The Man in the Meme: To Be Takei

Admired and admiring, George Takei reveals a few of his many sides in the fun doc To Be Takei

Oh my. There’s so much to George Takei. Part of the original, legendary Star Trek crew, beloved as helmsman Lieutenant Sulu of the starship Enterprise. Countless TV appearances, on everything from Perry Mason to Heroes. Outspoken activist, speaking out on Japanese internment and also gay marriage. Septuagenarian internet phenomenon, plying memes with the very best. And that unending feud with Bill Shatner. He’s an original who’s come even more into his own at such a late stage in his career, as the new documentary from director Jennifer M. Kroot To Be Takei (2014) attests. Beam over to the other side, and we’ll see all Takei’s been up to.

A self-admitted ham from an early age, George Takei (sounds like “hey,” not “hi”) grew up in America. Born in California, his childhood was turned upside down by World War II and the subsequent internment of Japanese Americans. From 1942, when he was seven, to the end of the war in 1945, he and his family lived in camps in Arkansas and California. While the experience affected him deeply, he didn’t let it hold him back. His family returned to Los Angeles, and soon the well-spoken youth was the student body president at Mount Vernon Junior High. He studied acting at UCLA, getting his Master’s in theatre, and went to England and Japan to pursue his studies further.

Lt. Sulu, foiled again.

So where did the classically trained actor get his first jobs? Dubbing the voices for Japanese monster movies, of course. Takei dubbed minor roles in Godzilla Raids Again (1955) and Rodan (1956). He broke through on an episode of Perry Mason and also Playhouse 90, which in turn led to film and TV roles throughout the sixties. He landed the role of Sulu on Star Trek, much taken with creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of equality in the futuristic story. The sci-fi series led a troubled life, though, only running a few hobbled seasons. But syndication, the moon landing and that utopian United Federation of Planets captured people’s imaginations, especially as the malaise of the seventies wore on. Star Trek became a true cult phenomenon. By the end of the seventies, the concept was ready to ride again, relaunched as a movie franchise with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. (The powers that be seemed to need to spell out that yes, this was a movie, with your favourites! It was a simpler time…) Six movies later, plus four subsequent TV series in the same universe/timeline (mostly),  four additional movies with a newer crew, and now a rebooted franchise with two movies more, and it’s pretty safe to say the Trek universe is massive.

Takei goes to the conventions, as a Star Trek actor must. But he’s done so much more. He starred beside John Wayne in The Green Berets (1968), guested on IronsideThe Six Million Dollar ManMacGyverMiami ViceMalcolm in the Middle and Scrubs to name just a few. And he played Kaito Nakamura on the comics-inspired series Heroes. While doing all that, he lobbied (successfully!) for reparations to the Japanese American victims of internment, speaking eloquently to audiences across the nation of his childhood experiences in the camps.

George Takei and his husband Brad Altman impersonate my bickering grandparents to a “T”

To Be Takei documents all that quite well. It also captures his endearing partnership with his husband Brad Altman. So much a product of the Hollywood of the fifties and sixties, Takei stayed in the closet a long, long time. He didn’t officially come out until 2005, but when he did, he made up for lost time. He and his long-time partner Brad were the first same sex couple in West Hollywood to apply for a marriage license, and in 2008 they were officially married. In the film, they are seen constantly together, and Altman is Takei’s vital personal manager through his many public appearances. They’re a classic old couple, one minute bickering over petty details, the next doting with effusive affection. They met through a running club, and they’ve been together for twenty-seven years. While Takei remains in lean whippet shape, Altman’s put on a few pounds over the years, and Takei is merciless to him and others about their weight. Watching him casually zing Will Wheaton at a convention is painfully hilarious.

Takei continues to act, launching a musical of his experiences as a child in the camps called Allegiance in 2012. And he’s found extraordinary life on the web, propagating and feeding memes to a rabid fan-base as he slowly closes in on his eightieth birthday. He’s got over seven million fans on Facebook, howling with laughter over each photo-joke he posts their way. It’s kind of gratifying, as messed up as the world keeps managing to be, that so many people admire this man, his character, and his cheesy jokes. Who would’ve thought it, as charismatic as he was back then, that the mellifluous deep-toned Lt. Sulu would rise so high? Oh myyyyyyyy.

To Be Takei debuts at TIFF on Friday, August 22nd, and will be playing at least through Thursday, August 28th. For more info and tickets, see here.




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