George Takei’s amazing trek
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.