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'Star Trek' alum George Takei still stuns

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George Takei, speaking by phone from his California home, cannot resist describing the un-wintry view from his window.

"There's a flawless blue sky, golden sunshine and a green garden outside," the Los Angeles-born Takei says in his burnished baritone, with just a hint of gloating. "But I am looking forward to being back in Baltimore. I love the bracing air of the Inner Harbor."

The man who first earned fame portraying Lt. Sulu in the 1960s TV series "Star Trek" will serve as narrator/host of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's "Sci-Fi Spectacular" this week. It's a reprise of the program Takei participated in here in 2008, a program featuring colorful music from "Star Trek," "Star Wars" and more, led by the BSO's principal pops conductor, Jack Everly.

A lot has happened to Takei since that visit six years ago.

In 2011, shortly after his first tweet on Twitter and his first post on his Facebook fan page, he became a social media phenomenon — more than 6 million Facebook fans and about 1 million Twitter followers relish his every quip or funny photo.

In 2012, Takei helped launch a Broadway-bound musical, "Allegiance," about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In December, he entered the perfume market with a unisex fragrance — "Eau My." The name plays on Takei's signature utterance, "Oh, my," delivered with a grand swoop when confronted with the unexpected, suggestive or outrageous. (Shock jock Howard Stern, who often had the actor on his radio show, recorded one of Takei's "Oh, my" responses and played the tape innumerable times afterward, helping to spread the expression.)

Takei also became the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot, who chronicled the actor and his husband for three years. The result, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, is titled "To Be Takei."

"Doesn't that have a Shakespearean ring?" Takei says with a laugh.

In between all those developments, Takei, who came out as a gay man in 2005, has been a prominent advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

For some longtime fans, Takei may always be most synonymous with the world of sci-fi. But the actor, who earned degrees in theater from the University of California at Los Angeles, did not arrive on the set of "Star Trek" in 1966 fully committed to the genre.

"Frankly, I was not a sci-fi fan," says Takei, 76. "I had only read one sci-fi author. I was merely auditioning, an actor for hire. I wanted to work week after week. But my association with 'Star Trek' allowed me to meet some extraordinarily gifted science fiction writers on the show, which opened up a new world for me — a world of nerdom and geekdom that is global."

Takei notes that some of the ideas that sparked the imaginations of Trekkies have turned into reality.

"What we did in 'Star Trek' in the mid-'60s was mind-boggling," he says. "We'd walk around with these things we flipped up to talk [called the Communicators], and now we all walk around with things like that. We take pictures with them, text and see movies. We're living in a science fiction world."

Another "Star Trek" feature, the teleportation device that beamed up characters on the show, has yet to materialize, but Takei will be ready if it does.

"I hope for the day when we have a Transporter, where you step on it, sparkle, pop out and sparkle again," Takei says. (It's very easy to envision him sparkling.)

Meanwhile, the actor, who appeared in six "Star Trek" movies based on the TV series, is keeping an eye on developments in commercial space travel.

"That does indeed interest me," he says. "Virgin [Galactic] and SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corp.] are entering an exciting phase. You know, Starship Enterprise was meant to be entrepreneurial, and that's the phase we're seeing companies step into now. To be living through these times is very exciting. It's the reason why I want to live long and prosper."

Takei's interest in flight started when he was 14, when he took his first airplane ride at Los Angeles International Airport. ("That was chilling and exciting; I put my arm rests up to help the plane go up.")

By then, Takei could feel like a regular, native Angeleno again. During the early 1940s, things were much more complicated and painful. Like 120,000 other Japanese-Americans, the Takei family was sent to internment camps after Japan and the United States went to war.

This period of American history is not as widely known as nobler aspects of the war years. For the actor, it is anything but obscure, anything but excusable.

"When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Japanese-Americans, like every one else, rushed to enlist," he says, "but they were denied and labeled enemy non-aliens. That's citizenship in the negative."

With his parents and siblings, Takei was first sent to a camp in a swampy part of Arkansas, then to another in an isolated section of Northern California.

Partway through the war, when more manpower was needed for the armed services, the confined Japanese-Americans were given a questionnaire to fill out.

"Everyone in the camps over the age of 17," Takei says, "including an 87-year-old lady, was first asked, 'Will you bear arms to defend the United States of America?' The second question had two parts: 'Will you swear loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the emperor of Japan?' It was outrageous. If you said yes, you were fessing up to having been loyal to the emperor."

That question shook up the community.

"Some bit the bullet and answered yes," he says. "Some, like my parents, answered no. My father said, 'They took my home, my business. I'm not going to let them take my dignity.' That's the story we tell in the musical 'Allegiance.' It's about allegiance to your family and, ultimately, to yourself."

That musical came about serendipitously.

A few years ago, Takei and his husband attended a play in New York. Two strangers in the next row, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, recognized Takei's voice and struck up a conversation. The next night, the four men happened to be at another theater for the hit musical "In the Heights."

"At the end of Act 1, the father in the story sings about how he can't afford to send his daughter to college, which makes him feel completely useless," Takei says. "That struck a chord and reminded me of my father's anger in Arkansas, how he wanted to do more for his children. At intermission, Jay and Lorenzo saw me trying to dry my eyes and asked me why it had affected me so deeply."

Over drinks after the show, Takei told the two men about his years in the camps. Kuo, who had written a few musicals, and Thione, an entrepreneur, suggested that Takei's experiences would make a great subject for a musical. Kuo soon composed a song and emailed a clip of it to Takei to give him an idea of what the musical could be like. The song was called "Allegiance."

"It really captured the anguish of a Japanese-American father in an internment camp," Takei says. "There I was at my computer, bawling away listening to it. So I wrote Jay back and told him, 'Let's do this.' "

In short order, Kuo finished all the music and lyrics for the show; he and Thione wrote the first draft of the book. The project was picked up by the Old Globe in San Diego, one of the country's leading regional theaters, with a strong record of sending shows to Broadway. The company brought in Marc Acito to help with rewrites of the book.

"Each tweak made it stronger," Takei says.

Takei was given a major role in the show, portraying a survivor of the camps who looks back on those years. The actor had another major role, too, offstage — finding backers for the musical. As part of his fundraising efforts, Takei gave several readings of the work for Japanese-Americans and discovered that the past was very much in the present for many of them.

"The [loyalty questionnaire] had fractured the Japanese-American community, and that fracture reappeared at those investor meetings," Takei says. "People were wagging fingers at each other afterward, saying things like, 'You killed my mother.' It was shocking to me. It was 70 years after the war, but the wounds were still there; the scabs were taken off."

"Allegiance" had its premiere in 2012 and became "the highest-grossing show in our 75-plus-year history," says Eric Louie, associate producer at the Old Globe.

The process of getting the musical to the stage was a smooth one.

"George is the nicest human being you'll ever meet in your life," Louie says, "and one of the most eloquent speakers you'll ever hear. There's a real power in listening to George. He really led the charge for 'Allegiance' and opened people's eyes. You could not help but get on board. We all felt this was a story that needed to be told, a relevant and important story that does not get enough attention."

After the success of "Allegiance" at the Old Globe box office and with the local press, Takei and the show's creative team were ready to conquer Broadway.

"But we've been waiting more than a year," Takei says. "We've been trying to find the right theater, but there has been an overabundance of plays. Now we are like vultures perched on Times Square looking down on the weak ones. I'm optimistic that 2014 is going to be the year of 'Allegiance.' "

Takei is also hopeful about seeing further advances in the area of marriage equality this year, an issue particularly close to him.

He and Brad Altman, who changed his surname to Takei, have been together for more than 25 years. They were married in 2008 at the Democracy Forum of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles before 200 guests who included U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii and two "Star Trek" veterans — Walter Koenig, who played Chekov, as best man; and Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, as "best lady."

These days, Takei is particularly concerned about the situation in Utah, where a judicial ruling paved the way for gay marriages — more than 1,000 couples quickly married — before a higher court called a halt.

"After the stay by the court, the governor took the stay one step further and said these lawful marriages won't be recognized," Takei says. "It's like George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse doorway. This is government by hysteria, like the kind of hysteria that sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps."

Despite setbacks, Takei expects gay marriage to continue expanding among the states.

"I look at the big historic picture," he says. "When this nation was founded, women had no equality. Today, we have had three women secretaries of state, and women lead teams of astronauts. So I'm always upbeat. If you don't see the bright side, you can't get things done."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

The BSO's Sci-Fi Spectacular with George Takei will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Feb. 23 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Catheral St. Tickets are $44 to $109. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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