George Takei: “Arnold Schwarzenegger made me so angry, I came out – at 68”

George Takei has always been a great admirer of the British. “I’m the son of my father,” the man known throughout the galaxy as Star Trek’s Mr Sulu tells Weekend. “He was a great Anglophile. And I was born three weeks before the coronation of George VI. Hence my name.”

One thing the 85-year-old doesn’t enjoy, though, is the British winter. “I’m a southern Californian, we can’t take it”, he says in his rich, warm baritone. So if you’re wondering why he’s chosen to make his London stage debut in the depths of frozen January… well, let’s just say it’s for a cause very close to his heart.

George Takei’s Allegiance, which has just opened at the Charing Cross Theatre, is a retooled version of the actor’s award-winning Broadway musical, inspired by his own brutalising childhood experience as one of 120,000 Japanese Americans locked up in US internment camps during the Second World War.

“They categorised us as enemy aliens,” recalls George, of the panic that swept through America after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. “Even though we weren’t the enemy – I was five years old – and we weren’t aliens. My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. My brother and sister and I were born in Los Angeles. But they didn’t see us as Americans. They saw only the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. And suddenly the noble ideas of democracy, and equal justice under the law, got swept away by war hysteria and racism – because we looked like this. We were also at war with Germany and Italy, but Italian Americans and German Americans looked like the rest of America, so there wasn’t a wholesale roundup, as there was in our case.”

George can still vividly recall the morning when the soldiers arrived at his family’s suburban LA home. “They came marching up the drive, carrying rifles with bayonets on them, then started banging on the front door. My father answered and they pointed the bayonets at him. It was terrifying. My younger brother Henry and I followed my father outside, and then our mother came out with our baby sister in one arm, a duffle bag in the other, tears streaming down her cheeks. The terror of that morning is seared into my memory.”

A convoy of buses took them and their fellow prisoners to a racetrack on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where they were assigned a converted horse stable. “It was still pungent with the stench of horse manure, with flies and insects in the air. For my parents, I can’t imagine the degradation and humiliation. My baby sister promptly got sick, and I got sick shortly after that.”

Later, the family was sent to a concentration camp in the swamps of Arkansas, where George’s parents were asked to complete a loyalty questionnaire. “One question – 27 – asked, ‘Are you willing to serve in the US armed forces on combat duty?’” explains George. “They were essentially being asked if they would bear arms to defend the country that was holding their young children prisoner. It was preposterous.” Another question asked them to forswear allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. “With that word, forswear, they assumed we had an inborn racial loyalty to the Emperor. But we were Americans!”

Dissatisfied with the responses, the authorities moved the family to the infamous Tule Lake high-security concentration camp for “disloyals”. “It had three layers of barbed-wire fence, soldiers on the sentry towers with machine guns pointed at us, and half a dozen tanks patrolling the perimeter. Those are vehicles of warfare,” says George. “They belong on the battlefield.”

When they were released at the end of the war, the Takeis returned to Los Angeles, but with no home or money – the family business had disappeared, and they didn’t even have access to a bank account – they ended up living downtown in the city’s notorious Skid Row neighbourhood. “It was so horrible – crazy people and drug addicts barking in the street in front of you – my sister said, ‘mama, let’s go home’. Meaning behind the barbed wire. Because that’s all she knew. Being behind barbed wire was horrific, but it wasn’t as bad as Skid Row.”

The family eventually got back on their feet and, rather than fall prey to bitterness and resentment about their country, George’s father encouraged him to take an active role in democracy, setting him on course for a lifetime of political activism.

I was an activist on just about every other issue. But on the issue closest, and the most personal to me, I was silent.

George Takei

Ironically, for a man who’d known he was gay from a young age, one area in which he wasn’t active was gay rights. “I’d been closeted most of my adult life,” he admits. “And that’s because I’m an actor, and I wanted to be hired, and no-one would hire you if you were gay. So I was an activist on just about every other issue – marriage equality, redress for Japanese Americans, equality for African Americans, I was involved in the peace movement during the Vietnam War…. But on the issue closest to me, and the most personal to me, I was silent. With that came guilt, because I was protecting my career, and there were all these other people, sacrificing their careers, their jobs – sometimes their families – by advocating for equality for LGBT people. And I was silent.”

The man who changed all that was Arnold Schwarzenegger – who, as governor of California, refused to sanction same-sex marriage in the state. “All it needed was one signature, of the movie star governor – but when it landed on his desk, he vetoed it,” says George, who at that point had already been in a relationship with his how husband, producer Brad Altman, for 18 years. “And that got me so angry, I came out – at 68.”

After studying theatre at college, the young George Takei had begun his acting career dubbing Japanese creature features like Godzailla Raids Again. Minor movie roles and TV appearances in TV shows including The Twilight Zone and Mission: Impossible followed, but it was Star Trek that made him a superstar – albeit not an overnight one (famously, the show flopped during its original three-year run in the late 60s, only becoming a bona fide phenomenon through syndicated reruns, and later a film series).

Unlike some of his co-stars – such as Leonard Nimoy, who once wrote a memoir called I Am Not Spock – George has never sought to distance himself from the role of Hikaru Sulu, foursquare helmsman of the Starship Enterprise. Quite the opposite, in fact. “I’m proud of my association with a show that had such a forward-looking, enlightened view of our future,” he says of creator Gene Rodenberry’s famously idealistic, multi-cultural vision of the 23rd century.

“I’ve had Asian Americans come up to me and say, ‘you were the only person I could identify with in television and movies, because all the other representations were as a comic buffoon, or a servant, or a villain. You made me feel proud’. So why would I not feel good about that? I’m proud of Star Trek, and the message it conveys.”

The recent death of Uhura actress Nichelle Nichols leaves George, William Shatner and Walter (Chekov) Keonig as the only remaining crewmembers of the original Enterprise. Is it difficult for him to watch the show now, and see so many absent friends? “Absent friends is a good way of putting it,” he smiles. “One of the gifts that Star Trek gave me was wonderful colleagues who became wonderful friends for life.” He tells a story about Leonard Nimoy, who was dying from COPD, coming to a screening of a film about his life with Brad. “He was in a wheelchair, with an oxygen tank and a mask. And still he came to see the movie. That kind of loyalty really is extraordinary.”

One colleague who didn’t become a friend for life was Captain James T Kirk himself. William Shatner has enjoyed something of a strained relationship with most of his former crew – but things between him and his erstwhile helmsman seem to have been particularly fractious.

When Weekend talks to George, there’s a general agreement that the pair have patched up their differences, or at least called an end to hostilities, so I ask how he feels about the 90-year-old Shatner becoming the oldest person ever to boldly go into space for real. Did he feel a twinge of envy?

“I don’t know whether it’s envy. But I’ve said that he’s a good guinea pig – they need to test the effects of space and weightlessness on a 90-year-old, so maybe he’ll be making it more comfortable for me to go up there. I don’t think he liked that.”

(Indeed he didn’t: a few days after our conversation, Shatner gives an interview to The Times in which he says an “embittered” George has “never stopped blackening my name”. George, for his part, subsequently vowed on the Graham Norton show that “this is the very last time I talk about him”.)

Since docking the Enterprise for the final time, George’s stage and screen career has taken in everything from a regular role in super-powered US drama Heroes to pantomime in Reading, via a stint in the I’m A Celeb jungle (he came third). He’s also become something of a social media superstar, posting a wry mix of political commentary and humour to his 9.4m Facebook, 3.4m Twitter and 1.4 million Instagram followers.

But Allegiance, first staged in 2012, is his real passion project. For George – who also stars in the show as Sam Kimura, a man reflecting on the wartime internment of his younger self (played by Broadway and Glee star Telly Leung) – it’s a subject with an unnervingly contemporary relevance.  “We need to learn the lessons of this story, because that same kind of fracture is happening again in this country,” he says – pointing to Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban and his ”racialising” of the Covid virus as an example.

George actually once had lunch with the future President, after appearing as a contestant on his Celebrity Apprentice TV show 10 years ago. “He’d taken a position against marriage equality in the state of New York, and I invited him to lunch to try to persuade him it would be good for the state, and for him personally,” he recalls. “I said, ‘gays and lesbians would love to get married in New York, and they’ll spend money in your hotels and restaurants’. He said, ‘yeah, but I’m all for traditional marriage’ – this is a man who was on his third marriage, and had been famously unfaithful. I said, ‘I believe in traditional marriage, too – a traditional marriage is two people who love each other, and commit to each other, through thick and thin’. We went back and forth, and had to agree to disagree.”

Does George find it hard to square the post-Trump world of 2023 with Gene Rodenberry’s utopian optimism? No, he says, because “we are making progress in inches”. And to prove he still has faith in the future, he signs off with his old friend Mr Spock’s trademark hand salute and Vulcan blessing: “Live long and prosper.” It’s a thoughtful gesture from a man who, after a terrifyingly uncertain start in life, would happily go on to do both.

George Takei’s Allegiance is at Charing Cross Theatre, London, until 8 April –


Does your love of Britain stretch to our cuisine? It does. I think what’s improved British food is the Channel Tunnel. The French started coming and educating the British palette!

Favourite British restaurant? Rules, in Covent Garden. It’s the longest continually operating restaurant in London. I used to know the maître d, Terry, but he’s retired now. It’s a wonderful restaurant, I recommend it highly.

What do you order there? The venison, or the traditional meat pie – how English can you get? I also once tried the black pudding, because I’m a venturesome guy.

What’s a Japanese dish that everyone should try? Sukiyaki. It’s like a stew, with very thinly sliced, high-grade beef and vegetables, and the gravy is made up of a raw egg, cracked over it. Done properly, it should be cooked at the table. Delicious.

An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend on 12 January, 2023 (c) Waitrose Weekend

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: