Interview date: 03/28/2008
Run date: 04/08/2008
Although his years as one of the primary cast members of "Star Trek" will remain a highlight of his resume, for George Takei, Sulu has never seemed so far away. In addition to his well-received guest-starring appearances on "Heroes," he's built himself a nice career as an announcer and voice-over performer, and now he's taking on…country music? True enough. Takei will be one of the contestants on CBS's new series, "Secret Talents of the Stars," where he'll be crooning a tune or two. We spoke with Takei about his history with country music, asked him about his favorite pre-"Trek" television gig, and quizzed him on whether we might be seeing him in either the next season of "Heroes" or J.J. Abrams' new "Trek" movie.
George Takei: Hello!
Bullz-Eye: Hello, George, how are you?
GT: Sorry to keep you waiting.
BE: Not a problem. It's a pleasure to speak with you.
GT: Good talking with you, too.
BE: Given that Brad (Altman, Takei's life partner) set up the scheduling of this interview, I guess he's your partner in more ways than one.
GT: In more ways than one. He's my manager. My life is managed by him.
BE: In more ways than one.
GT: (Lasciviously) Believe me, he manages.
BE: I, uh, have no doubt. So I'm sure you're already steeling yourself for comments about how well other "Star Trek" stars have done in the medium of song.
GT: (Laughs) Well, I'm setting that as the low point that I'm going to emerge from. Yes, I've got to put "Star Trek"'s singing reputation in at least respectable standing.
BE: Well, "The Next Generation" has Brent Spiner, at least.
GT: Yes! And he's a wonderful singer…a Broadway singer, in fact. We saw him in "1776" on Broadway. He was wonderful. He's fantastic at it; he's a great singer.
BE: Are you up to his standards?
GT: Well, I'm not a Broadway singer. Is that a good way of weaseling out of that question?
BE: That's nicely evasive, yes. So, to get the full story, when did you first start listening to country music?
GT: Well, you know, I grew up in U.S. internment camps during the war, and radios were forbidden, so we had no access to music other than about once a month, when the camp commander would allow…I was a child then, and I was in a camp from age 4 to 8, but they would allow the teenagers, after dinner in the mess hall, to clear off the tables and the benches and hold dances. And they would lend them a record player, and they would play big band and dance music. Our barracks was right across from the mess hall, so, you know, my mother put us all to bed, but I could hear the wonderful sound of big band music floating across the mess hall through the night air. But when the war ended and we came back, one of the first purchases my parents made was a radio, and, I mean, it was a magical box. And country music was some of the first music that I heard on the radio. You know, Tennessee Ernie Ford singing "Sixteen Tons" or "Blacksmith Blues." They were transporting. But the song that most affected me was "Don't Fence Me In," because we had been fenced in. So, for me, country music symbolized freedom and the joys of life…roaming the country, experiencing the joys as well as the heartbreaks. Country music is very basic and simple: love, heartbreak, hardship, liberation, and freedom. So it was a transporting kind of song…and I'd just kind of sing along with them. And I sing every morning in the shower, so it's something that's been a part of my life ever since the end of the Second World War.
BE: Have you followed country music, at least to some extent, ever since then?
GT: Yes, exactly. But it's been confined to the privacy of my shower. But I must say that, with this "Secret Talents of the Stars," with hundreds of in-studio audience and that one staring eye…well, actually, they're going to have three or four cameras…and knowing that behind that lens are millions and millions of people all across the country, listening. Believe me, I feel more naked than I do in the shower…and I'm keeping on my clothes.
BE: You sure? You might get bonus points.
GT: (Laughs) No, I think I'd lose points!
BE: You kind of addressed this, but have you not, then, sung in public before? Not even for friends?
GT: Oh, yes, I've sung for friends. And I do a lot of "Star Trek" conventions, and occasionally they'll ask me to sing. As a matter of fact, I have sung "Sixteen Tons" at "Star Trek" conventions.
BE: I'll check YouTube right away.
BE: I talked to you briefly awhile ago when you were doing your teleconference in support of your appearance on "Heroes."
GT: Oh, yes.
BE: Any word of a callback for Season 3 yet?
GT: Well, I'll tell you that (producer) Tim Kring called me before that script, where I'm pushed off the top of the high rise building, to warn me. He said, "You may think, after you read that script, that this is a Grim Reaper call, but let me assure you that nothing is as it seems on the surface on 'Heroes.'" And, sure enough, I did come back, courtesy of the magical powers of my son.
BE: But no word of a Season 3 comeback?
GT: No, no…but we shall see!
BE: Still enjoying your work with Howard Stern?
GT: Well, as a matter of fact, we're headed to New York, and I do a week with Howard, and…I'm an opportunist, you know, and the Stern army is out there. This "Secret Talents of the Stars" is one of those voting-by-internet contests, so I'm gonna do some intense and furious lobbying with the Stern army!
BE: Has he been kidding you about it?
GT: Well, I haven't seen him yet.
BE: Oh, I didn't know if you'd heard from him since you'd announced you were going to be on the show or not.
GT: No, not yet!
BE: What would you say was your favorite pre-"Star Trek" appearance on television?
GT: Well, I'd done a couple of things that I'm particularly proud of. I did a "Twilight Zone" episode that gave me a fantastic opportunity to sink my teeth into some red meat. And…I don't know how young you are, but you may or may not remember "Playhouse 90."
BE: I'm aware of it, at least.
GT: Yes, it was original drama, written for television, 90 minutes. And on live television, so there were some flubs. Millions of people all across the country saw that flub. It was both the best and the worst of live theater and television. The best of the television is the fact that you get access to millions of viewers, and the best of the theater is that you get to do solid drama, but the worst of live television is that any mistakes…and in theater, any mistake would only be seen by seven hundred to a thousand people, but on live television, it's seen by the entire nation. But that was one of the most respected shows on television at that time. People like…well, just in this morning's newspaper, in the obituary section, I read that Abby Mann passed. And he wrote "Judgment at Nuremberg" for "Playhouse 90" initially, and then it was made into a movie with Maximilian Schell and Marlene Dietrich…and Richard Widmark, who passed away recently as well. But there were some amazing writers, like Paddy Chayefsky, and Rod Serling, of "Twilight Zone" fame, he wrote "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "Patterns," and many other dramas. So distinguished playwrights were writing for "Playhouse 90."
BE: When I was going through IMDb.com, which is often not entirely accurate…
GT: No, often it is not. (Laughs)
BE: …but they show that you did four different episodes of "Hawaiian Eye," each time playing a different character. Did that ever drive you crazy, that they were apparently just going, "Eh, people aren't going to remember him"?
GT: No, actually, I was a theater arts student at UCLA at that time, and I went from my classroom to the sound stages at that time. I was very lucky, and I really felt blessed. The first gig I did with Warner Brothers was a feature film. I was seen in a student production at UCLA by a casting director from Warner Brothers who became something of a mentor for me – Hoyt Bowers – and he plucked me out of that play at UCLA and plunked me into my first feature film: "Ice Palace," the movie version of Edna Ferber's Alaska epic. It starred Richard Burton, and we had two weeks on location up in Alaska, in the wilds and in the boondocks, in a small fishing village. And you get to know your fellow actors. I mean, he was Mr. Burton to me, but he insisted that I call him Richard. And here I was, a star-struck kid, and Richard Burton, this legendary Shakespearean actor from England. I kept peppering him with questions, and Richard loved talking about it, so we were an ideal pair. And then we had two months of filming back at the studio, and Warner Brothers apparently liked what I did, so although I went back to UCLA after that, they kept pulling me out of school to do these guest spots on "Hawaiian Eye." So, no, it didn't drive me crazy. The fact that they were different characters was, for me as an actor, a wonderful opportunity.
BE: Did you enjoy doing the "Oblivion" films?
GT: (Bursts into laughter) Did you see them?
BE: I have, yes.
GT: Yes, I have a checkered past! That was supposed to be both a spoof on "Gunsmoke," as I'm sure you know, and a spoof on sci-fi, and I got to play Doc Stone, Milburn Stone's part. And, again, as an actor, I enjoy doing different kinds of roles, and to play this scruffy, gruff doctor in this frontier…in this space frontier town…and he was an alcoholic! And we're shooting in…do you know where we shot that?
GT: In Romania. Just a year after Ceauşescu was overthrown. There were still bullet holes in some of those government buildings, and chunks of architectural concrete that had fallen off buildings still lying on the street there. So it was a horrible time to be there, but it was a fun role to do.
BE: I see that you're re-appearing in one of the upcoming "Futurama" movies. I guess you've already recorded your part for it, then.
GT: Yes, I have, but I do so many voiceover things that I can't discuss them in detail, mostly because I don't remember! In fact, I'm doing another voiceover this afternoon!
BE: Did you enjoy it, at least?
GT: Oh, yes. That's a fun show.
BE: And to keep you on schedule, I'll just close with the inevitable "Trek" question.
BE: Are you excited about the prospect of the new J.J. Abrams film?
GT: I think it's miraculous! Here it is, more than four decades since we first went on the air in 1966, and "Star Trek" is still popular! And we've had so many different guises…the TV series, the animated series, and then the series of major feature films. This'll be the 11th one coming up. And almost since the beginning…well, starting in the '70s, anyway…there have been "Star Trek" conventions all over the world. It's an amazing phenomenon.
BE: And how much do you enjoy teasing reporters about whether or not you're making a cameo in the film?
GT: In the new J.J. Abrams movie? Well, I've said very bluntly that I'm not…but they won't believe me!
BE: It's going to come back to haunt you if you're not telling the truth!
GT: I am telling the truth…at this point. (Laughs) I don't know anything about me making a cameo on "Star Trek 11." Is that definitive enough?
BE: I will accept that. Well, as I said, I'll keep you on schedule, but it's been a pleasure speaking with you, and good luck with your "Secret Talent."
GT: Thanks a lot!