CATEGORIES Movie NewsApril 20 is a very important day for George Takei: it's his birthday. This year's a particularly momentous one for the"Star Trek" legend, as he turns 75. The beloved pop-culture icon has had a long and illustrious career, from television to movies to politics; and he has no plans to slow down, as he will soon be making his Broadway debut in "The Allegiance Musical."
Moviefone had a very special birthday chat with Mr. Takei, looking back on his entire career. During our conversation, he shared memories of spending his childhood in an internment camp, ruminated on what he would share with "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry if he were alive today and revealed the touching effort his father made to save "Trek."
How are you planning to celebrate your 75th birthday? I'm literally up in the air flying from Los Angeles to Toronto to speak at a fundraiser for the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. So I am celebrating my seventy-fifth birthday in the way that I've spent most of my life: raising funds for good causes.
I have a lot to atone for, it's also Hitler's birthday. I share that birthday with the blackest villain in history. I had a friend that used to call me on my birthday to wish me Happy Adolf Day, but she stopped that after Columbine -- they were celebrating Adolf Hitler's birthday. So I was born on a very unhappy, historically dark day. If only my mother could have held me a little longer or pushed me out a little bit earlier, I would have been able to avoid that. But I have to be particularly good in this life in order to make up for that villain of history.
But I think your karma is more than bountiful. ? Well, I keep on trying.? You've always been an excellent public figure and your voice is so distinct and commanding. Was this just something you were born with or did you practice how to be a great orator? Speaking out was something that was inculcated in me by my father. When we were incarcerated [in a Japanese internment camp during WWII], I was too young to really know what was happening. In fact, my memories are fun memories. I have some chilling memories, too. I remember that scary day when two soldiers came marching up our driveway. I happened to be looking out the living room window and they had rifles; they stomped up our front porch and ordered our family out. ?
A child adjusts amazingly. I still remember the barbed-wire fences, but they were no more intimidating to me then chain-link fences around the playground. It wasn't until I was a teenager and I started asking questions to my father that I began to understand the irrationality of that incarceration. He summarized it all by saying both the strength and the weakness of our democracy lay in the fact that it is a people's democracy; it can be as great as the people can be, but it is fallible as people are. I've been active in the political arena and that was because of my father's guidance.?
The older I get the more I appreciate and have a deeper respect for both my parents and how they struggled to get back on their feet and educate three children. So I'm really indebted to my parents.?
How did your parents react to "Star Trek"?? Once I got cast, my father was very taken by the philosophy that Gene Roddenberry had. After the second season, Paramount announced the cancellation of "Star Trek," but the fans began a tidal wave of letter writing to have "Star Trek" renewed for another season, and my father's letter was amongst them.?
He was very honest; at the very start of the letter he said: "I am George Takei's father, so I am biased," but he went on to talk about what the show means for America today and its importance, and if they could see their way to giving "Star Trek" another season, he would "earnestly request that." My father doesn't write those letters. I don't think he's ever written a letter like that. But I was very touched by that letter and that's something that I cherish.?
Away from "Star Trek," what project of yours have you been proudest of?? My mission in life has been to raise the awareness of the American people on what happened during the second World War to Americans who happened to be of Japanese ancestry. I think a legacy achievement is the building of the Japanese American National Museum. It's the museum that tells the story of the Japanese-American experience from the coming of the immigrants starting about 1880 and the unique struggles that they faced. Something that most Americans don't know: every immigrant coming to the United States could someday aspire to become naturalized Americans, except immigrants from Asia. From the very onset they were singled out. Then California and Oregon and Washington and Florida passed the Alien Land Law back in the teens; it said nothing about Asians but it included the phrase, "aliens ineligible for citizenship could not buy land in their respective states," and the only group of people that were ineligible for citizenship were Asians.
So we begin with that story and then the next generation, my parents' generation, where because of their ancestry they are put into prison camps, with sentry towers, machine guns pointed at us, searchlights that followed me when I made the night runs to the latrine. But my memory of that was "I think it's nice that they lit my way to pee." [Laughs] For my parents it was the most intimidating, degrading experience. It was the most egregious violation of our Constitution, and so many Americans, who are well-informed, educated people, have said to me, "I had no idea something like that happened in the United States." So that's been my mission in life; I served as the chairman of the board at the museum from the years 2000 to 2004. I consider that a legacy.?
And you're still taking that story forward and pushing it into theater, making your Broadway debut. How is the Allegiance Musical progressing?? We've been developing that for over three years now and it's undergone a major transformation with every stage of development. We first had a reading of the play back in 2009 at the museum. We invited the staff and volunteers; most of those people had to experience the internment during the second World War at one stage or another in their lives. The first reading went extremely well, so then we had another reading a year later in New York and we did some tweaking; last summer we did a workshop and it's now being tweaked some more. ?
We'll have our pre-Broadway premiere in San Diego at the Old Globe Theater. We open on the 19th of September and we close on the 28th of October. We wanted to open on the West Coast first because that's where the vast majority of Japanese Americans who experienced the internment, or their children or grandchildren who have a keen interest, reside. Then we're bringing it to New York from there.?
Do you still get nervous at this stage in your career?? Of course; nervousness is a good thing as long as one can control it. Nervousness is bad when it controls you.?
You've been involved in so many humanitarian efforts: for gay rights, against bullying, recently drawing attention to the Trayvon Martin case. What do you think the next step is that all of us need to take for it to get better?? We are still the human animal. When we were savages, the two things that we had that made us succeed as a being were our creative minds and our aggressive quality. Our creative mind provided us with the idea of creating tools and weapons, sharpening a stick and making it into a spear. Our killer instincts helped us get our food and protect our kind. Our mind kept developing and coming up with new tools and weapons, but our killer instincts didn't change. We kept developing without the killer instinct becoming more intelligent. So here we are with weaponry that can annihilate civilizations. ? We've now advanced to the point from the '60s Civil Rights movement to where we now have an African-American President. But we still have something like the Trayvon Martin case, where an African American, particularly a male, is born a suspect. We have this law that protects this kind of behavior motivated by the killer instinct. We are faced with the dilemma of our creative minds providing us with these weapons, without progressing equally in the diplomatic, problem-solving way. That's the big challenge of our time and our future generation.?
If you could share one piece of modern life with Gene Rodenberry, what would it be?? We owe so much to Gene, he was such a visionary. So much of what he envisioned has become reality today. We are literally living in a science fiction world today. What Gene used to say, and reminded us constantly, was that the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth, and the strength of these starships lay in its diversity coming together and working in concert to face a common challenge. Technology has bound us together where we are literally now a global society, a global culture, a global economy and a global politics.
Back in the '60s we were frozen in the coldest of Cold Wars -- the Soviet Union and the United States threatening each other with mutual nuclear annihilation. Today, we have the international space station, and the crew of that space station come from all over this planet. Russians and Americans are now working together in concert on that space station. On the Starship Enterprise we had Chekov, proud of his Russian heritage, working together with the rest of us. So much of what Gene envisioned, as an aspiration, has become reality today. We are all tied together by this thing called the Internet. I can send emails to someone in Europe or Latin America or Asia. And we're now talking to each other like they're on the next block. We are a global society, something that Gene Roddenberry envisioned.?
Looking back on your entertainment career, who has provided the more outrageous working experience: William Shatner or Howard Stern? ?Howard can be both outrageous and munificent. Going on speaking tours to colleges, on equality for the LGBT community is good and necessary, but it's more or less speaking to the choir. When Howard gave me that invitation to become his "official announcer," I accepted because I thought he would give me access to a whole different audience, that are decent and fair-minded, but don't think about issues like equality for the LGBT community. He has an amazing reach and he gave me the opportunity to say to these people that we are all members of your families. We're literally your sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, we're literally kin. We're your flesh and blood, and that made a lot of people think.
After about three or four months on the "Howard Stern Show," I started getting letters from people who identified themselves as straight, married, male, some Republicans, some Democrats, and they said I made sense and they would be supportive of LGBT equality. I was very touched by that and I owe that in large part to Howard. So, if it's comparing Bill Shatner and Howard Stern, most definitely Howard Stern has been more outrageous, but he gave me the kind of opportunity that I never dreamed of. Bill has never given me that, only grief. [Laughs]