From 'Trek' to 'Wars', Part 2: George Takei on Star Trek

George Takei 2 - Talking Trek

As one might expect, it wouldn’t be an interview with George Takei without some mention of Star Trek. The man still best known as Captain Sulu was more than gracious about it all, particularly in consideration of the recent passings of Majel Barrett Roddenberry last December and Ricardo Montalban earlier this January.

“Ricardo was a bigger than life guy,” Takei reminisced.. “He was a connection to old Hollywood. He was a contract actor at MGM Studios in those days. Ricardo was a romantic lead and an action actor. I remember On and On With You that he did with Esther Williams. So he represented the Golden Age of Hollywood, and he certainly was that when we worked together on both the TV series and the second feature film, The Wrath of Khan.

“He was bigger than life and very gregarious. You know, we would walk into makeup, more like shambled into makeup for most of us. But Ricardo would always make an entrance into makeup. He would sit there and say “Good morrrrning. Everybody! Oh! Nichelle! You look gorgeous! George! You’re wonderful!. I love you!’ He really was a fun person to sit around. Being something of a movie buff, I would ask him about the contract player days.”

He didn’t slight Montalban’s contribution to Star Trek’s longevity, either.

“He was someone who also helped revitalize the Star Trek franchise. Without Wrath of Khan, I think the movie series would have probably enjoyed its time in the sun but quickly have set on it, too. “

“I was deeply saddened to learn of Majel's passing this morning at her home,” he also noted. “She was a friend, a colleague, and a dedicated pillar of the Star Trek legacy after the passing of its creator and her husband, Gene Roddenberry. She was a gifted actress, but, more than that, she was a dear friend.

“I will always remember Majel as a warm, generous ally in many of my efforts outside the acting arena. She and Gene were my first supporters when I decided to run for public office in Los Angeles and keynoters at the first fundraising dinner of my campaign. Majel was a vivacious hostess and I will cherish the memories of the sparkling parties at her lovely home. She truly was the First Lady of Star Trek. Majel's passing now leaves a huge vacancy in the Star Trek heritage and in the hearts of so many friends and fans across this planet. Brad and I send our love and heartfelt condolences to her son, Rod.”

Not that Takei’s contributions to Star Trek is over. As it turns out, JJ Abrams sought him out for a bit of advice regarding the upcoming movie.

“You know, what’s interesting, JJ Abrams was very concerned about how he was going to cast,” said Takei. “He asked me if I’d have breakfast with him. He told me he’d been interviewing many actors for the part. He tried as hard as he could to find an actor of Japanese ancestry, which is what I am, but he found another actor who he thought would be wonderful. So he wanted to get my reaction to that.

“I assured him. I told him about Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy. Another interesting story is when I was being interviewed, I asked Gene how he came up with the name of Sulu. He said he wanted the Starship Enterprise to be a metaphor for Earth. So he wanted the people to represent regions of this planet. So Uhura was African and her name was based on a Swahili word.

“So he was looking for an Asian name for what would be my character. Now Asian names are very nationality specific; Tanaka is Japanese, Wong is Chinese, Kim is Korean. Now Asia also has a reputation for warfare and colonization. Roddenberry didn’t want to bring that into that character. So he was looking at a map of Asia and trying to solve that dilemma. He saw there was a sea called the Sulu. It’s in the South China Sea area. He thought, ‘the waters of the sea touch all shores.’ So that’s how he came up with the name Sulu.

“So I told this story to JJ. I said it would be entirely in keeping with Gene Roddenberry’s vision. I told him not to confine himself to one particular cultural group. If he felt that actor could bring that kind of talent, he should go for it. So, assured by that, he told me he was looking at John Cho.

“I told him that John would be wonderful. I’m on the board of governors of the East-West Players over here, an Asian-American theater company. John had done many plays for us. I said he was a versatile actor who had done many roles. He would be wonderful. Assured by that JJ went on and cast him.

“John seemed to have been somewhat awed by his new challenge. So he asked me to have lunch with him. I told him to do his thing. I knew his work. He’s a talented actor. I assured him it won’t be long before I’ll be known as the ‘old guy’ who played John Cho’s part. All the scuttlebutt I’m hearing is that John’s done a great job. Sulu’s got a new lease on life.”

Abrams and Cho aren’t the only two people Takei sign the praises of.

“I’m very much looking forward to the movie,” said Takei. “The only one from our cast who is in the 11th film is Leonard (Nimoy). The justification for that is Vulcans are just more long-lived than just about anybody else.

“The guy who’s been cast to play a younger Spock in this film, Zach Quinto , I worked with him, of course, on Heroes. I told Zach, after congratulating him, that all he needs to do to see how he is going to look like in forty years is look at Leonard today. They are spitting images of each other. The likeness is uncanny.

“They are both talented actors. Their personalities are alike, too. You know, Leonard and I used to talk a lot about political events. I’m a political activist, and so is he. We used to talk about the headlines all the time. Zach is a very serious and sober guy.”

Still, it wasn’t hard to find out Takei’s favorite Trek moment.

“My favorite was the sixth film, where I got my captaincy,” he laughs. “It was called The Undiscovered Country, as it was taken from Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” speech. That really is a Sulu film. When you are the Captain, you really move the film along. The helmsman only moves the film according to the Captain. In that film, it was Sulu to the rescue, because without that Kirk would have been a goner. That’s the one I enjoyed the most. I also think Wrath of Khan was a rip-snortin’ good space opera, and Ricardo was the quintessential adversary."

As for Star Trek’s legacy, Takei didn’t waste a second to respond.

“We were very conscious of racial issues,” he said. “Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy was the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Earth. The strength of the starship was in its diversity coming together, working concert as a team. So we were conscious of differences, but those differences that made the Enterprise that much stronger.”

IN PART THREE – Heroes, the theater, Proposition 8 and keeping very, very busy.

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