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The extraordinary trek of George Takei

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The extraordinary trek of George Takei

At 82, George Takei is thriving in an industry that once had little use for him. His graphic novel "They Called Us Enemy" was released this month, and AMC's "The Terror: Infamy" premieres in August. 

The cult icon is on a mission to make sure America doesn’t forget a shameful legacy

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NEW YORK — As a child, he believed the camp to be a magical oasis, where mythical dinosaurs prowled the woods at night. A native of Los Angeles, he marveled at the "flying exotica" of dragonflies, the treasures of rural life and, that first winter, the "pure magic" of snow.

George Takei spent ages 5 to almost 9 imprisoned by the U.S. government in Japanese American internment camps. A relentless optimist, he believed the shameful legacy of incarcerating an estimated 120,000 Americans during World War II would never be forgotten or duplicated.

PHOTO GALLERY: See a collection of photos from the life of George Takei in a gallery at the end of this story

At 82, Takei came to understand that he may be mistaken on both counts.

Stories fell into the sinkhole of history, given the omission of the camps from many textbooks and the shame felt by former internees, many of whom remained silent about their experiences, even to descendants. Takei takes no refuge in silence.

The "Star Trek" actor has lived long enough to see thousands of immigrant children jailed near the border. On Twitter, to his 2.9 million followers, he wrote, "This nation has a long and tragic history of separating children from their parents, ever since the days of slavery."

Sitting in his Manhattan pied-à-terre near Carnegie Hall, the activist for gay rights and social justice calls his government's actions "an endless cycle of inhumanity, cruelty and injustice repeated generation after generation" and says "it's got to stop."

Takei was fortunate. He and his two younger siblings were never separated from their parents, who bore the brunt of fear and degradation in the swamps of Arkansas and the high desert of Northern California. They shielded their children, creating a "Life Is Beautiful" experience often filled with wonder. His father told him they were going for "a long vacation in the country." Their first stop, of all places, was the Santa Anita Racetrack, where the family was assigned to sleep in the stalls. "We get to sleep where the horsies slept! Fun!" he thought.

TAKEI

The only surviving photograph of George Takei while he was in the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Camp in Rohwer, Ark., in 1942 and 1943. 

Takei had little understanding of his family abandoning their belongings, the government questioning their patriotism and their return to Los Angeles with nothing, starting over on Skid Row. As a teenager, he came to understand the toll.

"The resonance of my childhood in prison is so loud," says the actor, who still lives in L.A.

This summer, Takei is accelerating his mission to make Americans remember. Almost three-quarters of a century after his release, he feels the crush of time: "I have to tell this story before there's no one left to tell it."

He has a new graphic memoir, "They Called Us Enemy," intended to reach all generations but especially the young, by the publisher of the best-selling "March" trilogy by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

In August, Takei appears in AMC's 10-episode "The Terror: Infamy," a horror saga partially set in an internment camp. Four years ago, he starred in the Broadway musical "Allegiance," inspired by his personal history.

The extraordinary trek of George Takei

The cover of "They Called Us Enemy" a graphic memoir by George Takei.

"That experience in the camps gave me my identity," he says in the apartment he shares with his husband, Brad, which is decorated with Japanese ink drawings and "Star Trek" bric-a-brac: a Starship Enterprise phone, a Sulu action figure in a Bonsai tree.

It's possible those years in the camps subconsciously nudged Takei toward acting. "To me, the theater was life, its artists, the chroniclers of human history," he writes in his 1994 autobiography, "To the Stars." He would star as Hikaru Sulu in a short-lived sci-fi series that would, improbably, spawn more movie and television iterations than furry Tribbles.

In turn, that success created a springboard for social activism. He became "a social media mega-power" - his website's phrasing, as he has 10 million followers each on two Facebook pages - fueled by a six-member influencer agency, which he calls "Team Takei." That influence, to a doting and ever-expanding audience, might ensure his experience in the camps matters.

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TAKEI

Actor George Takei, 82, spent ages 5 to almost 9 in Japanese American internment camps during World War II. "That experience in the camps gave me my identity," he says.

The eternal frontier

Takei frequently refers to his life as "an American story." It is also a singular, improbable one.

Who else enjoys continued success through the curious alchemy of "Star Trek," coming out at age 68 and regular appearances on "The Howard Stern Show"?

"George is a little outrageous, and a little Mr. Rogers. He's sort of where they meet in the middle," says filmmaker Jennifer Kroot, who produced the 2014 documentary "To Be Takei."

After enrolling as an architecture student at the University of California at Berkeley, Takei transferred to UCLA to pursue acting at a time when there was almost no work for Asian Americans except dubbing Japanese monster movies like "Rodan" into English and portraying crass caricatures in the Jerry Lewis vehicles "The Big Mouth" (1967) and "Which Way to the Front?" (1970).

Takei accepted the jobs, the Lewis ones to his everlasting chagrin: "I shouldn't have done it." But he learned. Never again.

Fortunately, he landed "Star Trek," Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision of space pioneers from varied backgrounds working together in harmony and oddly cropped slacks. Two decades after World War II, it showed an Asian American in a positive role.

Jay Kuo, who co-wrote "Allegiance," grew up in a household where television was largely forbidden. Not "Star Trek." Kuo's Chinese American parents knew "we needed to see ourselves represented. We were invisible. George was the only Asian sex symbol. That shirtless sword scene was groundbreaking," he says of the scene in which Sulu believes he's an 18th-century swashbuckler after the crew is infected by a virus.

The Starship Enterprise was tasked with a five-year mission. Five? The original "Star Trek," the mother ship of Trekiana, didn't make it past three, running for just 79 episodes. The final show aired a half-century ago this year.

Takei felt blessed to land the role of the master helmsman. When the show was canceled - "I knew it would be. Good shows were always getting canceled" - Takei was despondent that he would never work again.

Hah! Space became the eternal frontier: six movies with the original cast, an animated series.

Those early TV contracts didn't favor actors. Takei's residuals stopped after the 10th rerun. Which happened, Takei says, "about 10,000 reruns ago."

Fortunately, what the network taketh away, the Trekkies giveth.

Takei jumped on the convention train, across the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany and Japan, signing autographs and posing for photo ops for up to eight hours, his lustrous baritone growing hoarse.

"'Star Trek' has been enormously bountiful to us," Takei says. "We had no idea that this phenomenon of 'Star Trek' conventions would follow."

Now, Takei is one of only four original cast members still alive, along with William Shatner (Capt. James T. Kirk), Nichelle Nichols (communications officer Lt. Uhura) and Walter Koenig (navigator Pavel Chekov).

His professional life flourished, riding the wave of nostalgia and outsize fandom. His personal life, particularly for someone who has always been political and outspoken, was more complicated. Friends and associates long knew Takei was gay. He met Brad Altman, then a journalist, through a gay running club. They started dating in 1987. Brad took George's last name in 2011.

Takei worried that coming out publicly would deep-six his acting career. So he waited and waited, an eternity, 3 1/2 decades.

"The government imprisoned me for four years for my race. I imprisoned myself about my sexuality for decades," Kuo recalls Takei telling him. "You can't imagine what kind of sentry towers you can build around your heart."

Takei came out in 2005 as a statement, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in California. Quickly, he moved from the closet to the front of the pride parade.

"I was prepared that I wasn't going to have an acting career," he says.

Uh, no.

"The opposite happened, and I was more in demand," Takei says, almost in song. "They love gay George Takei!

It was as though gay was an honorific - and Gay George Takei was a reboot. Gay + "Star Trek" - the latter listing toward camp with its community theater props, too-tight tops and Shatner's Hamlet-like readings - was a fitting combination.

Takei was hired as much for his droll persona - his catch phrase, "Oh myyy!" - as his talent. Work was constant: He had appearances on the sitcoms "The Big Bang Theory" and "Will and Grace," and in Archie Comics (as hero to gay character Kevin Keller), plus that surprising gig on Stern's show.

"That was a strategy after I came out," he says of Stern. "We had reached decent, fair-minded people, the LGBT audience. Howard had a huge national audience."

On Stern's show, hired technically as "the official announcer" but also as a routinely pranked foil, Takei surprised listeners by inverting his elegant persona - a man who rarely swears or raises his voice - by being as raunchy as the regular crew.

Takei revealed more about his sex life than perhaps anyone anticipated. Mentions of Brad became a constant. Takei's once-closeted life was broadcast by the master of all media all over Sirius XM.

In 2017, former model Scott R. Brunton alleged that Takei drugged and sexually assaulted him in 1981. No charges were ever filed. Takei denies the incident, which was never substantiated. The actor says, "It's a fabrication of somebody who wanted to have a story to regale people with."

Takei moved past it. "It was a very upsetting experience, but it's never come up again."

His optimism buoyed him. And he had important causes to serve.

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The extraordinary trek of George Takei

George Takei came out in 2005, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in California. "I was prepared that I wasn't going to have an acting career," he says. "The opposite happened, and I was more in demand."

A witness to change

The first time I met George and Brad, at a party in Los Angeles last year, they were bickering.

When we meet in Manhattan, they bicker again over lunch, over the smallest details. Brad worries about almost everything. George does not. It was somewhat refreshing - a cult icon and his spouse being themselves in front of a reporter. Takei's openness contributes to the continuing embrace by fans five decades after "Star Trek" was canceled and why he's a natural for Stern. He presents authentically as himself, a man who extols life's fortunes. Why isn't he angry with the country that imprisoned his family?

"Because it would be another barbed-wire fence around my heart," he says.

The extraordinary trek of George Takei

George Takei, far right, with his sister Nancy Reiko Takei, brother Henry Takei, mother Fumiko Emily Takei and father Takekuma Norman Takei, around 1947 to 1948. 

The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 formally apologized to former Japanese American internees. Takei received a reparation check for $20,000. He donated it to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, which he helped found and for which he serves as a trustee.

Takei has witnessed his country change, often for the better. "When I was growing up, I couldn't marry a white woman," he has said, due to anti-miscegenation laws. "And now I'm married to a white dude!"

In 2012, when he was on "The Celebrity Apprentice," he invited host Donald Trump to lunch at "any of Trump's properties" - smart move - with the intention of discussing marriage equality. Trump accepted the offer. Takei recalls that Trump told him "he believed in traditional marriage between a man and a woman. This from a man who has been married three times!"

Takei was in New York recently for Pride Month, attending the Stonewall anniversary concert and City Hall ceremony. The events are as vital to his identity as acting.

"I was active in almost every other social justice cause as well as political candidates," he says. "But I was silent about the issue that was most personal to me, most organic to who I am, because I wanted my career."

Time was generous. He began life in internment camps and came out in his late 60s. At 82, he's flourishing in a field that had little use for him when he started.

The extraordinary trek of George Takei

Takei's graphic novel "They Called Us Enemy" recounts his experience as a child in Japanese American internment camps during World War II. 

The extraordinary trek of George Takei

George Takei says he wants to ensure all generations know the story of what happened to his family. 

But time can punish memory. Takei wants to ensure we know the story of what happened to his family, in his country.

The worst day of internment was the first one, he recalls. Soldiers marched up the driveway with bayonets on their rifles, pounded on the door and took the family away to who knew where and for how long. Says Takei, "It was a terrifying morning."

Bayonets and a 5-year-old boy. It is, as Takei says, an American story - a frightening and lamentable one.

All we can do is learn.


Photos: The life of George Takei

A collection of photos of George Takei through the years:

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