Playing Sulu on “Star Trek: The Original Series” more than 50 years ago launched George Takei not only out to strange new worlds, but on a journey to explore his sexuality and Japanese heritage.
The 83-year-old Takei, despite being an American citizen born in Los Angeles, spent much of his childhood with his family in U.S. internment camps during World War II because they are of Japanese descent.
“When I was five years old, I had one of the most egregious failures of our democracy thrown in my face,” Takei told an online panel during a recent CBS All Access “Star Trek Day” event on Sept. 8, which celebrated the series’ launch date in 1966.
“My parents got me up together with my brother, a year younger, and my baby sister was an infant. [They told] my brother and I to go wait in the living room. My parents did some last-minute packing back in the bedroom. So the two of us were just gazing out the living room window at the neighbor’s. And suddenly we saw two soldiers marching up my driveway, carrying rifles with shiny bayonets on them.
“They stopped at the front porch,” Takei continued, “and with their fists, began pounding on the door … literally at gunpoint, they ordered us out of our home. As it turned out, it was simply because we look like this.”
Takei’s family lost everything in being sent to these camps, including his father’s business bank account. The rest of his childhood was spent behind barbed wire fences, with machine guns pointed at the camp’s residents and search lights illuminating any nighttime activity, even visits to the latrine.
After the war ended in 1945, Takei’s family was released. But because the ordeal left them impoverished, they lived in a hotel in a low-income neighborhood. Takei said that his sister once even asked to go back “home” to the internment camp when somebody in the neighborhood staggered near the family and threw up on the ground.
“When I became a teenager, I became very curious about our imprisonment,” Takei said. “I sat down with my father after dinner to find out more about why we were in prison. My father is my hero, because he could have been embittered or just kind of wallowing in misery. My father was not. He said, ‘This is a participatory democracy. We have to participate in a participatory democracy. It’s a people’s democracy.’
“One day, my father said, let me show you how our democracy has to work,” Takei continued. “He drove me downtown to the lease units for presidential campaign headquarters … to get with other people passionately dedicated to making our democracy work and get this great man, this eloquent man Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, elected.”
While Stevenson lost his 1952 and 1956 bids to be president, Takei said that he remembered one thing: “I understood what our system needs is people participating.” He urged voters to remember that in November when the next presidential election takes place.
Takei spent years narrating and playing guest roles or bit parts in Hollywood before meeting Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek: The Original Series” (or TOS as it’s now known). With “Star Trek,” Takei was excited at the prospect of steady employment, he told the online panel. But there was so much more opportunity than employment if Takei was hired.
“He had an amazing vision,” Takei said of Roddenberry. “In listening to him describe my character, I knew this was going to be a breakthrough opportunity, both professionally for me, as well as to help break a lot of the stereotypes that we have in this world and particularly in this business, so I desperately wanted the role.”
TOS emphasized diversity from the start. Its starring characters included Takei, Black actor Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) and even a Russian character — Pavel Chekov (played by Walter Koenig), who was portrayed as an ally at the height of Cold War tensions. Roddenberry could be so daring with this diversity, which was unheard of for the time, because the series was set in space, nearly half a millennium in the future. This allowed the “Star Trek” creator to include metaphors for 1960s American life in a futuristic setting.
Happily, the diversity tradition continues as “Star Trek Discovery” is about to introduce its first transgender and nonbinary characters in October, along with premiering a new Black star. But Takei pointed out it was a long journey to get to this point.
On TOS, Takei is probably best remembered for the episode “The Naked Time,” in which the crew is taken over by a virus that removes inhibitions. Famously, his character Sulu rushed onto the Star Trek bridge without a shirt and wielding a fencing sword. Takei said that he was glad to be holding a fencing sword and not a Japanese samurai sword, which broke yet another stereotype.
As a childhood fan of Errol Flynn’s fencing in the “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), Takei accidentally found himself making a connection with the iconic swashbuckling film a generation later. In the Yellow Pages, a print listing of businesses from the pre-Internet era, Takei took fencing lessons for “Star Trek” at a spot on Sunset Boulevard. Upon arriving, Takei discovered his instructor had choreographed the very Robin Hood movie he watched as a kid. “I was blown away,” he said.
Roddenberry worked hard to break down a variety of stereotypes on the show, which even featured one of television’s first interracial kisses which took place between two stars of TOS — William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk) and Nichols. NBC executives were afraid that the segregated U.S. south would complain about the kiss, and attempted to make the actors shoot a different version of the scene where they would just embrace. The actors deliberately flubbed the alternate takes, ensuring that the kiss would happen as there was no time to reshoot the footage, according to Insider.
Takei, a closeted gay man, was also afraid to speak out about his sexuality during the conservative time period. He wasn’t public about his sexuality throughout the series run but, shortly after TOS was canceled in 1968, Takei bravely discussed his sexuality with Roddenberry during a party, when the two men were by a pool, away from the crowd. Roddenberry acknowledged that sexuality is an important part of diversity, Takei said. However, Roddenberry responded: “I can’t deal with it [now] because I have to exist on television,” Takei said.
Some say that an Australian soap opera, “Number 96” had the first gay and recurring character on television. But that wasn’t until 1972, years after “Star Trek” was off the air.
As Takei explained in the panel, Roddenberry told him that television is a high-risk business because it is based on advertising, so if sponsors are unhappy, the show could lose funding, threatening its longevity. “I can’t deal with that and hope to stay on the air; I’m pushing at the edges already,” Takei added of Roddenberry’s position in addressing LGBTQIA+ representation on television.
Twenty years later, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” scriptwriter David Gerrold attempted to create an episode (which would have run while Roddenberry was in charge of the show) to metaphorically address the AIDS and HIV crisis. The episode never went forward and Gerrold quit in protest, StarTrek.com said.
Gerrold has spoken about the canceled episode at fan conventions, the website added, and Roddenberry received requests for an openly gay “Star Trek” character, in part due to Gerrold’s efforts. Roddenberry was said to be considering including a gay character in the show’s fifth season, but that never went forward as Roddenberry died in 1991. Shortly before his death, however, Roddenberry said he regretted not taking on LGBTQIA+ rights more seriously.
“My attitude toward homosexuality has changed,” Roddenberry told The Humanist in 1991. “I came to the conclusion that I was wrong […] I gave the impression of being thoughtless in these areas. I have, over many years, changed my attitude about gay men and women.”
Takei officially came out in 2005. While he remained closeted during the years prior, Takei remained an avid activist, speaking out about electoral politics, civil rights and the peace movement during the divisive Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s. Takei was also a member of a group called the Entertainment Industry for Peace and Justice, he said, working with well-known actors such as Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
Takei watched other actors take on LGBTQIA+ rights, in many cases giving up their lives, careers and even their families for justice, he said.
“And here I was protecting my career and being closeted, which adds another layer of torture,” he recalled. “Some of my colleagues knew. But, they knew if they talked about me, then it would hurt my career and they respected my privacy.” Since coming out, Takei has been exceptionally active and vocal in supporting the LGBTQIA+ community.
The first openly gay starring characters on “Star Trek” finally came in 2017, with gay actors Anthony Rapp (Paul Stamets) and Wilson Cruz (Hugh Culber) who played a couple in “Star Trek: Discovery.” “I think it’s a great advance,” Takei said. “I’m glad that we finally got there. I wish we had gotten there sooner.”