I’m old enough to remember “Star Trek” when it originally aired on NBC in the 1960s. This was before it got its second wind in syndication, when reruns caught on with people who missed it the first time around and gave it the popularity that would set the stage years later for several movies and TV spinoffs.
I liked the show for special effects like phasers, the transporter and the Starship Enterprise itself as it orbited strange new worlds. Viewing “Star Trek” helped develop my appreciation for science fiction as a genre.
While I of course like the triumvirate of Capt. Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy, I also liked supporting crew members Scotty, Uhura, Chekov and Sulu. I especially liked Mr. Sulu.
At that time, TV had just gone from black and white to color — but there wasn’t much color on TV other than white, if you get my meaning. “Julia,” which starred Diahann Carroll, debuted around this time, and was the first TV series of the 1960s to star a black actress. African Americans at this time who also appeared on TV were in “I Spy” and “Mod Squad,” which featured Bill Cosby and Clarence Williams III, respectively. Cosby would also soon star in the late ’60s “The Bill Cosby Show.”
As for Asians on American TV around that time, there was Kato on “The Green Hornet,” Hop Sing on “Bonanza,” Mrs. Livingston on “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and the aforementioned Mr. Sulu on “Star Trek.” The original “Hawaii 5-0” also had, among a cast of regulars, a character named Chin Ho.
Hop Sing was comic relief, a Ching Chong Chinaman who served as cook to the Cartwright family. Even his name was a joke. Mrs. Livingston, while kindly, was, as the family’s housekeeper, also a servant. (To quote another TV show from latter decades, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just a problem when the only ethnic minorities represented are only shown serving white folks.)
Kato was the more exciting member of the crime-fighting duo of the Green Hornet and Kato. Nevertheless, he was the sidekick who served as the Green Hornet’s chauffeur when in costume and butler in civilian life.
Sulu, in my estimation, was American TV’s best Asian character. He was a key member of the Enterprise bridge and never used for laughs. His Asian ethnicity was, however, ambiguous. Maps show a Sulu Sea near the Philippines, but it was never made clear in the series whether he was Filipino, Chinese or Japanese. Sulu was also unique among TV’s Asians because he spoke English without an accent, once again not that there’s anything wrong with speaking with an accent — except when that’s all that gets shown, thus perpetuating the eternal foreigner meme that still bedevils Asian Americans.
I’m sure I’m not alone among folks around my age for whom the mere existence of a character like Sulu on a network TV show was, even unconsciously, a good thing. If that was the future of humanity, then beam me aboard, Scotty.
It would be years later that I would realize that Kato was played by Bruce Lee, who by the 1970s would become a global movie superstar. It was also years later that I learned more about the actor who played Sulu. That would be, of course, George Takei.
Now 77, Takei has a new movie out, a documentary titled “To Be Takei.” It’s just the latest advance in his latter-day career renaissance. While he has “always been around” in one way, shape or form post-“Star Trek” on TV, George Takei is now more popular and more famous than ever. To quote Mr. Spock, it’s “fascinating.”
When it comes to listing Takei’s achievements, it’s almost easier to say what he hasn’t done. As a thespian, he’s been in movies and TV, on the stage and in the recording booth as a voice actor. He’s been involved in politics. He’s written several books. In cyberspace, he’s a huge presence on Facebook. On satellite radio, as the announcer for Howard Stern, he has made even more fans, even if it began as a goof. In recent weeks, he’s appeared on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” and NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross, not just to plug his movie but also talk about his life. In each instance, he conveyed to large audiences his experiences — and, by extension, the collective experiences of many Japanese Americans — that resulted from WWII’s Executive Order 9066.
I think it’s pretty evident that Takei’s recent renaissance as a public figure can be traced back to 2005, when he publicly came out of the closet as a gay, something he said in his “Fresh Air” broadcast that he had kept silent about for most of his adult life for career reasons. Catholics say confession frees one from their burdens, and judging by Takei’s career trajectory since then, the revelation has liberated and empowered him.
“To Be Takei” will be in limited theatrical release and on Apple’s iTunes beginning Friday, Aug. 22. Here in Los Angeles, it’ll play at the Sundance Sunset Cinema and in Pasadena at the Laemmle Playhouse. For readers in San Francisco, go to the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. (Go to ToBeTakei.com to see more locations where the documentary will be playing.) To see a trailer for the movie, go to GeorgeTakei.com.
From one George to another, Live Long and Prosper, George Takei.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.