. And at the time, there was this stereotype about Asian drivers. Well, I saw that was put to rest,” he laughs.
“When Gene Roddenberry gave me that role, it was a breakthrough role for me personally, as an actor as well as the image of Asians and Asian Americans on the television screen and also on the motion picture screen. And today, if you have a hospital series or a detective series, you always see an Asian as part of the diversity of that regular cast.”
As for Takei’s major social media presence, he first quips, “I’m seventy-six years old. Very few people of my generation are even sending emails. “More seriously, he elaborates, “It’s a team effort. My husband Brad [Altman, who is also Takei’s manager] is the head of my team, and we have half a dozen people helping us with it, because I can’t be at my computer twenty-four hours a day. We have a backlog of memes which they dole out while we are not at home.”
Why did Takei decide to tackle Internet fame in the first place? “There was an agenda that I had. One of my missions in my life and career has been to raise the awareness of a dark chapter in American history, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and I’ve been doing that by going on lecture tours, reaching people intellectually. But to really reach people, you have to reach them emotionally, in the heart. And so we were developing a musical [ALLEGIANCE] on that rather unknown and dark, depressing subject of American history.” “Breaking Barriers” will feature images of this period obtained from the Library of Congress.
“Actually,” Takei adds, “our musical is a musical – you know, people fell in love and got married, and there were happy moments within those barbed wire fences, and we needed to first of all build an audience for that. But before that, we needed to raise the awareness of the American public on that little-known chapter of American history, and the best way to do that back in 2010 was social media. And the thing is, my audience base was not social justice-oriented. They were sci-fi geeks and nerds, and I had to grow that to a larger audience so that perhaps there might be social justice people amongst them. By trial and error, I found that humor was the thing that had got the most ‘likes,’ and so I started concentrating on that area. And once is started to grow, I introduced a very relevant subject of our times, equality for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. I’m gay. And so when I introduced that, the audience exploded. It became astoundingly, unexpectedly large. And so I introduced the subject of the internment of Japanese Americans. Once I got them to have that understanding, I needed to let them know that we have developed a musical and then to whet their appearance to come see the musical. And we had Lea Salonga, the Tony Award-winning actress/singer from MISS SAIGON, and so we shared a song from the show with Lea singing it, and I accomplished that purpose.
“Then we got the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego to produce our world premiere of it, and because of that social media campaign, we got sold-out houses, sold-out run, which the Old Globe extended to accommodate the people that we had to turn back. We wound up winning the Best Musical of 2013 Award from the San DiegoCritics Circle.”
Following the panel, Takei steps off the stage to answer more questions in a wide-ranging conversation about all aspects of his life and career.
Getting ALLEGIANCE to Broadway is a major priority, Takei relates. He starred alongside Salonga in the Old Globe production and expects to do so again in New York. Moreover, the show is based on a concept he created. “I inspired it, because I found a composer/lyricist who was extraordinarily gifted, Jay Kuo, and so I shared the story of internment and the history and we brought in [book writers Lorenzo Thione and Marc Acito] and it was developed into a musical, and we were a smash success in San Diego.”
Takei, who married Altman in 2008, is a strong advocate of LGBT rights. After ALLEGIANCE, might he tackle a project about this subject? “Yes. Those are the issues that I’m committed to.”
At the time of this interview, Takei and Altman had just returned from the Sundance Film Festival in the state of Utah, where a court battle continues over the issue of legal gay marriage.
“In mid-December,” Takei explains, “the Federal courts said the ban on marriage equality in Utah is unconstitutional, and one thousand, three hundred-plus couples got married in a very brief period of time, which shows there is a hunger for marriage. Then they appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court put a stay on any further marriage. Which is like what happened in California when Proposition 8 came down. But the governor, Gary Herbert, went a step further. The one thousand, three hundred marriages that occurred, the state of Utah will not recognize. In our case, we got married – the couples that got married in that brief time were lawfully married. They paid the fee for it. And this governor is saying, ‘No, I’m not going to dignify that.’ But it’s already crumbling. The Utah Tax Commission said that, ‘We’re going to go with the Federal District Court ruling. We will accept joint tax filings from gay and lesbian couples.’ [Blocking gay marriage is] clearly unconstitutional. It was declared unconstitutional by the Federal District Court. And he’s saying that, ‘So many thousands of people in Utah voted for that discriminatory [law], so I’m defending that.’ Well, so many thousands of people wanted to have segregation and they defended that.”
Takei compares Herbert’s stance to that of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, who tried to block racial integration in the state schools. “Going back fifty, sixty years, George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse doorway, and that got a lot of discussion going on both sides. And it’s that same thing. This discussion that’s going back and forth – ‘discussion’ is putting it mildly, but going back and forth is a healthy process, because hopefully the temperature will go down and both sides will think on the issue … But the thing is, we are all sons and daughters of heterosexuals. Our brothers and sisters are heterosexuals. We’re literally members of the family. And when people start realizing that, exactly people like Senator Rob Portman, or Vice-President Cheney, realize that their own children are gay or lesbian, then they change their tune. And when this becomes more widely understood, I think we will have more rational discussion, rather than passionate and ill-informed and accusatory discussions.”
The reason for Takei’s presence at Sundance, he relates, is, “We [Takei and Altman] have a documentary on us, TO BE TAKEI. We’re very proud of the documentary, and we want everybody to see it, so we’re going to invest our time and energy. So [being at Sundance] was a series of fifteen-minute, twenty-minute interviews, going from one place to another – slippery, dangerous place, intense traffic, pedestrian and automobile traffic, and your brain gets completely scrambled, and repeating the same thing over and over again. So it was hectic and chaotic and had me near lunacy,” he concludes with a laugh.
TO BE TAKEI includes all aspects of Takei’s life, including his childhood experiences during World War II, when most Japanese-Americans – including Takei and his family – were put in internment camps. “We were in the southeastern swamps [at Rohwer in] Arkansas,” Takei explains. He knows that the California camp Manzanar is the one people hear about the most. “Again, another desolate place. There were ten camps altogether. In Utah, Topaz, and two in the blistering hot desert of Arizona. Can you imagine? The black tarpaper barracks, absorbing all that heat … That internment experience did shape me. I talk about those discussions with my father when I was a teenager, and I think my father was a really extraordinary man. He’s the one who suffered the most. His business was taken, our home was taken, his bank account was frozen, and yet five years after that experience, when I had those discussions with him, he was about to put it in a larger context.
“He said, ‘Ours is a people’s democracy, and it can be as great as a people can be, but it’s also as fallible as people are. So that makes this people’s democracy vitally dependent on good people to be actively engaged in the process, to fight for the issues that are right and to fight against the issues that we think are not right.’And he took me to the Adlai Stevenson for President headquarters to demonstrate to me what that active participation in the process means. And for me as a teenager, it was great fun – with a theatrical bent, all the drama, the excitement, the build, and I enjoyed it. But the more I got involved in other campaigns, I realized that this fun was based on issues, and so that’s why we go through that process.”
At the time, institutionalized racism against Asians in the U.S. was overwhelming. “They couldn’t even become naturalized citizens,” Takei observes. “And you know, the Alien Land Law did not say anything about Asians. All it said was aliens ineligible for citizenship could not buy land in California, first of all, and then later, Oregon and WashingtonState passed the same law. Asians were discriminated against from the very outset of our coming here, and there were things like the Alien Land Law. My grandfather was a farmer near Sacramento. He worked the land. He developed wasteland into productive farmland, but my grandfather was a wily guy. My uncle, his son, was a citizen by virtue of his birth, and so he bought the land in the name of his son.”
Does Takei ever wish that his career was launching now, when there are many more opportunities for different kinds of roles, or is he happy to be a trailblazer?
“I’m enjoying every moment of my life. Yes, it was a struggle back then, but that’s an iffy question. If I had those opportunities that I have now, like doing the Howard Stern Show,” an appearance that did much to make younger contemporary audiences aware of Takei, “then yes, I would have leaped at it, but they weren’t there. And it was a struggle, and part of the struggle is what makes you stronger. I took the rejections, took the frustration, and kept on going until it started happening. And then there’s another barrier that pops up. You know, once you have a successful TV series – actually, STAR TREK was not [successful when it first aired], but people saw all of the cast members in that context of science fiction. That became another stereotype that was laid on us. And Leonard Nimoy went as far as to write a book [entitled] I AM NOT SPOCK, but he still was, you know, Spock. And then, about ten years later, he wrote another book, I AM SPOCK. And he still is Spock. So we have a reboot with J.J. Abrams [with Nimoy] still playing Spock in his eighties. So to get people to think that we are not just science fiction characters, that we are actors and we can do other parts, became another barrier. All of my colleagues had the same frustration. And my feeling was, every situation like that is a double-edged sword. Yes, we may be associated with that genre, and producers may be reluctant to cast us because of that association, but STAR TREK became very popular in syndication, and that was an asset.
“S0 I went to England, where I did non-STAR TREK plays, but when I came out of the stage door after the performance, there they all were with the action figures and the books and the STAR TREK games for me to autograph. So I parlayed whatever visibility and currency I had with STAR TREK by going to England, where that barrier, that stereotype of us being science-fiction types didn’t exist. Building a career is a matter of venturing forth and trying something different and taking risks, and I have been the beneficiary of that.”
By Abbie Bernstein
Pioneers of Television:
Pioneers Science Fiction