One of the original Star Trek cast members, Takei discusses the new documentary on his life, To Be Takei.
Actor-activist George Takei
Tavis: At 77, actor and activist George Takei has over 40 feature films and countless TV series to his credit. But he will likely always be best remembered for his role, of course, as Lieutenant Sulu in the cult television series, “Star Trek.”
He’s also a dedicated activist speaking out on such issues as marriage equality and the need for reparations, including a formal apology from the U.S. government for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, an executive order that saw his family as well as thousands of other U.S. citizens wrongly imprisoned during that war.
This month, a new documentary about his life comes to theaters. I love the title, “To Be Takei.” Let’s take a look at a clip.
Tavis: You know, I think it’s hard, George, for many Americans, certainly those born of a certain generation, to even imagine that their government could or would, or more expressly, did something like this.
George Takei: It’s still a little-known chapter of American history. I mean, people who seem otherwise well-informed and educated are aghast when I tell them I grew up behind those U.S. barbed wire fences.
It’s something that we need to learn from because I think we learn more from the chapters where we failed than from the glorious chapters because we need to appreciate how fragile our democracy is and we learn how to make it stronger by learning where we made the mistakes.
Tavis: What do you think it is about us that scares us or otherwise prevents us from coming to terms with the dark side, the night side, of American history?
Takei: You know, my father used to tell me. When I was a teenager, I was curious about my childhood imprisonment and I had long after-dinner conversations with him. I was an idealistic young teenager, you know. Dr. Martin Luther King was leading the civil rights movement. I was inspired by that. I was active in the civil rights movement.
And I sat down and said, “Daddy, how come you let something like this happen? I would have organized my friends and gone down to the federal building and protested and said this is wrong, it’s against the Constitution.” And my father said, “Our democracy is a peoples democracy and it can be as great as the people can be, but it’s also as fallible as people are.”
And he told me about a California attorney general right before the war. He was a very ambitious man, but he was an attorney and he knew the Constitution. But when the bombing of Pearl Harbor happened, he saw that the most popular issue in California was the get-rid-of-the-Japs issue and he wanted to be elected governor.
So an attorney general who knew better ran on the get-rid-of-the-Japs issue. He was one of the flaming advocates for it and he won for governor. And he was reelected twice, served three times as the governor of California.
And then he was appointed to be the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Earl Warren, the great “liberal” Supreme Court Chief Justice. So, you know, he was a great man, but he was also a fallible human being. He was ambitious.
Tavis: You mentioned Dr. King a moment ago. King said all the time that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. And when people think of Earl Warren, they do not think of that ugly chapter in his life. It takes people like you to remind us of that.
Takei: A human fallibility. So our democracy is always vulnerable to that quality in us. And I think that’s why we need to know about those chapters and I’m always disappointed and shocked when people tell me they don’t know.
So we built the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. We’re an affiliate of the Smithsonian and we travel our shows all around the country. One of our most controversial shows was called “America’s Concentration Camp.” The word concentration camp and America being put together was quite controversial, but that really was.
I mean, we were all concentrated, all Japanese Americans, into this barbed wire camp and it fits every definition of the word. Barbed wire fences, sentry towers, machine guns pointed at us. And when I made the night runs to the latrine, searchlights followed us.
It was very, very invasive and intimidating to my parents. But for me as a five-year-old kid, I thought it was kind of nice that they lit the way for me to pee [laugh], so, you know, the innocent child.
Tavis: You referenced your father a couple of times now, George. I happen to know from having done the research on you, obviously, preparing for this conversation that there is one regret, though, that you have where your father is concerned that you didn’t get a chance – well, I’ll let you tell the story.
Takei: Well, those after-dinner conversations, they got very heated sometimes. As I said, you know, I was an arrogant young teenager. An idealistic kid can be very arrogant.
At one point when the discussion got really hot, I said, “Daddy, you led us like sheep to slaughter when you took us into those internment camps.” My father suddenly became silent. He always engaged me in conversation and, after a few beats, he looked at me and said, “Well, maybe you’re right.”
And he got up and went into his bedroom and closed the door and I immediately knew I hurt him, a man who had suffered so much in camp and then, years later, his own son hurting him like that. I felt terribly and I wanted to apologize, but he closed the door.
So I thought, well, I’ll apologize tomorrow morning and when tomorrow morning came, it was a little awkward and I didn’t. Time goes by and, before you know it, he’s gone. I can’t apologize anymore. So these are some of the, you know, regrets you have in life.
Tavis: How do you navigate through that? I suspect that your play, “Allegiance,” allows you in a creative space to make amends for that. But you tell me, though. How do you – none of us is human and divine. We’re just human and we all make mistakes.
But how do you navigate the rest of your life with that sort of burden that you never had a chance to get that out to your father when he was here at least?
Takei: Well, my father’s given me a lot and I really deeply appreciate the guidance he’s given me. You know, you grow up watching your parents work their fingers to the bones to get back on our feet because we were literally penniless. Our first home was on Skid Row when they let us go and I am profoundly grateful for what he did.
And this musical that we had developed called “Allegiance,” because it was our allegiance to this country that was challenged, is my tribute to my parents and particularly to my father.
Tavis: Are we getting closer to Broadway with this?
Takei: Well, you know, we had the world premiere in San Diego at the Old Globe Theater…
Tavis: Great, great theater, yeah.
Takei: Yes, a distinguished theater. And we had a sold-out run. We turned so many people away that the Old Globe did something that they rarely do. They gave us an extension. And when we finally closed, we had broken their 77-year record for both box office and attendance.
And then to top it all off, we won the Best Musical of the Year award from the San Diego Critics Circle. So we thought going to Broadway was going to be a piece of cake. Nothing in life is a piece of cake [laugh].
Tavis: You should know that of all of us [laugh].
Takei: I should know. A year and a half of waiting to get a theater. Every theater on Broadway is booked up. We know that there is an audience there and one that’s enthusiastic – the music is fantastic.
We’re very optimistic about the production itself. It’s a matter of just getting it into a theater and presenting it to the public. I know the public is there for it. San Diego convinced us of it.
Tavis: So finally here, what do you want the take-away to be for those of us who are going to see “To Be Takei?”
Takei: Well, we want them to know about that dark chapter of American history, but what that taught me, that experience and my father’s guidance, taught me is that in our democracy you’ve got to be actively engaged and bring support to those people that cherish the ideals of our democracy. All men are created equal, endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and to be engaged and support that.
And what’s so heartbreaking, I think, is young, smart people who are idealistic today now are saying, “I won’t register to vote.” There are people that are involved in community activities, nonprofit activities. These are the people that we want to have as voters, but they’re not going to vote because the system is corrupt.
So we we’ve got – you know, 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and we thought voting rights would be a passed issue now, but it’s very much alive today, voter suppression.
So we’ve got to get young people and all people in our democracy engaged in the electoral process and I hope that they gain from this documentary, the importance of that.
Because when 9/11 happened, almost the same thing that happened to us happened to Arab Americans. Thank God not on the wholesale scale that we were subjected to, but people got detained. And given the fact that people are fallible, we have to keep reminding ourselves of it.
Tavis: Your father’s words, those are powerful words, that our democracy is as good or as strong as the people and as fallible as the people. Having heard now your father’s brilliant dissertation in brief to you, I now get why you’re such an activist. I see the dots connecting them. I get why you’re so engaged in all these issues. Makes perfect sense.
Takei: The barbed wire fences that incarcerated me as a child still exists invisibly in legalistic barbed wire fences confining people because of hysteria, which is what confined us.
LGBT inequality, we’re starting to snap away at those legalistic barbed wire fences, but 19 states now have marriage equality. 44% of the people of the United States live in those states, but it’s still a patchwork and we are working to make our nation the United States of America.
Tavis: George Takei is a good man. I’m always honored to be in conversation with him either on television or on radio or in the neighborhood [laugh]. It’s good to have you on our show.
Takei: Good to be talking with you.
Tavis: “To Be Takei” is the documentary. Go check it out if you get a chance.
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