TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "STAR TREK")
JAMES DOOHAN, BYLINE: (As Scott) Mr. Sulu, will you give us an estimate onto how much longer we'll have until the solar flares subside.
GEORGE TAKEI: (As Sulu) Aye, sir. Readings now indicate 2.72 on the Ritter scale. At the present rate of decrease, we'll have to wait at least 17 hours more before we can even attempt to enter orbit. Aye...
GROSS: My guest George Takei became famous for his role on Star Trek as Mr. Sulu - helmsman of the USS Enterprise. But a lot of fans he's made in recent years admire him because of who he is, not just who he's played. That group of admirers will likely expand as a result of the new documentary about Takei called "To Be Takei." His personal story offers insights into a couple of key chapters of American political and cultural history. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, he and his family were among the 127,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps. As an adult, Takei became active in the civil rights and peace movements. But he couldn't support the movement that most directly affected him, the gay rights movement because, coming out could've ended his career. But when he did come out in 2005, he became a forceful spokesperson for gay rights. He's been with his husband Brad since 1985. They were married at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles in 2008. The documentary "To Be Takei" is now on DirecTV and will be released in theaters August 22nd.
George Takei, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you seem so comfortable speaking about your life, and in the movie and interviews you're very open about your life. But when you were in the closet as a gay man, you couldn't be open. It would've probably ruined your career. You just couldn't take that risk. So for instance, like when you were doing Star Trek, you - you've said that a lot of people on the show new but the public couldn't know. What was it like for you to keep such a fundamental part of who you are a secret when you seem so comfortable with yourself and so willing to share yourself now?
TAKEI: Well, the thing that affected me at the - in the early part of my career was - there was a very popular box office movie star, blonde good-looking, good actor - named Tab Hunter. He was in almost every other movie that came out. He was stunningly good-looking and all-American in looks - blonde hair. And then one of the scandal sheets of that time, sort of like the Inquirer of today, exposed him as gay. And suddenly and abruptly, his career came to a stop. That was to me chilling and stunning. I was a young, no-name actor aspiring to build his career, and I knew that if it were known that I was gay then there would be no point to my pursuing that career. I desperately and passionately wanted my - a career as an actor. So I chose to be in the closet. I lived a double life and that means you're - you always have your guard up and it's a very, very difficult and challenging way to live a life.
GROSS: But you were 68 by the time you came out so much...
TAKEI: That's correct.
GROSS: ...So much of your life had to be lived in the closet. That's a long time.
TAKEI: Yes it was. And from the time I was a teenager, I learned that it was very important for us to be active participants in the Democratic process. I grew up imprisoned in American barbed wire prison camps simply because Japanese-Americans, American citizens of Japanese ancestry, happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. And for that, we were summarily rounded up and imprisoned with no charges and therefore we couldn't call for a trial, because you need charges and a trial - and no due process.
GROSS: This was - this was in 1942 after FDR signed an executive order authorizing the military to set up these internment camps and bring people to them.
TAKEI: That correct.
GROSS: So you spent how many years - like, how old were you during the years that you are in the internment camp?
TAKEI: I had just turned five - I think three or four weeks after that - when soldiers with bayoneted rifles came to our home in Los Angeles and ordered us out of our home. We were first taken to the horse stables of San Anita racetrack because the camps weren't built yet and we were housed there - from a two-bedroom home into a narrow, smelly - still was pungent with the smell of horse manure. And we were housed there for about three months while the camps were being built and then put on railroad cars, with armed guards at both ends of each car, and transported two-thirds of the way across the country to the swamps of southeastern Arkansas. There were barbed wire fences there - tall century towers with machine guns pointed us. When I made the night runs to the latrine, searchlights followed me but you know, to a five-year-old kid...
GROSS: To guard you, not to lead the way.
TAKEI: Yeah, I thought it was kind of nice that they lit the way for me to pee but for my parents of course, it was invasive, it was intimidating, it was embarrassing...
GROSS: How did your parents explain it to you, explain why you were rounded up and put in an internment camp? Living behind barbed wire?
TAKEI: Well, when my parents knew that we were going to be sent to Arkansas, my father told us - my brother and me, my baby sister was still an infant - he said that we're going for a long vacation to a place called Arkansas. Arkansas - I'd never heard that name. It sounded exotic to me, and he said it was a vacation. And so we were very excited about that. And you know, children are amazingly adaptable. Given that preparation, it was like going camping. You know, we ate in the mess hall, we lined up three times a day and there were lots of people there, so of course we lined up. And when we bathed, we took mass showers - I went with my father to those showers. So my real memories of being imprisoned is you know, catching pollywogs at the creek, and putting them in a pickle jar and watching them sprout legs.
GROSS: What did your parents do all day?
TAKEI: Well, my father spoke both Japanese and English fluently. So he was elected block manager - sort of like the representative from our block. And he was constantly either organizing a crew of young men to build boardwalks to connect the barracks to a mess hall, because after a rain - we were in Arkansas - so after a rain the entire camp turned into a swamp - muck. Or there were conflicts within the camp and the block, and he had to resolve them, and he had to go with the grievances to the camp command from the block, and so my father was away most of the time. And we as kids resented it. We wanted our daddy with us. My mother had the chore of making our very raw, one room partition space - a very small space that all five of were crowded into - into a home.
GROSS: So how old were you when you got out of the camp?
TAKEI: Came out.
TAKEI: When were released, I was almost nine. My baby sister was almost five - she was still four - she was an infant when we went in. And my younger brother was a year younger. And the coming out was to us kids, the most terrifying part of it, because we had adjusted to the routine of living in imprisonment. We were penniless. The hatred was still intense. The first job my father was able to secure was as a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant - only other Asians would hire us. Our first home was on Skid Row, and that was really traumatic for us. The stench of urine everywhere - street and hallways - all over. And those scary, ugly, smelly, crazy people, drunkards leaning on walls or staggering about. And once when the whole family was walking down the sidewalk, a drunkard staggered towards us and fell down, and barfed right into - onto the sidewalk. And my baby sister shrieked and said mama, let's go back home.
GROSS: Oh, to the camp?
TAKEI: Behind those barbed wire fences, because that was so much nicer than being you know, back home, again in quotation marks, in Los Angeles.
GROSS: So your father ended up setting up a dry cleaning store?
TAKEI: Well then, the next job after - as a dishwasher, and he found a dry cleaning store in East LA - a Mexican-American neighbor with a small apartment behind it. And so we moved into East LA. And then from that, he bought a grocery store in the African-American neighborhood this time, and made some money. And as amazing as it may sound, within a four-year period he had amassed enough capita to buy a three bedroom home in our own neighborhood in the western part of Los Angeles. And he again had a good sense of timing. He went into to real estate when other Japanese-American families where getting back on their feet and buying homes, or buying businesses. And he became very successful in real estate and educated three children in - at fine universities. I went to UC Berkeley and UCLA. So I'm in awe of what my parents accomplished.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is George Takei, who became famous as Mr. Sulu on Star Trek. There's now a new documentary about him called "To Be Takei." It's currently on DirecTV and opens in theaters August 22nd. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk more about your life. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is actor George Takei, who first became famous for his role as Mr. Sulu on "Star Trek." There's now a new documentary about his life and his work called "To Be Takei." It's currently on DirecTV and opens in theaters on August 22.
So you were basically imprisoned in interment camps set up by the U.S. government for Japanese-Americans.
TAKEI: That's correct.
GROSS: And you got in there when you were five, got out when you were nine.
TAKEI: Not quite.
GROSS: Not quite nine?
GROSS: Oh, OK. And in the new documentary, you say that it was about the time you were in fifth grade, maybe sixth grade, that you started realizing that you were attracted to boys. And I'm thinking how traumatic that might have been, that realization, for somebody who'd already been so stigmatized because of World War II, because of the camps. And now you're realizing that you have the kind of feelings that mean you're going to be so marginalized. I mean,
TAKEI: But it wasn't...
GROSS: ...You must have had a sense of that.
TAKEI: Well, you wanted to be as - in quotes again - as normal as possible. And you strenuously make that effort and you strenuously try to suppress what you feel. You know, when you see a good-looking guy with his shirt off, or at school gyms when you take a shower and there's a real good-looking guy, you know, and they're naked and they excite you. You try to control it. You try to - you're tempted to look at him, but at the same time you force yourself to look away from him, you know. And it's that struggle that makes it so much more difficult. And then, as you grow a little bit older, you discover a place called a gay bar, where there are others that are like you that gather together and...
GROSS: Thinking about what it must've been like for you to go to gay bars when your face was known because of "Star Trek." I mean, "Star Trek..."
TAKEI: That's right. It's a high risk...
GROSS: ...Star Trek became a bigger hit after it was cancelled than it had been in its time.
TAKEI: That's right.
GROSS: But still, I mean, people knew - a lot of people knew who you were. So you're in a gay bar trying to keep a low profile. It must have been...
GROSS: Yeah, the thought must have entered your mind that somebody's going to recognize you and say, like, you'll never guess who's gay. You'll never guess who I saw at the bar. And that word would inadvertently get out.
TAKEI: And you have that fear. But you also are talking with other gays who also fear exposure. I mean, you could be a schoolteacher and you could lose your job as a schoolteacher. You could be an insurance salesman and your career would be over. Everybody in those gay bars were mindful of that. What it took was someone to have it out for you, someone who wants to get even with you on some score. And so I tried to avoid having enemies, have people being angry with me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is George Takei who became famous as Mr. Sulu on "Star Trek" and now there's a new documentary about him called "To Be Takei." So maybe your fans know this better than I do, but I found out from your movie that you did some of the voices in "Rodan," which was a monster movie I grew up with on television. A million dollar movie in New York where it was shown, like, repeated every night for a week - several times a night. And then repeated all day and all night on the weekend. So that and "Godzilla." And they were directed by the same director I think "Godzilla" was a better film (laughing). "Godzilla" was, like, a great film - the original one. But anyway so "Rodan" is one of those, like, monster films from the '50s in which the monster in this one it's kind of like a giant, prehistoric bird that runs around around killing and menacing people. So growing up, hearing the dubbed versions of Japanese monster movies, and there were several, I started think that there are two types of dubbed voices for men. One was a kind of high, historical voice - Godzilla is on the harbor. And then the kind of deep scientist voice, like, we must be cautious and take all steps to see what we can do, so. But you did like six or seven voices in the movie?
TAKEI: I did.
GROSS: So did you do, like, high voice and the low voice?
TAKEI: I did both, yes. I can do a high-pitched voice, too. But I was the wise scientist with the horn rimmed glasses. It was my first paying gig. I was an architecture student at Berkeley and back home for the summer and not with a summer job and it was my father who came across an ad looking for - this was in the Japanese-American paper - and the add was looking for what they called Japanese voices, whenever that might be, to dub in English dialogue onto this Japanese sci-fi movie. And my father said, well, your ham. Why don't you go and audition? You don't have a summer job. And so I did and I got the job. And it was an exciting experience working with people like Keye Luke and Bill Frees, a grizzled veteran of voice actors. And that was the experience that planted the idea of maybe I can be an actor.
GROSS: I'm going to make you stop for a second and back up to "Rodan" for one more second.
TAKEI: All right.
GROSS: So the dubbed English parts were usually not well written. The dialogue was usually very kind of lame. What was it like for you? It's, like, your first part and, like, maybe I can be an actor. But the lines you were given were probably really kind of bad superficial translations of what was going on in the movie. So, as much fun as it must have been, was the dialogue difficult to do because it was badly written?
TAKEI: (Laughing) They were all very extreme. You know, it was very intense and urgent and highly emotional. But the scientist was the, as you say, the rational, wise and calming voice. And I got to do that voice as well as the panic hoard of Tokyo.
TAKEI: So by the time I had finished a day's work, and I think we worked on it either two or three days. And my voice was hoarse at the end of the day. But what really kind of got me all warm and fuzzy inside was having Keye Luke say to me, young man you did a good days job today. (Laughing).
GROSS: So Keye Luke was one of the actors or a director?
TAKEI: He was one of the actors. He was a Chinese-American actor who played Number One Son in the "Charlie Chan" series.
TAKEI: And he was a veteran actor by that time. He was a senior. And to get that kind of complement from him was very, very flattering.
GROSS: George Takei will be back in the second half of the show. The documentary "To Be Takei" is now on DirecTV. It opens in theaters August 22nd. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with George Takei, who became famous for his role on "Star Trek" as Sulu, the helmsman of the starship Enterprise. A new documentary about him called "To Be Takei" opens August 22nd. The movie isn't just about his career. It's also about being closeted in Hollywood and how it changed his life when he came out at the age of 68 and became a gay rights activist. And it describes the years of his childhood during World War II, when he and his family were forced to live in an internment camp for Americans of Japanese descent.
So you say in the documentary that you were cast in a couple of, like, Jerry Lewis films that you didn't really want to do because the roles were so stereotyped. What were the roles like?
TAKEI: Well, you know, that was a time when most roles for Asians or Asian-Americans were very stereotyped, very shallow, cardboard figures - and not very attractive stereotypes at that. The buffoon or the client, silent servant or the evil villain. And when I decided to become an actor and I had those discussions with my father, I promised him that I would not do anything that would make him ashamed. And so I'd been avoiding stereotype roles, until one day my agent came up with me for this - as he called it - opportunity in a Jerry Lewis movie. He said Jerry Lewis movies make tremendous money at the box office. They're very successful and it's very important for a young actor to be associated with a money making project. And I said Fred, I mean, this is a very, I mean, this is the very kind of roles that we don't want to get and I really don't feel up to playing that. But he said...
GROSS: What was the role?
TAKEI: Some kind of - it was called the loud mouth. And Jerry Lewis was the loudmouth, but I had something to do with something chemical and I was punished for it by being boiled in a cauldron. And I was, you know, I spoke with a heavy accent, I was easily excitable - it was a very stereotyped role. And there was another Jerry Lewis film called "Which Way To The Front," in which I played a comic Japanese soldier. So - and my agent at that time, Freddie Shimota (ph) - was a Japanese-American, urging me to take on the role. And I did want to be successful as an actor and he said being associated with a big box office movie will get you many, many other roles that would be satisfying and fulfilling. And so...
GROSS: Was he right?
TAKEI: No, he was not right. But I compromised then and I'm sorry I did that. I will never live that down.
GROSS: You were in the John Wayne movie "The Green Berets," which was a...
GROSS: ...Pro-war in Vietnam movie. You were opposed to the war in Vietnam.
GROSS: What was it like for you to be in that film and who did you play?
TAKEI: I played a South Vietnamese captain. I think I was a captain. When I went in for the interview with John Wayne - and he was both the producer as well as the - the credited director was Mervyn LeRoy, but he took over. John Wayne is a takeover, take charge kind of guy. And so he was a director and producer as well as the star of the movie. And I felt that I needed to be honest, I had been active in the peace movement. And so I told him that I'm one of your opponents in the political arena. I am opposed to the war and I've been active in the peace movement. And John Wayne gave me that famous squint of his that I remember seeing in all the big close-ups that he got, whether it's "Fort Apache" or the "Wake Of The Red Witch" and he said George, I want the best actor I can get. You know, we're American citizens and we have our right to our opinions. I have mine and you have yours and I respect that. But I want the best actor that I can find. And so he cast me in that and I thought that was very revealing of the kind of man that John Wayne is. He's a very decent guy. And...
GROSS: Did you worry - did you worry that you were compromising your political beliefs by being in the movie?
TAKEI: No. I didn't feel that I was compromising myself. This was a John Wayne movie, we know what John Wayne movies are like. And that's his political position and I felt that I was an actor for higher.
GROSS: So when "Star Trek" was cancelled and you were out of work, did you think well, in the future "Star Trek" is going to be so big and then there's going to be like movies, "Star Trek" movies, it's going to go on and on and on? There's going to be comic-cons. I'm going to be, like, world famous for this. Did you have any sense of that?
TAKEI: Well, when we were filming the pilot for "Star Trek" back in 1965, I said to Jimmy Doohan - I smell quality with this series.
TAKEI: Well, the scripts were intelligent, well-written scripts and the actors were very fine professional actors. And I told Jimmy we're going to be proud of what we did, but this means we're in trouble because all the TV series that I loved, all the ones that I thought had some substance were immediately canceled. And I said we won't last a season. Well, I was wrong on that, we lasted three seasons. But nevertheless, we were cast. So I had no idea that in reruns, we would finally find our audience and become an enormously popular - and indeed now it's an iconic sci-fi series - and so I was prescient in one sense, but certainly I didn't expect this kind of success for "Star Trek."
GROSS: To - I don't mean to pry into your financial holdings, but I'm wondering did you have a good enough contract so when "Star Trek" became really, super big that you got, like, good residuals?
TAKEI: I was a no-name actor and we all signed the same contract. I don't know about Bill Shatner, but all the rest of us signed the standard contract on residuals. It paid residuals up to the 10th rerun. And in those days, very few shows got beyond the third or fourth - at most the fourth - reruns. So we thought, you know, that's fine. And when it - after cancellation when it was syndicated - it ran five nights a week in most of the markets and the residuals were indeed handsome. But once it got to the 10th rerun, there was nothing. And so when you see reruns now, it's all profit for Paramount and the station running it.
GROSS: Have there been other ways to profit from it?
TAKEI: Oh my goodness, yes.
GROSS: That's good (laughing).
TAKEI: The "Star Trek" conventions and the merchandising. I'm what my mother used to call a doll.
TAKEI: She said people who called you doll when you were a little boy and here you are an adult and you're still a doll.
TAKEI: I said mama no, they're called action figures.
GROSS: Action figures yes.
TAKEI: And she insisted they're dolls.
GROSS: You're both right.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is George Takei. There's now a new documentary about him. It's called "To Be Takei" and it's currently on DirecTV. It opens in theaters on August 22. Let's take a short break and we'll talk some more about your life and your work. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is George Takei who became famous as Mr. Sulu on "Star Trek." There's a new documentary about him called "To Be Takei" that's currently on DirecTV and opens in theaters on August 22.
So when did you come out to parents?
TAKEI: My father passed before I came out to him. But, you know, deep down inside, I think he would've not been fazed by it. You know, he's a Japanese-American father of his generation, and he accepted his son pursuing a career as an actor. When I came back from Berkeley and said, I want to - I told him I want to be true to myself and test my wings as what I really want to be which is acting - the theater. And I said I want to go to New York and study at the Actors Studio. And it seems he knew that the conversation would be coming up. He knew about the Actors Studio. He said that's a fine, respected acting school, but they won't give you a diploma when you finish there and your mother and I would like you to have that. But here in town in Los Angeles, we have UCLA which has a fine theater arts department and you can study acting in the theater there. And when you finish there, they will give you a diploma, and that's what your mother and I want from you. So we will subsidize your studies there. But if you go to New York, be prepared to do it all on your own. So you choose.
GROSS: So you think, had your father lived, that there would've been understanding...
TAKEI: That's right, you were talking about coming out to the family.
GROSS: ...That you're gay. What about your mother? Did she...
TAKEI: My mother?
GROSS: ...Did you come out to her?
TAKEI: By that time, I had a friend named Brad Altman and we were...
GROSS: Now your husband.
TAKEI: ...Now my husband. We were running mates. We met in a running club. And so when I came out to her, it was something that she had difficulty with, but it - she wasn't dealing with some unknown person or an idea. She knew Brad as my running buddy, and so I think putting a face on something that you're talking about it makes it a little bit different. And she eventually came around to accepting who I am and, certainly, Brad.
GROSS: So you and your partner then - husband now...
TAKEI: Oh, yes.
GROSS: ...Agreed that the time was right to come out when you came out in - was it nine years ago?
TAKEI: Well, the reason for that was something...
GROSS: The Schwarzenegger thing.
TAKEI: ...Extraordinary. Yes, the first time that a bill like that came through the legislator - Massachusetts had marriage equality but that came through the judiciary route - through the courts. And in California - well, in the United States - California was the breakthrough state where marriage equality came to the legislator both houses passed it and it went to the governor's desk, and Schwarzenegger vetoed it. And I was boiling about that, but I was still silent. But that night, Brad and I were watching the late-night news and we saw young people pouring out onto Santa Monica Boulevard venting their rage against Arnold Schwarzenegger. And we felt just as angry of those young people. And we discussed it, and we decided that I should speak out. And for me to do that, my voice had to be authentic, so I spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man.
GROSS: How did it feel?
TAKEI: It was liberating. It was so freeing. But at the same time, I was prepared for my career to go on the downward. But the polar opposite happened. It's blossomed, and I was invited to do guest appearances on various shows as gay George Takai - "Will and Grace" or "the Big Bang theory." So - and I got the invitation from Howard Stern to be his official announcer, which we talked - Brad and I talked about, too. I'd been on speaking tours, advocating for equality for the LGBT community, but what we noticed was I was already talking to the converted - either LGBT people or allies. And what we needed to do was reach what I maintain is the decent fair-minded vast middle - people who are busy pursuing their lives and don't stop to think about other issues.
GROSS: So one of the things you've become famous for, you know, in recent years is your appearances on Howard Stern and your role there as the announcer. And as you describe in the documentary about you "To Be Takei," after your first appearance on the show, you didn't really want to go back 'cause he's, you know - he asks about all kinds of body things that you are not comfortable talking about. So now that you're kind of a regular there, has your opinion about Howard Stern changed and the...
GROSS: ...Kinds of questions that he asks to people, including celebrities?
TAKEI: Howard is masterful at the interview, but Howard is, deep down at the core, a very decent guy and a humanitarian. People think that he's an (unintelligible) guy, and he is that, too, but he also makes commentaries on society and political issues and he's got the guts to stand by them. Many public figures are reticent about taking strong positions. Howard does, and I have great respect for him. And he's very outspoken in a rational way that people can understand. And what he's done is given me access to that fair-minded, decent wide middle of America and I've gotten, as a result of being on his show - I've gotten letters, emails from from people - from really unexpected places. So he's been a real force in bringing America to the point where they embrace LGBT people as part of the diversity of America.
GROSS: So he pranked you. Artie Lange.
TAKEI: (Laughing) He's very playful, yes.
GROSS: Artie Lange made a confession - a fake confession to you that he was gay, and he asked her guidance. And you, of course, didn't know that A, this was a prank and B, it was being recorded. And then you were confronted with that on one of Howard's shows. So how did you feel about that? And do you think that that was a decent or a bad thing to do?
TAKEI: Well, I'm - first of all, I'm a trusting guy, and Artie became a friend over the years that I did the show with him. And I respected his anxiety and his concern. He's a good actor, and I bought it. And I gave - you know, I'm a good guy, and I certainly am understanding of people who are closeted and try to help them. And I do feel suckered by that when it turned out to be a prank, but I should've known better because Howard does that to me all the time.
GROSS: And you didn't feel exploited by that?
TAKEI: No because that's the nature of the show, you know. He had a fake Arnold Schwarzenegger engage me in debate on the show. And after he said that he was an Arnold Schwarzenegger imitator, I challenged him to get real.
GROSS: This is via telephone?
TAKEI: Via telephone - I challenged him to get the real Arnold Schwarzenegger on. And a few days later, he had Arnold Schwarzenegger call in. And I launched into a debate with him. And it turned out to be the same fake calling me twice.
GROSS: That's funny.
TAKEI: Shame on me - twice burned.
GROSS: That's hysterical.
TAKEI: I'm a slow learner.
GROSS: Well, George Takei, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
TAKEI: I've enjoyed our conversation.
GROSS: The new documentary about George Takei called "To Be Takei" is now on DirecTV. It opens in theaters August 22. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new album by Jenny Lewis, her first since her band, Rilo Kiley, broke up and her father died, which she said nearly destroyed her. This is FRESH AIR.
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