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George Takei Talks Sci-Fi, Social Change and Democracy

Ryan Loew

George Takei, who originated the character of HikaruSulu on “Star Trek,” joins us in studio. This weekend, Takei will host the PNC Pops "Sci-FiSpectacular” at Heinz Hall. Takei talks about that event, his acting career, his history of activism and the upcoming Broadway musical "Allegiance," in which he has a starring role.

Takei says that “Sci-Fi Spectacular,” conducted by Jack Everly, combines music from sci-fi movies and television series with discussion of the science fiction genre and its social implications. In the show, Takei also performs a soliloquy from the classic 1951 film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” with musical accompaniment composed by the legendary Bernard Hermann.

Takei is no stranger to Pittsburgh, having played a role in the 2011-2013 Nickelodeon TV series “Supah Ninjas,” which was filmed here. Takei explains that before he first spent time here in the Steel City, he had a stereotypical notion of Pittsburgh as a dirty, industrial city. But when first visiting Pittsburgh in the 1970s, he was struck by the city’s beauty, and when filming “Supah Ninjas,” he came to view Pittsburgh as “a wonderful city” after discovering some of its restaurants as well as Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Asked about how his work in the role of Sulu came about in the mid-1960s, Takei explains that the job came about in “a very ordinary Hollywood way,” with a call from his agent, an interview and a meeting with Gene Roddenberry in which the “Star Trek” creator described his plans and ambitions for the show. In an age of wars both hot and cold, social change and civil rights conflicts, Takei was attracted to the “optimistic view” of the future that Roddenberry envisioned in the form of the Starship Enterprise and its crew.

Most other science fiction of the age, Takei notes, offered a dystopian view of the future. But “Star Trek” showed a very different perspective, suggesting that humankind was capable of dealing with the challenges ahead of it, and "Star Trek” became known for dealing with real-life social issues in a metaphorical way during its 3-year run.

“It was exciting to look forward to the scripts and see what issue we might be dealing with,” he recalls.

Asked about his activism on behalf of the Japanese American and LGBT communities, Takei argues that the two projects are closely connected; both, he says, are fundamentally about fighting for equality in a democratic society. Japanese Americans, he recalls, were interned during the second World War -- his family and himself included -- and LGBT individuals have experienced public ostracization and have been subject to “legalistic barbed wire fences” for many decades in the United States. Both communities have struggled, Takei concludes, to become full American citizens.

With regard to his own sexuality, Takei explains that he couldn’t afford to be “out” for most of his career because he would have been ostracized as an actor. Being out and trying to pursue an acting career, he suggests, would have been “suicidal.” “No one would have hired you,” he claims.

After then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a marriage equality bill in 2005 that had been passed by the state legislature, Takei says that he felt personally compelled to speak out about the issue and disclose his sexual identity publicly. After doing so, Takei observes, his career didn’t take a hit but actually “blossomed,” and new opportunities followed.

Reflecting on his time as a child in a Japanese American internment camp, Takei explains that he had no choice but to grow accustomed to the unpleasant circumstances. One memory, in particular, stands out for him:

“I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words ‘with liberty and justice for all.’ An innocent kid, just reciting words that the teacher taught us.”

Takei explains that years later, as a teenager, he had difficulty reconciling his family’s experience in the internment camp with the ideals of democracy that he was being taught in school. Trying to make sense of his experience, Takei grew inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and by his own father’s ideas about democracy. Takei’s father told him, “Our democracy is a people’s democracy, and it can be as great as the people can be, but it’s also as fallible as people are.”

Looking to the future, Takei says that he will star in the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” whose topic is the internment of Japanese Americans, when it begins production in 2015. And just this morning Takei, who is a popular force in social media, celebrated a major milestone: surpassing 8 million likes and shares on Facebook.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday -- November 14, 15 and 16 -- Takei will host the PNC Pops “Sci-Fi Spectacular”at Heinz Hall.

Kurt Sampsel has just completed a graduate degree in media and culture at Carnegie Mellon University. For his degree at CMU, he undertook a study of the Federal Communications Commission that attempts to demystify the regulatory agency in the interest of helping average members of the public gain more oversight and control over the media system.
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