At 76, George Takei is in the prime of his life: The Star Trek actor and L.A. native is now a social media maven, a theatrical producer and, with his husband, the former Brad Altman (now Takei), a poster child for marriage equality.
That doesn't mean everyone knows how to pronounce his name properly. It's Ta-KAY, he says, not Ta-KAI — as in "Ta-KAY is gay," he quips.
Takei's dry wit and deadpan style have made him one of the Internet's most beloved celebrities. But it's a dark episode from his childhood that shaped his world.
"It was the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942 that defined who I was to become," he says from his sunny kitchen in L.A.'s Mid-City West neighborhood.
"I'd just turned 5 on the 20th of April. It was May. My brother and I were in the living room, looking out the window, and I saw two soldiers come marching up our driveway. They stopped at the front porch and banged on the door. My father answered the door, got our bags and they ordered us out of our own homes. We went outside and my mother came out, carrying my baby sister in one arm and a duffle bag in the other, tears streaming down her cheek."
Like thousands of other Angelenos of Japanese descent, the Takeis were housed in stalls in a Santa Anita racetrack, then transported to an Arkansas internment camp. After the war, the Takeis returned to L.A., living on Skid Row as they worked their way back.
Young Takei again dealt with racial discrimination when he attempted to launch a career as an actor. At the time, he kept his sexual orientation a secret: "You don't give them another reason to reject you, so you date girls, try to be one of the guys."
When he scored the iconic role of Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek, many castmates knew he was gay. Not William Shatner, with whom he has famously feuded. Says Takei, "He was probably the only one who was totally oblivious to that. He was too self-centered to know what was going on with the other castmates."
Takei's blunt talk show appearances (particularly on The Howard Stern Show) exposed him to a new fan base. By the time he officially came out to Frontiers magazine in 2005, his stature as a pop culture icon was assured, his work options plentiful (voice-overs, guest-star gigs, a best-selling autobiography) and his personal life solid (together for 26 years, he and Brad were the first couple to get a West Hollywood marriage license during its brief period of California legality).
In 2010, Takei began work on what he calls his "legacy project," a musical about the internment, called Allegiance. After success in San Diego, Allegiance is preparing for a Broadway run.
Takei also has garnered astounding popularity online in a relatively short period of time. He now boasts 3.5 million Facebook friends — he and Brad enlist interns to help them go through all the stuff people send him. He's even written a book (an e-book, natch) about the phenomenon: Oh Myyy! There Goes the Internet, about his journey to become "the king of Facebook."
But with so many savvy social media mavens out there, it's worth asking: Why George Takei?
"My humor," he replies, without pausing. "It's straightforward, logical and funny. Since I was a little boy, I was a ham. And there's a ham in everybody. Some of us are just better cured than others."
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