Best known for playing Mr Sulu on the original Star Trek television series, George Takei has become a vocal advocate for gay rights since he came out in 2005.
With roles in Will & Grace and Heroes, appearances on reality shows such as this year’s Celebrity Apprentice and his job as the announcer for the Howard Stern Show, Takei has connected with a whole new generation of fans and made a name for himself as an internet pundit. His Facebook page has more than 1.6 million fans.
Takei was recently in Toronto to accept an award from the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on the eve of his 75th birthday. He also chatted with Xtra’s Matt Thomas about his out-of-this-world career.
Xtra: What was your experience like growing up and coming to terms with your sexuality?
George Takei: I was a young actor who wanted to be an actor. You’re always auditioning for people who are concerned about ratings or box office sales who see many people who are equally as hungry to be cast. And there is no assurance of getting cast, but there is assurance of getting rejected. Maybe out of 20 auditions you might get cast once. I’ve been rejected for all kinds of crazy reasons: too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, even too Asian or not Asian enough. You want to minimize being too much this or that, so you were certainly not going to be open about that part of yourself, and thus you play the role of the heterosexual and you live a double life. You go to parties and premiere with a very dear “girlfriend,” but then you’re going to bars on the downlow. When you’re out, of course, you run into acting colleagues, but we were cool and we pretended not to see each other. I’m of that generation where we were very, very closeted and we played a role in our private life just like we did in front of the camera or on stage.
Other than the Star Trek universe, nowhere seems as full of out-of-this world characters and galactic drama as a gay bar. Do you remember the first time you ever went to one?
I was about 21 in Los Angeles and it was more than just a gay bar. I remember the name of the place: it was called the Honey Bucket, and there were gorgeous young guys, stark naked on the bar dancing, and it was the most erotic experience. I couldn’t resist it and I reached out and touched one of them, and I was called to task for it because apparently I wasn’t supposed to touch. You’re the first one I’ve confessed this to.
You boldly went where no man was supposed to go.
Oh yes, oh my.
How has the entertainment industry treated you since you’ve become such a public gay figure?
I thought it would be more difficult, and I certainly got my share of hate mail and the Bible thumpers shouting at me, but I expected that. But the kind of responses I’ve gotten from producers and studio heads has been quite unexpected. Certainly, when I got the invitation from Howard Stern to be a part of his show I had to think long and hard, but it was an opportunity for me to reach a whole new demographic: straight, decent people that don’t think about the challenges we face -- reaching them through Howard’s listenership has been tremendously rewarding. I’ve gotten letters from unexpected places in the Bible Belt from straight guys, who are married with children, who say they support me and will vote against any politicians that are homophobic and will support those that are gay-friendly. Those kinds of letters are very heartening.
What about those Starfleet uniforms you wore on the show? Were they sexy garments to wear?
Not only did I enjoy wearing them, but we had some gorgeous extras on the set. There were these guys with fantastic builds wearing those tight suits. I remember when I first discovered that Walter Koenig (Chekov) knew I was gay. In the morning we got our makeup put on and then we gathered around the coffee urn to stand around and chit chat while we drank. One day, all of a sudden Walter started making these head movements, urging me to turn around and look behind me, and I wondered what he was doing. When I turned around there was this gorgeous young thing wearing a Starfleet uniform with great pectorals and this tiny little waist, and I’m sure he was washboard and he had a face to die for. So I turned back to Walter and he was grinning, and that’s when I knew he knew.
Did you have a chance to talk to Donald Trump about his thoughts on gay marriage when you were on Celebrity Apprentice this year?
Donald doesn’t want to have that lunch with me until after the whole show is over this season. But I’m planning on having lunch with him in late May when we have the finale. We shall see. Donald can be a particularly helpful person because he’s influential in the Republican arena and he’s someone who knows the way the wind is blowing. We had design challenges on the show, and the consultants we had were clearly gay, so he’s had different associations with gay people and the gay community and he does business with gay people, so I’d like to think he likes to see how things are changing, especially in New York.
You’ve worked with young gay actors and entertainers like Jim Parsons, Chris Colfer and Clay Aiken. What’s that been like for you, considering your age and your level of participation in the community?
We’re supportive of each other, despite the fact we have different audiences. Clay is a Republican and he lives in North Carolina and he has a son. I think that it’s wonderful that he is doing what I wanted to do but couldn’t do when I was his age. I love young people, especially younger heterosexual people, because they are the ones who are going to be producing the gay babies of the future.
George Takei hosts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Sci-Fi Spectacular
Tues, May 1 at 8pm
Wed, May 2 at 2pm
Wed, May 2 at 8pm
Roy Thomson Hall
60 Simcoe St
60 Simcoe St