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George Takei: The TV Squad Interview

by Joel Keller, posted Apr 26th 2006 11:06AM
George TakeiGeorge Takei is a busy guy. Believe it or not, of all the interviews I've done, his had the most regimented procedure: I was supposed to call him and immediately begin the interview, because he had other interviews scheduled around mine.

Apparently, his itinerary has been a bit crowded lately. And for that, Takei -- best known for playing Mr. Sulu on the classic series Star Trek -- can thank the combination of his public coming out late last year and his addition to Howard Stern's Sirius satellite show as its announcer. In fact, the 69-year-old actor's voice was the first one that people heard when Howard first debuted in January. He spent the entire first week there telling graphic stories about his first sexual encounters, cutting goofy IDs, and trading wise-ass remarks with sidekick Artie Lange. He also got pranked not once, not twice, but three times by the crew: once with a David Letterman impersonator and twice with an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator. As always, though, he was a good sport, giving the audience his trademark halting laugh whenever he got scammed.

Since the Governator vetoed the state's same-sex marriage bill, Takei has spoken out passionately for gay rights. He is currently on a speaking tour for the Human Rights Campaign he has dubbed an "Equality Trek". So between that, his appearances at Trek conventions, and his negotiations to return to the Stern show, it's a wonder he has time to talk to any reporters at all.

In our conversation (after the jump), George and I talked about the speaking tour, Howard, his guest turn on Will & Grace, and his appearance as Sulu on a web-only Star Trek series. Oh, and I couldn't leave without asking him about Bill Shatner at least once.

Because Takei needs to be heard as much as he needs to be read (I mean... that laugh!), I've made the audio version of the interview available for download. It's available here.

Joel Keller: Thanks for talking to me today. I guess you're in L.A. today, right?

George Takei: Yes I am. I was in Baltimore yesterday.

JK: Oh? What were you doing in Baltimore?

GT: Well, I'm doing this tour with Human Rights Campaign, advocating equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans-genders.

JK: Very good. I guess you've been quite active in those causes since you came out publicly.

GT: I have. I'm on that "Equality Trek" speaking tour, but I'm squeezing in a Star Trek convention this weekend in New Mexico and next weekend in Colorado... Denver...

JK: Is your schedule kind of been picking up lately?

GT: It's been crazy. Mostly up in the air (chuckles). When I descend I talk to people like you or I talk to large audiences.

JK: What do you think has been the reason things have picked up lately?

GT: Well, you know, I do think in the larger span of things, I owe it all to Star Trek, because Star Trek has given me this pop icon status if you will, and one of the gifts have been this megaphone I have which amplifies my voice and I can reach people. And I do think the movement for equality for LGBT Americans is in the same context of all of the great American movements, you know, the basic fundamental ideals of this country of justice and equality. Shining ideals, but the men who articulated that kept other human beings as slaves.

And over the years, because of the struggles and efforts and campaigning of good Americans, you know, America's become stronger. African-Americans -- descendants of slaves -- African-Americans are in the halls of Congress, to have become Secretaries of State. When the nation was founded, there was no role for women, but America today is stronger and better and healthier because of women corporate CEOs, women astronauts, you know, women as potential Presidents of the United States.

So this is that same effort to make America stronger by equalizing, by making equal, the rights of humanity and citizenship.

JK: It's great that you're able to do all this public work for LGBT, because I think the reason you said you came out publicly -- I know your friends and family have known for a long time...

GT: Right.

JK: I think the reason why you said you came out was because of some of the policies that have been coming through federally and in California, right? And that you wanted to speak out on those issues...

GT: Particularly last year when I talked to the press -- and that's what people called "my coming out", you know; we've been out for a long time -- but it was a very positive, in fact historic, thing that happened in California, my home state: our legislature passed the same-sex marriage bill. And all that was required for it to become the law of the state was the autograph of just one actor, who also happens to be the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And when he ran for office, he ran by making statements like, you know, "I'm from the motion picture business; gays and lesbians are people I've worked with, I'm comfortable with, some of my best friends..." All these cliché's, you know, and because of that, he got many votes. And he betrayed them by turning around and vetoing that, playing to the most reactionary segment of his base. And that's when I felt I needed to speak and my voice needed to be authentic.

JK: So is that why -- to transition to the one of the other reasons why I wanted to talk to you -- when you were on Howard Stern's show in January, and he had the Arnold impersonator on...

GT: (laughs) Oh you know that! You're a Sirius subscriber, are you?

JK: Most definitely.

GT: I was completely bamboozled. Because he was very good, I must say; not only the accent, but the soft-shoe dance he did to try to avoid talking about the issue.

JK: But there were times he was just swearing up a storm and doing things that were very... un-gubernatorial (George laughs), but you just bought into it, which was one of the funniest things Howard's ever had on his show, and I've been listening to it for many, many years...

GT: Well, you know, in retrospect (laughs) it's hilarious, but I was serious and I wanted to believe. And I really believed he was my governor. (laughs)

JK: And all the other stuff, like his calling people names and stuff like that, you kinda let that slide because you wanted to get the message through, right?

GT: Exactly! And you know, as it turned out, that produced positive results, because I got a lot of emails from people that identified themselves as male, straight, married, suburban Republicans in Oklahoma or Nebraska or Minnesota, and said after listening-- you know, they've never given much thought to it -- but after listening to that discussion, they felt, that yeah, it's only fair, and the next time that it comes up in their state, they are willing to support it.

JK: Then they pulled the prank on you again, right? (George laughs). They brought the same guy back -- never mind the Letterman impersonator that they fooled you with later on in the week -- and you were just as passionate, just as serious.

GT: (laughs) Well, believe me, three times fooled... Either I'm very stupid, or... (laughs) I'm going to be going back soon again, and I have learned my lesson. I told Howard: "A beautiful thing has been completely destroyed. Shattered. All the shards are on the floor there."

JK: (laughs) But it was funny. It made for great radio there. (George laughs) I liked it a lot. When I listened to Howard the first week, I was wondering what the new satellite show was going to be like, and when I heard your voice there, I was like "No way! They got George Takei to be the announcer!" (George laughs) I was really looking forward to hearing you back there again, but you haven't been there.

GT: I'm planning on it. My agent's in discussion with them. But, you know, this month, as I described to you, you know, I'm literally up in the air, and when I'm on the ground, I'm talking to the press on this (LBGT rights). The human rights campaign is a really sophisticated effort; I'm really impressed with their strategy in Washington, and I feel privilege to be able to make a small contribution to that effort. But I said I can only do it in the month of April because I've got other commitments. Lots of Star Trek conventions this year because of the fortieth anniversary. So I said, you know, I will contribute where I can after April, but I have other commitments, like Howard (chuckles).

JK: He was claiming there was a money issue going on..?

GT: No. I did a Star Trek convention on Long Island, in Stony Brook at SUNY, and I'm also a trustee and a former chairman of the board of the Japanese-American National Museum, and we have our monthly board meeting, and we have some important issue up, so I had to be back in Los Angeles for that meeting on Wednesday. And Howard didn't want to break up the week; he wanted me for the whole week. So I said, "Well I'd like to do it, but you know, this coming back and forth just doesn't make sense."

JK: But for some reason, he came on his show and said that they offered you the same money they offered you for the first week in January and you said no...

GT: No, it was a different situation. I was there already for the Star Trek convention, and they wanted to piggyback on the transportation -- oh, I shouldn't be telling you all this! (laughs) But, no, that was not true. It was not money.

JK: What are you looking to do when you get back there? Because you and Artie Lange... Have you ever thought of taking the act on the road? Because I loved the two of you together, you were fantastic...

GT: (laughs) He's a cutie isn't he? (laughs more)

JK: Yes he is... at least as far as his comedy is concerned (Note: I had to add that in after I realized what I just said. If you're reading this Artie, don't worry! I like women.).

GT: Well, he's like a week-old muffin: cuddly but fuzzy. Like mold growing on it (laughs).

JK: And when you first came in for the show... I mean, this wasn't just a one-shot deal, you were considered to be a part of the show.

GT: Yes, and I recorded a lot of liners that he's been sprinkling throughout.

JK: Did you have any trepidation about working with any of these guys as a regular instead of just being a guest?

GT: Well, on Star Trek, we say we boldly go we've never gone before (chuckles). Actually, his show was something that I've been on before, as you know, both voluntarily and involuntarily (laughs).

JK: Like the "Sulu Dance"...

GT: Well, and all those other things he has me saying by putting the words in my audio biography together. (laughs)

JK: Oh yeah, I love it...

GT: You do? You are of Howard's ilk...

JK: Well, like I've said I've been listening for a long time. When you signed on, were you concerned at how the week was going to go? Because I know you had been comfortable on there as a guest, but this was going to be a little different.

GT: It was a whole different thing and yes, I must say I was wary. And you know, I just arrived (in New York) the day before, and then I had to get up at a brutalizing hour -- it was like 3:30, you know, and there I am on the air at 6:00. Actually, it was 3:00 my body's time; you know, L.A. time. So it was a combination of that, and yes, this is a whole new -- if you excuse the expression -- virgin territory. (laughs)

JK: Also, this was the first time you were on the show since you came back publically...

GT: Actually, when he was on terrestrial radio, I had a long interview....

JK: Oh, yeah, that's right! But this time you knew that on satellite radio it was going to be an uncensored discussion.

GT: And I knew I was going to be having a lively fencing session with not just him but the others as well. I know where Howard's coming from basically, fundamentally. He's a decent guy who recognizes the injustice that gays and lesbians currently have to put up with, and all the societal forces.

You know, it's an amazing change from... when I was a teenager, and becoming aware of how my hormones are reacting, I mean, I strenuously tried to suppress that. You know, when you're a teenager, you want to belong; you want to be part of the gang. And I know that anguish, and all the secret hidden things we did -- I shouldn't say we -- that I did, because it was a very solitary part of my life, you know. And at the same time, I was interested in public activity, you know, doing plays, going to parties. Then I got involved in the political arena, and social, civic, and community things, you know. And like in the political arena, if you've got one mission to support that candidate and make sure he wins, or to support that issue, you don't want other issues to cloud your purpose. So I kept my gayness suppressed and hidden.

And today, it's a whole -- if that was midnight, this is about 10:30 in the morning, you know. Time magazine last year had a cover story on gay teenagers! And I thought of when I was a teen, and compared it to the life of teens today that's being described in that article. And the point of that article was that, to most teenagers today, it's no big thing, it's "Yeah, OK. Jimmy's gay, Lisa's a lesbian, so what? They're nice guys; she's a pretty girl." It was like that.

JK: So you like Howard's stance on that; that's why you go on his show?

GT: Exactly. He basically, fundamentally supports LBGT equality.

JK: Despite the fact that, when he gets someone on the air, he really focuses in on someone's lesbian experience or something like that? That's more of a support thing, because he's curious about how they live, right?

GT: Well, there are two Howards. That Howard you described is the on-air Howard. There's a different Howard when the show's wrapped. He's very sweet, and surprisingly very quiet, and he doesn't have to rant and rave and shout, you know. He's very soft spoken.

JK: Which one do you think is the real guy?

GT: I think the off-mike Howard. You know, because he is confident of his power. I mean, he has great power, and he doesn't need to have power in his voice. Just by saying something softly it gets done.

JK: What do you think of the lawsuit CBS has against him, by the way?

GT: I think... I think it's preposterous. I mean, you know, it's ... in show business, everything is economics, you know, it's the box office, it's the ratings, it's the advertising revenue. And CBS has suffered an advertising revenue plunge with Howard off (the air).

And his substitute here in California, Adam Corolla, he's not a very bright guy. I mean, how stupid can you be when the west coast, which is his turf, has the largest concentration of Asian-Americans, and that makes up a good part of his economic base here, and he does a take off on the Asian-American Entertainment Awards ceremony, sort of like the Image Awards that the NAACP stages, and he characterizes (us) by saying "Ching-chong, ching-chong." We all talk like, you know, this (with no accent)!

You know, were Americans, multi-generational Americans: third, fourth, fifth, many sixth and seventh- generation Americans. And to characterize us as "Ching-chong, ching-chong" is so racist and so offensive. And so stupid, because we're buyers, you know. So we went to the people who advertise on that show, and they pulled back their advertising, and he apologized on the air.

But that didn't have to happen if he were half-way smart.

JK: This reminds me of a question that a friend of mine wanted to ask you, since he's into anime and old Japanese movies and things like that. He mentioned that you used to do voiceovers or dubbing way back when?

GT: That's when my professional career started. Japanese sci-fi films that were being dubbed into English.

JK: And the voices were very old-fashioned, accented...

GT: No, no, no... they were in Japanese, and we put English in. These were Japanese science fiction movies made in Japan using Japanese actors speaking Japanese dialogue. But the producers felt that it had a market here in the United States, so we dubbed it into English with English dialogue.

JK: But when you dubbed it into English did you use a fake Japanese accent or did you speak the way you always speak?

GT: These are Japanese, it takes place in Japan, you know. So we added a touch of Japanese accent for it to be believable. But if we had the real -- say, you know, if you listen to Ken Watanabe, the Japanese actor, it's pretty hard to understand him, because he has a real Japanese accent. And these science fiction pictures weren't going to be seen by art house audiences. So we wanted to have it understandable to the general, and maybe lower-class American audience (chuckles), so you couldn't have a genuine authentic Japanese accent.

JK: This was in the 50's?

GT: It was in the 50's, right.

JK: So I saw you guest star on Will & Grace not too long ago. I've seen you guest on other shows, and one of the things I like about you is that you make fun of your own persona...

GT: The characters are named "George Takei", but it isn't me (laughs)...

JK: I like that you have great fun with it, and it's fantastic. That was an interesting episode of Will & Grace, because it also had Britney Spears guesting. How was the experience on that show and how did you get the guest spot?

GT: Eric McCormack is -- first of all, he's a very gifted actor, and a quick study. You know, they have rewrites coming, and the show is being taped, there's a live audience up there. And we do one take and then the director's little podium on wheels comes rolling onto the set and all the writers come rushing on and circle that podium, and then the actors are called to get into the huddle. And they're practically rewriting the whole scene right there. And of course the regulars are the ones that get most of the real radical changes. Eric is fantastic at picking them up and giving them that twist and -- well, the others are too, they're all gifted actors.

So it was really impressive working with them, purely from a professional standpoint, but I also found Eric to be a very interesting guy.

JK: Is he a big Star Trek fan? Because the W&G writers made Will out to be a big fan...

GT: Yes. And apparently, he heard my terrestrial conversation with Howard, my first "coming out" discussion, and he actually complimented me on the way I carried on that discussion.

JK: Well, how was working with Britney Spears? Was that the first time you met her?

GT: First time I met her, and... she is a diva of the old school. She has an entourage (chuckles). She always comes with a herd of people in her wake, you know? And when you step outside the soundstage, there's her great big black SUV with a driver dressed in black standing there waiting for her... It's harking back to the days of yore of Hollywood.

JK: So what's your main concentration going to be this year, TV-wise? Is it going to be the Trek stuff, because of the fortieth anniversary?

GT: A lot of Star Trek conventions, but the most unanticipated -- you know, and I should be completely unsurprised by it, because there's been so many surprises in the last 40 years with Star Trek -- but I'm going to be doing another episode of Star Trek, starting work on it September. It's called Star Trek: New Voyages.

JK: I was going to ask you about that. This is an Internet-only show, right?

GT: Internet only. It's going to be webcast! And when we were doing Star Trek back in the sixties, we never dreamt of, first of all, a computer, you know, in our homes and in our laps wherever we go. And to be now doing Star Trek to be viewed like that was the most undreamt-of thing. And here I am about to get started working on a show that's going to be available in that fashion.

JK: From what I understand, it is new script writers, new actors...

GT: No! As a matter of fact, mine's written by Michael Reaves, and Marc Zirce, who are experienced not only television writers -- they've written for the spin-off Star Treks. And Michael Reaves wrote the script that I'm going to be doing originally for the revived Star Trek TV series. You know, when we were cancelled, we thought that was it, but when Star Trek went into syndication, the ratings soared. So in the early seventies there was talk of reviving Star Trek as a TV series, and Paramount commissioned a batch of scripts, and this was one of them that never got filmed. So what was done was Mark Zirce got together with Michael Reaves and updated it, and that's the script I'm working on. So this is something that was intended for an audience back in the seventies.

JK: But this takes place back in the time period of the original series when Sulu was still a helmsman, not a captain like he is in the later movies. And everyone else is being played by new actors, right?

GT: That's right. But there is an interesting sci-fi glitch that happens which brings me on... me, my age. (laughs)

JK: Future Sulu.

GT: The future Sulu, and quite a transformed person. I won't tell you too much, because we don't want too much to slip out. I begin filming it in September and it's going to be webcast in early 2007.

JK: Is there a reason why it's being webcast instead of being on TV? Is there a licensing issue or something like that or did they just decide to deliver it via web and that's it?

GT: It's boldly going where Star Trek has never gone before, making it available in a new form.

JK: Are they using the old sets, or have they updated them?

GT: No, it's a reproduction... there's an interesting story about the original set... do you want to know about it?

JK: Sure.

GT: Well, the original bridge set that we used for the TV series was donated to my alma mater, the theatre arts dept of UCLA. And they used it for a few student productions, but they considered it a used set for a show that's been cancelled, and they left it out in the sun. And then there was a rainstorm and it got drenched, and moisture soaked in, then the sun came out and the pieces began to parch, so it was destroyed. However, one worker there who also was a fan knew what it was, and I guess he wanted it because they were ignoring it. He took the captain's chair, and took it home. And, you know, it wasn't missed.

Well, I happened to be at a political fund-raising dinner in Orange County, and I sat at one of these great big round tables for ten, and this woman happened to be seated next to me. She was a widow, and she said, "You know, my husband worked at UCLA's theatre arts dept, and she brought home" what she called "this Star Trek chair, and I don't know what to do. My husband's passed, and I have it in the garage. Do you know someone who might be interested in it?" And I said, "You have something very valuable there, you can make quite a bit of money," and I said there was a Beverly Hills auction house that might be interested. And so I told her "Give me your number and I'll pass it on to the people there at the auction house."

And so they contacted Herb Solow, who was the executive in charge of television when we were at Desilu, and they got him as a consultant. They went down to Orange County and looked at it and said yes, that is the real thing. And they decided to put it on eBay, and it sold for something like $300,000. So you know, her husband left her a nice legacy there.

And it was later revealed that the person who bought it was none other than Paul Allen of Microsoft, who had the Sci-Fi Museum in Seattle, designed by Frank Gehry the architect. And that captain's chair, the original one, is there. So you can see it, and this little widow in Orange County has a nice chunk of money left to her by her husband.

JK: Very nice. By the way, do you go to more conventions than say Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner?

GT: I think so, yes.

JK: Well, the tension between you and Shatner is quite well documented. (George chuckles) Do you guys end up at the same conventions together sometimes?

GT: Yes, yes we do. We did Star Trek movies together; we did the Star Trek TV series together. You know, we work as professionals. But, like Leonard -- I did a run in a play, Equus last year, and Leonard came to see me. and Walter (Koenig, who played Chekov) and Nichelle (Nichols, who played Uhura) -- alas, we're the only surviving ones -- we have them over, Brad and I, my partner and I, have them over for dinner here, and we go over to their places for dinners, parties, etc. So, you know, that's the other gift that Star Trek's given us: good professional colleagues who become good professional friends.

JK: Right, for 40 years.

GT: For 40 years... except for one (chuckles). He's a loser.

JK: What was that?

GT: We have a wonderful, you know, relationship with each other, and he's been deprived of that.

JK: Because the only one he associates with now is Nimoy, right?

GT: Right.

JK: He's had kind of a career comeback, the album, and Boston Legal and that kind of stuff. But it's just weird at how he's kind of made enemies down the line, but has come out of it somehow.

GT: Oh, he's a driven guy. And I know that Bill will always keep on keeping on.

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Picard, Jean-Luc

Memo to all ranks regarding promotion of Hikaru Sulu, Captain, USS Excelsior (NCC-2000). In recognition of your longevity of service, gallantry and unswerving ability as a command-rank officer, I hereby order you promoted to rank of rear-admiral, effective immediately. Congratulations, Admiral Sulu. By order of Fleet Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, Commander, Starfleet. Personal note: Live long and prosper.

April 27 2006 at 11:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Amy Jennings

I knew George years ago from the Original Star Trek Conventions in the early 1970's in NYC, He was gracious then towards Shatner and when they all got on stage they were there united as one team, a team dedicated to seeing the fans wish come true...
The return of Star Trek...one of the truly greatest sci fi series of all time!

My last wish is that he and Shatner can patch it up before they all die, my gods Shatner just turned 75, Takei is almost 70....lifes to short for fussing and fighting my friends!

peace out!

April 27 2006 at 9:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great interview!!!!!!

Look real foward to having George back on Howard in the near future.

April 26 2006 at 6:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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