George Takei’s amaz­ing trek

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As a child, he be­lieved the camp to be a mag­i­cal oa­sis, where myth­i­cal di­nosaurs prowled the woods at night. A na­tive of Los An­ge­les, he mar­veled at the “fly­ing ex­ot­ica” of drag­on­flies, the trea­sures of ru­ral life and, that first win­ter, the “pure magic” of snow.

George Takei spent ages five to al­most nine im­pris­oned by the U.S. gov­ern­ment in Ja­panese Amer­i­can in­tern­ment camps. A re­lent­less op­ti­mist, he be­lieved the shame­ful legacy of in­car­cer­at­ing an es­ti­mated 120,000 Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II would never be for­got­ten or du­pli­cated.

At 82, Takei came to un­der­stand that he may be mis­taken on both counts.

Sto­ries fell into the sink­hole of his­tory, given the omis­sion of the camps from many text­books and the shame felt by for­mer in­ternees, many of whom re­mained si­lent about their ex­pe­ri­ences, even to de­scen­dants. Takei takes no refuge in si­lence.

The Star Trek ac­tor has lived long enough to see thou­sands of im­mi­grant chil­dren jailed near the bor­der. On Twit­ter, to his 2.9 mil­lion fol­low­ers, he wrote, “This na­tion has a long and tragic his­tory of sep­a­rat­ing chil­dren from their par­ents, ever since the days of slav­ery.”

The activist for gay rights and so­cial jus­tice calls his gov­ern­ment’s ac­tions “an end­less cycle of in­hu­man­ity, cruelty and in­jus­tice re­peated gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion” and says “it’s got to stop.”

Takei was for­tu­nate. He and his two younger sib­lings were never sep­a­rated from their par­ents, who bore the brunt of fear and degra­da­tion in the swamps of Arkansas and the high desert of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. They shielded their chil­dren, cre­at­ing a Life Is Beau­ti­ful ex­pe­ri­ence of­ten filled with won­der. His fa­ther told him they were go­ing for “a long va­ca­tion in the coun­try.” Their first stop, of all places, was the Santa Anita Race­track, where the fam­ily was as­signed to sleep in the stalls. “We get to sleep where the hor­sies slept! Fun!” he thought.

Takei had lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of his fam­ily aban­don­ing their be­long­ings, the gov­ern­ment ques­tion­ing their pa­tri­o­tism and their re­turn to Los An­ge­les with noth­ing, start­ing over on Skid Row. As a teenager, he came to un­der­stand the toll.

“The res­o­nance of my childhood in prison is so loud,” says the ac­tor, who still lives in L.A.

This summer, Takei is ac­cel­er­at­ing his mis­sion to make Amer­i­cans re­mem­ber. Al­most three-quar­ters of a cen­tury af­ter his re­lease, he feels the crush of time: “I have to tell this story be­fore there’s no one left to tell it.”

He has a new graphic mem­oir, They Called Us En­emy, in­tended to reach all gen­er­a­tions but es­pe­cially the young, by the pub­lisher of the best-sell­ing March tril­ogy by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

In Au­gust, Takei ap­pears in AMC’s 10-episode The Ter­ror: In­famy, a hor­ror saga par­tially set in an in­tern­ment camp. Four years ago, he starred in the Broad­way mu­si­cal Al­le­giance, in­spired by his per­sonal his­tory.

It’s pos­si­ble those years in the camps sub­con­sciously nudged Takei to­ward act­ing. “To me, the theater was life, its artists, the chron­i­clers of hu­man his­tory,” he writes in his 1994 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, To the Stars. He would star as Hikaru Sulu in a short-lived sci-fi se­ries that would, im­prob­a­bly, spawn more movie and tele­vi­sion it­er­a­tions than furry Trib­bles.

In turn, that success cre­ated a spring­board for so­cial ac­tivism. He be­came “a so­cial me­dia megapower” – his web­site’s phras­ing, as he has 10 mil­lion fol­low­ers each on two Face­book pages – fu­eled by a six-mem­ber influencer agency, which he calls “Team Takei.” That influence, to a dot­ing and ever-ex­pand­ing au­di­ence, might en­sure his ex­pe­ri­ence in the camps mat­ters.

Takei fre­quently refers to his life as “an Amer­i­can story.” It is also a sin­gu­lar, im­prob­a­ble one.

Who else en­joys con­tin­ued success through the cu­ri­ous alchemy of Star Trek, com­ing out at age 68 and reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances on The Howard Stern Show?

Af­ter en­rolling as an ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, Takei trans­ferred to UCLA to pur­sue act­ing at a time when there was al­most no work for Asian Amer­i­cans ex­cept dubbing Ja­panese mon­ster movies like Rodan into English and por­tray­ing crass car­i­ca­tures in the Jerry Lewis ve­hi­cles The Big Mouth (1967) and Which Way to the Front? (1970).

Takei ac­cepted the jobs, the Lewis ones to his everlastin­g cha­grin: “I shouldn’t have done it.” But he learned. Never again. For­tu­nately, he landed Star Trek, Gene Rod­den­berry’s utopian vision of space pi­o­neers from var­ied back­grounds work­ing to­gether in har­mony and oddly cropped slacks. Two decades af­ter the Sec­ond World War, it showed an Asian Amer­i­can in a pos­i­tive role.

Jay Kuo, who co-wrote Al­le­giance, grew up in a house­hold where tele­vi­sion was largely for­bid­den. Not Star Trek. Kuo’s Chi­nese Amer­i­can par­ents knew “we needed to see our­selves rep­re­sented. We were in­vis­i­ble. George was the only Asian sex sym­bol. That shirt­less sword scene was ground­break­ing,” he says of the scene in which Sulu be­lieves he’s an 18th-cen­tury swash­buck­ler af­ter the crew is in­fected by a virus.

The Star­ship Enterprise was tasked with a five-year mis­sion. Five? The orig­i­nal Star Trek, the mother ship of Trekiana, didn’t make it past three, run­ning for just 79 episodes. The fi­nal show aired a half-cen­tury ago this year.

Takei felt blessed to land the role of the mas­ter helms­man. When the show was can­celed – “I knew it would be. Good shows were al­ways get­ting can­celed” – Takei was de­spon­dent that he would never work again.

For­tu­nately, what the net­work taketh away, the Trekkies giveth.

Takei jumped on the con­ven­tion train, across the United States, Canada, Britain, Ger­many and Ja­pan, sign­ing au­to­graphs and pos­ing for photo ops for up to eight hours, his lus­trous bari­tone grow­ing hoarse.

“Star Trek has been enor­mously boun­ti­ful to us,” Takei says. “We had no idea that this phe­nom­e­non of Star Trek con­ven­tions would fol­low.”

Now, Takei is one of only four orig­i­nal cast mem­bers still alive, along with Wil­liam Shat­ner (Capt. James T. Kirk), Nichelle Ni­chols (com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer Lt. Uhura) and Wal­ter Koenig (nav­i­ga­tor Pavel Chekov).

His pro­fes­sional life flour­ished, rid­ing the wave of nos­tal­gia and out­size fan­dom. His per­sonal life, par­tic­u­larly for some­one who has al­ways been po­lit­i­cal and out­spo­ken, was more com­pli­cated. Friends and as­so­ciates long knew Takei was gay. He met Brad Altman, then a jour­nal­ist, through a gay run­ning club. They started dat­ing in 1987. Brad took George’s last name in 2011.

Takei wor­ried that com­ing out pub­licly would deep-six his act­ing ca­reer. So he waited and waited, an eter­nity, three-and-a-half decades.

“The gov­ern­ment im­pris­oned me for four years for my race. I im­pris­oned my­self about my sex­u­al­ity for decades,” Kuo re­calls Takei telling him. “You can’t imag­ine what kind of sen­try towers you can build around your heart.”

Takei came out in 2005 as a state­ment, af­ter Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger ve­toed a bill le­gal­iz­ing same-sex marriage in Cal­i­for­nia. Quickly, he moved from the closet to the front of the pride pa­rade.

“I was pre­pared that I wasn’t go­ing to have an act­ing ca­reer,” he says. Uh, no.

“The op­po­site hap­pened, and I was more in de­mand,” Takei says, al­most in song. “They love gay George Takei!”

Takei was hired as much for his droll per­sona – his catch phrase, “Oh myyy!” – as his talent. Work was con­stant: he had ap­pear­ances on the sit­coms The Big Bang The­ory and Will and Grace, and in Archie Comics (as hero to gay char­ac­ter Kevin Keller), plus that sur­pris­ing gig on Stern’s show.

The Civil Lib­er­ties Act of 1988 for­mally apol­o­gized to for­mer Ja­panese Amer­i­can in­ternees. Takei re­ceived a repa­ra­tion check for $20,000. He do­nated it to the Ja­panese Amer­i­can Na­tional Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les, which he helped found and for which he serves as a trustee.

Takei was in New York re­cently for Pride Month, at­tend­ing the Stonewall an­niver­sary con­cert and City Hall cer­e­mony. The events are as vi­tal to his iden­tity as act­ing.

“I was active in al­most ev­ery other so­cial jus­tice cause as well as po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates,” he says. “But I was si­lent about the is­sue that was most per­sonal to me, most or­ganic to who I am, be­cause I wanted my ca­reer.”

Time was gen­er­ous. He be­gan life in in­tern­ment camps and came out in his late 60s. At 82, he’s flour­ish­ing in a field that had lit­tle use for him when he started.

But time can pun­ish mem­ory. Takei wants to en­sure we know the story of what hap­pened to his fam­ily, in his coun­try.


Above, George Takei to­day at age 82. Top right, the only sur­viv­ing pho­to­graph of George Takei while he was in the Ro­hwer Ja­panese Amer­i­can Re­lo­ca­tion Camp in Ro­hwer, Ark., in 1942 and 1943. Mid­dle right, George Takei, far right, with his sis­ter Nancy Reiko Takei, brother Henry Takei, mother Fu­miko Emily Takei and fa­ther Takekuma Nor­man Takei, circa 1947-1948. The cover of They Called Us En­emy, a new graphic mem­oir by George Takei.

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