Lexington Comic-Con: 'Star Trek' star George Takei has seen the future and loves it

rcopley@herald-leader.comMarch 13, 2014 

2014 Sundance Film Festival - George Takei Portraits

George Takei played Lt. Hikaru Sulu in the original TV series Star Trek and many spinoff movies.

VICTORIA WILL — Invision/AP

  • IF YOU GO

    George Takei at Lexington Comic-Con

    Takei will be at booths 12 and 13 on March 15 and 16 only. $45 per autograph. $5 for 8-by-10 photo. No booth photos.

    Photo ops: 2:15 p.m. March 15 and 1:10 p.m. March 16. Stand side to side with Takei for a professional 8-by-10, lab-quality photograph that is available same day. $50.

    Q&A: Noon March 16. Patterson Ballrooms A-D.

Star Trek is notable for some of the modern innovations it presupposed, including the smartphone, jet-injection vaccines and tractor beams.

But in the late 1960s, Gene Roddenberry and Co. had no way of foreseeing Facebook and Twitter, two social media platforms that have beamed one of the show's beloved supporting players into the forefront of 21st-century pop culture.

George Takei — who played helmsman Hikaru Sulu on the original NBC series from 1966 to 1969 and six feature films from 1979 to 1991 — enjoys more than 1.07 million followers on Twitter and more than 6.3 million on Facebook who gleefully share his geeky memes and puns, and who like his career updates and statements about marriage equality.

Takei's husband, Brad Altman, answers the phone at his Southern California home to talk to him about his appearance this weekend at the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention at Lexington Center.

"It's possible to do a convention every weekend, because there are conventions being held — sci-fi conventions and comic conventions and very specifically Star Trek conventions — somewhere in the world, all the time," says Takei, whose co-stars William Shatner (who played Captain James T. Kirk) and Nichelle Nichols (who played Nyota Uhura) also are scheduled to appear. "And I am very grateful to these conventions, because I have been able to trek if not the galaxy, certainly this planet."

This is not the first time Takei (pronounced Tuh-kay) has stopped in Lexington. He has attended conventions here before, but in the early 1990s, he visited Lexington several times when his niece Akemi Takei was a reporter and sports anchor for WKYT (Channel 27) and the original sports anchor for the Fox 56 10 O'Clock News when it debuted in 1994 on WDKY.

"When she was a kid, she was a little jock," Takei says. "She loved sports, and she loved Lexington. But she left for her dream job: She became the first female Asian sports anchor with KING television, the NBC affiliate in Seattle."

Star Trek conventions bring up stereotypical images of costumed geeks such as the ones whom series star William Shatner once told "Get a life!" in an infamous Saturday Night Live skit. But Takei says the show's fans come from a much broader spectrum than the nerds on The Big Bang Theory.

"They're very diverse," Takei says. "When we go to Cape Canaveral, those are our heroes. The astronauts of today are the real spacemen of our times. And it turns out they're Trekkies. They're sci-fi geeks and nerds themselves, and they want our autographs when we want their autographs. People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were sci-fi geeks and nerds.

"Geeks and nerds are the pioneers of our time. So all stereotypes have an element of truth. But they're also the polar opposite of stereotypes."

Takei's world has become much wider than Star Trek, though, including a personal project in which he is poised to make his Broadway debut in his late 70s. Allegiance is a musical inspired by Takei's own experience in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

"They were really prison camps: barbed-wire fences, sentry towers, machine guns pointed at us," says Takei, who is 76. "It's one of the darker chapters of American history. We're Americans. We just happened to be at war with Japan, and we looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor.

"But my mother was born in Sacramento, my father was San Franciscan, my parents met in Los Angeles and I was born in Los Angeles. So we're Americans, but this country was swept over by war hysteria, and all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were summarily rounded up with no charges and put in barbed-wire internment camps in some of the most desolate places in this country."

Takei carries vivid memories of one morning when he was 5: Soldiers with rifles ordered his parents and his family out of their home to be shipped off to a camp in the swamps of Arkansas.

When his mother came out of the home, "she was carrying the baby in one arm, a huge duffle bag in the other, and tears were streaming down her cheeks."

That gave Takei a mission in life to raise awareness of the camps that he says people in the Midwest and East are shocked to learn about. It has culminated in Allegiance, which Takei created with composer and lyricist Jay Kuo and writer Lorenzo Thione. It had a successful run at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. "Now we're Broadway-bound," he says "We're just waiting for a theater to open up, but we're hoping for this summer or this fall."

The debut of Allegiance prompted Takei to take to Facebook and Twitter to promote the show, and he found that he'd built an audience being himself.

"Once the audience started to grow, I figured I would inject some social commentary, and I started talking about equality for the LGBT community," says Takei, who came out publicly as gay in 2005. "Suddenly, the audience exploded. There is a good overlap between sci-fi geeks and nerds, and LGBT people."

All that recognition prompted the making of To Be Takei, a new documentary that premiered a few weeks ago at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Hollywood Reporter said of the film, "The portrait that emerges from To Be Takei is of a civic-minded citizen and an eternal optimist, who at 76 still gets a kick out of being a breakthrough Asian figure in Western entertainment culture."

Takei marvels at the vital place he enjoys in the cultural conversation as the 50th anniversary of his breakthrough series approaches.

Reflecting on his Facebook fan base alone, he says, "I never dreamed I would have that many friends."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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