‘Star Trek’ celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, so when Yahoo Movies was offered the chance to speak to George Takei, one of the original USS Enterprise crew members, we jumped at the chance.
His character Hikaru Sulu has been a mainstay of ‘Star Trek’ ever since the first episode of ‘The Original Series’ was broadcast on Thursday, 8 September, 1966. After the show was cancelled in 1969, he reprised his role in ‘Star Trek: The Animated Series’ (available now on Blu-ray for the first time), and again in six feature-length ‘Star Trek’ movies.
Top of the agenda when speaking to the 79-year-old was his long-running feud with William Shatner, the actor who played Captain Kirk. In 2008 Shatner called Takei “psychotic” in a since-deleted YouTube rant, after he wasn’t invited to the Sulu actor’s wedding saying “I literally don’t know him”, and Takei responded by saying it was just his former co-star trying to drum up publicity for his new talk show ‘Raw Nerve’.
Takei says tensions with the Canadian actor began back while they were shooting the ‘Original Series’ in the 60s, but it wasn’t just him that got rubbed up the wrong way by Shatner.
“The entire cast, even Leonard [Nimoy] had an unbelievable clash [with Shatner],” Takei told Yahoo Movies.
“We lost a whole half a day filming. Leonard Nimoy was getting enormous fan reaction, his fan letters were outnumbering Bill’s.
“One morning Leonard was getting a TV Guide photo essay done: ‘Leonard Nimoy becoming Mr Spock’, the process of the make-up and so on. Leonard reported to the make-up department earliest, because of the more elaborate make-up, so he came at about 5:30am.
“He was having his eyebrows put on. The photographer was capturing each phase of it. Then, at about 6-6:30am, Bill came in. He saw what was going on, and he was still festering a little bit because of the fan mail imbalance. He turned around, went out, made a phone call to the front office, and a minion came from the front office and dismissed the photographer.
“‘What’s happening?’ Leonard said, ‘we’re not finished. Why was the photographer dismissed?’ And the minion said ‘I was just told to dismiss the photographer’. So Leonard said ‘stop, don’t put another dab of make up on me’. And he got up with the cloak still on him, and went to his dressing room to tap his toes. And Bill went to his dressing room.
“The rest of us arrived got into make-up, got into costume, and reported to the set, which was still dimly lit, and we got a cup of coffee, and we sipped coffee, and sat there chatting. We asked ‘what’s happening?’
“And we found out that Bill had in his contract approval of photographer on the sound stage, and apparently he’d exercised that clause. He’d had the photographer dismissed. Then a flock of black suits came in, went to Leonard’s dressing room, they were there for about half an hour. Then they went to Bill’s dressing room, and they kept going back and forth. The assistant came and said, ‘why don’t you guys go for a break at the commissary? This is going to be a while!’
“So we ambled down to the commissary, had a sweet roll, and had a relaxing time. And we ambled back, and the coven of black suits were still going back and forth. We sat around the set again just jawing, and the assistant came and said, ‘it looks like this is going to take some time, go for an early lunch’. We went for an early lunch, we came back, still the same situation.
“And finally, the lighting people started to light up the set. The Geneva Accord was signed! Leonard finished his make up, the photographer captured all the stages, and we got filming done. But it was because of that kind of tension.”
Here’s what else we learned from George Takei when we spoke to him about the ‘Star Trek 50th Anniversary TV and Movie Collection Blu-ray Boxset’ which is in shops now.
How was Sulu first pitched to you by series creator Gene Roddenberry?
It was a very unusual interview because this was a pilot for a series, and they usually have a battalion of executives there who are all glaring at you, it’s usually like an inquisition. But when I went to the Star Trek interview it was just Gene Roddenberry. He came out from behind the desk, and as a matter of fact, I mispronounced his name – I remember that – I called him Mr Rosenberry.
And he mispronounced my surname, he called me George Takay [rhymes with high]. The “ei”, he wanted it the Germanic way, like Einstein, when actually the vowels in Japanese are pronounced the Mediterranean way, Spanish, Italian, like “ae” – Takei [rhymes with hay].
So I corrected him, I said ‘It’s pronounced Takei’. And he said, ‘oh, i’m ever so sorry’. I said ‘no, I don’t object to the mispronunciation, because there is a Japanese word that’s pronounced Takei and that translates into English as ‘expensive’’.
And he said, ‘oh my goodness’. A producer doesn’t like to call actors expensive, you’re definitely Takei. So I reminded him, ‘well, Takei doesn’t mean cheap either’.
So, already meeting him we’d broken the ice. But he started by discussing the headlines of the day, and we talked about current events, and that drifted over to movies that we’d seen recently, and he had seen the movies and he would critique them.
I thought, ‘is this how I’m going to be interviewed?’ So I turned the tables on him and I said, ‘can you tell me something about the character and the series?’
And so then he described it. The series would take place in this massive starship which was really a metaphor for starship Earth. And it was the teeming population of this starship, in all its diversity, coming together that was the strength of this star ship. People of different cultures, races, faiths, different backgrounds. And I thought, ‘that’s interesting’.
I asked about the character and he said, ‘he is one of the officers of Starfleet, number one from Starfleet Academy’. The bridge crew would be the leadership of the team, and that captured my imagination.
Because up until then, almost all Asian characters and all Asian-American characters spoke with an accent and they were one-dimensional stereotype characters. [They were] either the silent manservant, or the chauffeur, or the buffoon, or the villain, they were all insignificant roles to begin with, and this was a member of the leadership team, speaking without an accent, and a crack professional.
That was exciting and I recognised immediately it would be a breakthrough role if I got cast, certainly for me as an individual actor, but more importantly the image of Asians and Asian-Americans. So I desperately wanted that role when I left.
Hollywood likes to torture actors. It was unbearable. A long week of sitting on pins and needles, and finally I got the phone call from my agent – I had the part.
What was the reception to the show when it aired?
Personally for me it was a great opportunity. Television at that time generally was filled with pap – game shows, variety shows, sitcoms, cowboys and Indians. And America at that time was turbulent. Gene said that this turbulence in America, the civil rights movement, the peace movement during the Vietnam war, the Cold War, all this would be used as the basis for the metaphorical science-fiction stories.
That was exciting and important. Television was a wasteland and so I wanted to be a part of that.
On the first day of filming we gathered for a table read, the entire cast, and Gene Roddenberry and the studio head, and he explained that to all of us, as a group. He introduced us individually.
He said, ‘North America will be represented by Captain Kirk and he will be played by a Canadian, from Montreal Canada, Bill Shatner’. All of Europe will be represented by the Scottish engineer Montgomery Scott, and he will be played a Canadian too: Jimmy Doohan from Vancouver, British Columbia. Africa will be represented by Nichelle Nichols, an African-American woman’.
We later learned she had French blood as well as Cherokee blood, so Nichelle was probably the most American of us all. And I was the represent Asia, me from Los Angeles, California.
So he had that introduction and then he went into the thing about Starship Enterprise being a metaphor and so forth.
Who were your best friends amongst the cast?
Jimmy [Doohan, played Scottie] was a real down to earth, easygoing guy, and my favourite drinking buddy. He told me that he got famous playing a Scotsman, but he’s really an Irish-Canadian from Vancouver, but he emphasised to me, ‘I may be Irish, but I’ve drunk enough libation of Scotland to qualify playing a Scotsman’, and I can attest to the fact that he qualified. He did!
Nichelle [Nichols, played Uhura], I knew from before ‘Star Trek’. I was doing a Civil Rights musical and she knew one of the cast members, so after the show she came backstage and her friend introduced Nichelle to all the rest of the cast.
But what I was most stunned by when I met Nichelle – this was back in the 50s, when African-American women straightened their hair, they called it conking, they conked their hair and sculpted it into recognisable fashionable hairdos. Nichelle had let it grow out naturally, and it was a huge bubble of an afro, it went out about 3 feet, it was a huge thing. It was like an animated ball of African-American hair and she was gorgeous underneath all that, she was stunning. The hair made her even more stunning, but alas for Star Trek they put a wig on her!
I was impressed by Leonard [Nimoy, played Spock] from before because I saw him in a small off-Santa Monica Boulevard play, Jean Genet’s play ‘Deathwatch’. He played one of the three inmates in that jail cell, and it was a very serious and logical part, and I was impressed by him as an actor in that, and we were going to be working together in this.
The others I didn’t know, I was meeting them for the first time. The blessing of Star Trek is that many of them became life friends, my professional colleagues became friends. As a matter of fact, Walter Koenig who played Chekov was the best man at our wedding.
We asked Nichelle Nichols to be our matron of honour, and she said ‘I am not a matron! If Walter can be the best man, why can’t I be the best lady?’ And we said, ‘of course you are, and of course you will be.’
In the documentary on the new boxset, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg says about ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ “everything that could go wrong did go wrong” – what was your experience of making that film?
We had a very relaxing time. There was a lot of sitting around the set, a lot of chit chatting, a lot of coffee.
The special effects person was absolutely incapable. He wouldn’t let the executives see what he was planning. His special effects plans were as secret as Donald Trump’s foreign policy plan. It was secret, he wasn’t going to let the enemy know.
And so he was fired. Doug Trumbull was brought in to finish that, but it went way over budget, way over schedule, and it was way… too… boring.
We thought that was going to be the end of it, and so did the studio. They announced it was going to be the only Star Trek movie. But it exploded the box office. Bless their hearts, the Star Trek fans came to see it, loved it for whatever reason, and they came back. They came back for repeated viewings of Star Trek, and that’s what helped build the box office.
So it became a series of Star Trek movies. We found that our fans were very dedicated and very, very loyal, and so we have lived much longer than we expected, and prospered in so many wonderful, unexpected ways.