CJAD: Well, depending upon which period you are a fan of STAR TREK we have on the line with us either the helmsman of the Enterprise, or the Captain of the Excelsior. On the line with us is George Takei who is Mr. Sulu on STAR TREK. Hello there, sir.
GEORGE: Hello, how are you?
CJAD: I'm fine and you?
GEORGE: Just great. Well actually not so great. I picked up a Canadian cold while doing my book tour in Vancouver, so I'm nursing a Vancouver Canadian cold.
CJAD: You're coming back to Canada again on Wednesday.
GEORGE: Back and forth. I've been in Florida, so going from the hot and stormy to the icy cold. That's the way to nurse my cold, I guess.
CJAD: The reason you're doing all this travelling is because you have a book out. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF GEORGE TAKEI: STAR TREK'S MR. SULU. You and a lot of other people are writing books on STAR TREK these days.
GEORGE: I guess that's the latest trend now. It seems that way, doesn't it.
CJAD: Were you aware of all the other books that are out there, or did you just start writing you book and then realized that there was a crowded field?
GEORGE: Well, you know I had been planning on writing my autobiography for quite some time and it took two of my good friends, one being my agent, and the other being....I write a monthly column for a magazine called TRANS PACIFIC.....and the publisher of that....the two of them ganged up on me and said, "now's the time to write it." I had been demurring, saying I'm much to young to be writing my autobiography. You have to have grey hair and a lot of wisdom, but when the two friends, whose opinions I respect told me that I should, I finally decided that I'm not as young as I thought I was.
CJAD: I think a lot of people in going through your book would realize, of course, that there is a lot more to George Takei than just simply STAR TREK and that there is quite a rich past there. Are people surprised when they find out more about you?
GEORGE: Well, that was one of my motives for writing. I spent my boyhood behind the barbed wire fences of American internment camps and that part of my life is something that I wanted to share with more people. When I travel through the east coast or the midwest of the United States so many people tell me that they never knew something like that had happened in America, and incidently also in Canada. American citizens who happened to be of Japanese ancestry were placed in these barbed wire enclosed internment camps simply because Americans couldn't draw that distinction between citizens and the enemy with which we were at war. Suddenly our citizenship evaporated, due process was thrown out the window and with no trial, no charges we were summarily rounded up at gunpoint. And it seems to me important for a country, for a nation to certainly know about its glorious achievements but also to know where its ideals failed, in order to keep that from happening again. So I particularly wanted to write about that part of my life.
CJAD: Even years later as an adult, what kind of impression does that leave on you and your family?
GEORGE: Well, it gives, certainly to my father, who is the one that suffered the most in our family, and understanding of how the ideals of a country are only as good as the people who give it flesh and blood. And my father inculcated in all of us, my brother and my sister, the importance of participating in the process. This is supposed to be a participatory democracy and if we're not in there participating then the people that will manipulate and exploit the system will step in there. So I've been a political activist all my life and I think in a large measure it's because of the internment that we experienced 50 years ago.
CJAD: How does that come out in your acting? I know that as an actor and as a young man, especially being of Asian descent, there is the stereotyping that most ethnics go through in Hollywood, at least in that period. Was that a problem for you too?
GEORGE: Well it's true that a lot of the roles then were pretty stereotyped and pretty unattractive stereotypes, but I've been rather lucky in my career. My first TV show was PLAYHOUSE 90. One of the most distinguished live dramatic television shows of that time. And my first feature film, which I got while still a student at UCLA, I was seen in a student production by a casting director from Warner Brothers and plunked into this movie, starred Richard Burton, who was an idol of mine. A legend of the theatre and a skyrocketing young movie star. And so, I've been enormously lucky and certainly the capper on the string of luck was meeting Gene Roddenberry and to be cast in the role of Sulu, which was a breakthrough role for an Asian American actor.
CJAD: Was it always your desire to be an actor?
GEORGE: Well, my Mother says that I made my theatrical debut in the maternity ward. She says that when she heard my centurion yowl she knew she had a ham on her hands. As far back as I can remember, I was putting on plays in the backyard and grammar school skits, junior high school drama clubs. So, yeah, I think acting was in my blood.
CJAD: You mentioned Gene Roddenberry a few moments ago. How did you get the role of Mr. Sulu?
GEORGE: Well my agent called and said he had an interview for me with this man who was casting a pilot film for a science fiction thing and there's this role for a running part. So I went and I met the man. As a matter of fact when I met Gene Roddenberry, I mispronounced his name. I called him "Mr. Rosenberry." And he mispronounced my name. He called me "Tack-I", which is not an uncommon mispronunciation. It's pronounced "Tack-eh" as you pronounced it, so we got started by mispronouncing each other's names. When he described the role to me, I knew that this was the role that I had to have. And I knew that there would be a lot of competition for it, so I was really nervous about it. And so after a stressful tense week, the phone rang again and my agent told me that I had the part, and the rest as they say, is history.
CJAD: So the show goes on for three years and then it goes off. Did you feel, like everyone else, "okay that's it, that was a nice role. Three years, it's done, it's over?"
GEORGE: Exactly. It happens in show business all the time. Plays close, movies wrap and TV series eventually get cancelled, and we were cancelled in three season. I had predicted that at best we'd probably would have two seasons because I said to Jimmy Doohan, as a matter of fact, when we were shooting the pilot, "I smell quality with this show and that means we're in trouble because television doesn't respect quality." And we got one season more than I had predicted, so I feel that we were really lucky, but you know, you move on to the next project and I never, never thought that we'd have this kind of almost 30 year phenomenon.
CJAD: At what point after the cancellation of the show did you start to be aware of the fact that STAR TREK was becoming a phenomenon?
GEORGE: Well, I went to a convention in New York City in 1971, I think, and it was a huge gathering of people. I mean, I thought that the show's been cancelled, it's been gone for two years. It's in syndication now. And to have a convention.....they offered to pay my expenses to go to New York and I thought, you know, these people are really getting in over their head, but when I arrived there and saw this huge crowd, then I realized that there was something very interesting happening here.
CJAD: Did you ever think after doing that convention that maybe there was a chance for Mr. Sulu to re-emerge, either on television or on the screen, or did you think, "oh well now, I'm just going to do some conventions, then on with my acting career and other things?"
GEORGE: Exactly. I thought this convention phenomenon was very flattering, but that's about the extent of it. Then a few years later, this effort to revive STAR TREK....you know that slogan "Star Trek Lives" starts to pop up. Sure enough, it did revive itself, but in the shape of an animated cartoon series on Saturday afternoon. And I thought, "well that interesting. We'll do the voices on it, but nothing else will happen. We're a cancelled series, and this is just a prolonged phasing out." But ten years later, ten years after we were cancelled, we came back as a major feature motion picture. I thought that would be the end of it. That's one last gasp of glory. Then that did very well at the box office, so before you knew it, we were in a string of feature motion pictures. Then they announced that they were going to do some spinoffs of us. And so now here we have two spinoffs and third one about to begin in January, VOYAGER, and the NEXT GENERATION movie. So it's been absolutely unpredictable and a complete delight.
CJAD: One of your other cast mates who has a book out, Nichelle Nichols, talks about the fact that it was a lot of African Americans, the fact that she was on the television show and the role she was playing of Uhura. Was the same for you in the Asian community?
GEORGE: Well you have to remember back. This was the mid 1960s. Every time we had a hot war going on in Asia, it was difficult for Asian Americans here. During the Second World War, Japanese Americans were incarcerated. During the Korean War, we had a lot of depiction of Asians as villains and evil cutthroat people, and in the 60s we were in a war in Vietnam. On the six o'clock news you saw people who look like me wearing black pyjamas characterized as the enemy and people that we had to shoot. So here again the traditional war in Asia syndrome was going on on American television and movies. Except when STAR TREK came on. You saw another Asian face and he was one of the good guys, one of us. So I think Sulu played a very important role in balancing the perception of Asians by the North American public that saw STAR TREK.
CJAD: Through the years that you have played Sulu, have you had to fight in any way, shape or form for the development of the character from the initial way it was written back in the pilot?
GEORGE: Oh yes. In my book I tell the 25 year struggle to give Sulu something more substantial to do, and then the struggle to get a captaincy for him. As a matter of fact in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, I was success in getting them to write in a captaincy for Sulu. We actually shot that scene, but you'll find out in the book why that scene never made it on the scene.
CJAD: Why did you feel it was so important for that fight for your character?
GEORGE: Well, you know, STAR TREK and the Starship Enterprise was supposed to be a metaphor for Starship Earth. It was supposed to be an idealized representation of what our society should be. In our society, we have a lot of minorities. Asians, African-Americans, women getting on the upward mobility escalator. They're making progress going up, whether it's in the professional world or the business world, or in other various careers. But the problem seems to be that think called the glass ceiling. They make it up to a certain point and then it stops. I kept lobbying to the powers that be at Paramount saying to them, "if Starfleet is to represent that ideal, you just can't keep giving us advances in rank." By that time I was a Commander. The movie before that I was a Lieutenant Commander, but I was still there at the helm punching those same buttons. I said to them, "it's very important that if we are supposed to be that kind of bright, eminently capable people...professionals....we have to get that advancement. We have to be able to show that this idealized society truly works. It's very important than, that we see one of the characters moving up and becoming a captain. Of course, my character being Sulu, I lobbied most vigorously for him. Finally after 25 long years of lobbying, we were able to reach that idealized representation of Starfleet. The glass ceiling doesn't exist with Starfleet. He was a captain then.
CJAD: I was talking to some of the other employees here at the station who are also big fans of STAR TREK. The reason why we were discussing this was because we are aware of the fight you've had in making Sulu the character he has become over the years and also the trend in the entertainment business in the last couple of years for the spinoff of some kind or another. We've always wondered, with the push you've made to make Sulu a captain, why he's never been spun off into his own movie or his own show?
GEORGE: Well you're a very perceptive man. That's precisely what I'm lobbying for now. You know, Sulu's been advanced to a captaincy and you know, we have a dynamic new captain and a great new ship called the Excelsior, which is much bigger than the Enterprise, much more powerful than the Enterprise, much faster than the Enterprise and we need to see a lot more of the adventures of Captain Sulu as the captain of the USS Excelsior. Simon and Schuster has picked up the cue on that and they've launched the audio drama series under the umbrella title THE CAPTAIN SULU ADVENTURES. We have two episodes out already, TRANSFORMATIONS and THE CACOPHONY. And there will be a third one coming this spring. Beyond that, I'm trying to parlay that into a regular weekly TV series titled, CAPTAIN SULU, and that's a dynamite title that's sure to be explosive on the Nielsen ratings.
CJAD: Are there any stumbling blocks on the way, and by that I mean is Paramount keen on this, for instance?
GEORGE: Well they seem to be receptive, but I could sure use a lot of support. Fans have always been the ones who have determined the future course of STAR TREK. If they start writing in, I'm sure it will make a powerful impact on them. I'm lobbying the studio head, Sherry Lansing, so if people would write into Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, addressed to Sherry Lansing, hopefully we'll realize that TV series, CAPTAIN SULU.
CJAD: There was a strong cast in that television show, and of course in the films. What was it like working with that cast and crew. I know there has been a lot said over the last little while with some of the conflicts surrounding William Shatner for instance. But it must have been quite a cast to work with?
GEORGE: It is. It's a wonderful group of people. A very talented group of people. I know it's kind of a cliche to say this but, we really are a family. We've been together for these 30 years now and I look forward to each one of the movies that we do as something of a family reunion. To get to enjoy working with people that you've spent a huge chunk of your life with and to get paid to boot. But like any large extensive family there is that "Uncle Jack" that you can't stand and we do have "Uncle Jack" in "Uncle Bill." But he is a member of the family and you develop some kind of way of working and living with each other for the three months that you're together making the film. Although I must say he does make it very difficult.
CJAD: Well careful, we're in his home town. There is actually a building named after him here.
GEORGE: The William Shatner Building.
CJAD: At the university.
GEORGE: Oh at McGill.
CJAD: That's absolutely correct.
GEORGE: Well I know that that's home town and I know that his Mother lives there and I'm sure she's a very sweet dear lady, but she has certainly given birth to a supremely self possessed man.
CJAD: Is some of that in your book also?
GEORGE: Oh yes. There is a good deal about the way I feel about the entire STAR TREK family. As I said, all of the others are very dear friends and they're all very different. Very rugged individualists in every way. Leonard Nimoy and I are political compatriots and we found ourselves working together for the same candidates in the same issues. Jimmy Doohan, another Canadian from Vancouver, is my favorite drinking buddy. Nichelle, because I put together a lot of fund raising dinners, Nichelle, is someone I can always call on to be our headline entertainer. She's very generous with her talent. Walter Koenig is a good buddy, as I said. He's the one that I keep in closest touch with.
CJAD: Do you have a favorite episode, or film for that matter?
GEORGE: Yes, without question it's NAKED TIME, where we see the swashbuckler in Sulu. That was great fun. As a matter of fact I write a whole chapter on that particular episode. The making, the filming and the travails of that episode NAKED TIME.
CJAD: The current film, which is just out, the GENERATIONS picture. You're not in it.
GEORGE: No, a good number of my generation aren't in it. Spock's not in it. Uhura's not in it. McCoy's not in it and Sulu's not in it. We were all looking forward to doing it. They told us that it was going to be a passing of the torch film, and of course I thought that that was going to be a wonderful way to merge to the two generations together. I wondered how imaginatively they were going to do that. But then when we saw the first draft of the script, we were disappointed, because we realized that what they wanted to do was merely use our names for marketing purposes. We were just cameos in a five minute prologue at the very beginning. We had nothing really to do. We were just talking set pieces. The only one who sling-shotted into the next generation was Captain Kirk. Now Sulu...you know you saw how STAR TREK VI, the last picture, ended, with Captain Sulu of the USS Excelsior shooting off into the galaxy. What a glorious exit that was. And in this five minute prologue, Sulu was there with only three lines, but beyond that, he was back at the helm of the USS Enterprise, and one of his three lines was "Aye aye, sir, warp three." No, I've said that 30 years ago. We don't take a demotion.
CJAD: So it was a step back. You wouldn't want to do that?
GEORGE: Well, the other's felt that way too, although theirs wasn't that stark a retrogression. They were just cameos.
CJAD: How did STAR TREK help your career outside of STAR TREK as an actor?
GEORGE: Well, it's been a wonderful opportunity. I know that a lot of my colleagues have complained about it being limited but in my case, it's opened other doors that probably never would have opened otherwise. For example, I did a film that I am very proud of in Australia. An Australian film with Bryan Brown entitled PRISONERS OF THE SUN. All of the other Japanese roles were cast of Tokyo, but the top Japanese role was cast with a Japanese-American actor, me, from Los Angeles. I asked the producer why he didn't cast the whole thing out of Tokyo and he said, they were aiming this film for the international market. They wanted to sell tickets in Europe and North America as well as in Asia. There was no actor in Japan who could do that. And here George Takei, from Los Angeles, was cast in that role of the aristocratic commandant of the prison camp because he felt that my name had that commercial currency all over the world. And I know that that's happened, not because I'm such a compelling actor, but because of my STAR TREK association. I've done many plays in Britain and Scotland as well as England and I know that they have a lot of Asian actors in Britain. Maybe not so many in Scotland, but certainly in London. The only reason they fly me over to Britain to do these plays is because my name sells tickets. So STAR TREK has given me that professional currency at the box office. It's amazing how in so many other arenas, my association with STAR TREK has opened doors that I didn't think would be so easy to open. I'm involved in some real estate development here and I've found bank vice presidents to be Trekkers as well. Or when I was in Washington, D.C. for the opening of the STAR TREK exhibit at the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, we had a congressional reception and I found the senator from Vermont, Senator Patrick Leahy, a very tall, distinguished, bald-headed, bespectacled, almost scholarly looking senators, to be the most rabid of STAR TREK fans. STAR TREK fans come in every guise shape and form and STAR TREK has done wonderful things to lubricate the opening of other doors that I never expected to be able to open.
CJAD: Did you ever anticipate in any way, shape or form, how your career would go when you first started acting?
GEORGE: Well, yes I did because I'm such a visionary, (laughter). No, never dreamt that it was going to be like this. It was really an unexpected, undreamt of phenomenon.
CJAD: Well, speaking on behalf of all the STAR TREK fans out there, I like the idea of having the adventures of Mr. Sulu carry forth on television....
GEORGE: Captain Sulu.
CJAD: Captain Sulu.
GEORGE: That's the important title. I want to see this TV series titled, very simply, but very powerfully, CAPTAIN SULU.
CJAD: How about Admiral Sulu?
GEORGE: No, no, no. I want to stay a captain for at least ten seasons. Captains have all the fun. Admiral, that's being kicked upstairs to a desk job. The adventures are had by the captains.
CJAD: And if anybody wanted to write in on behalf of Captain Sulu, they can send it to Sherry Lansing at Paramount in L.A.
GEORGE: Paramount Pictures. 5555 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, California, 90038.
CJAD: I thank you very much for talking with us this evening.
GEORGE: It's been a joy.