Skipping for 71 years – and not stopping
The actor, 85, on the horrors of wartime imprisonment, gay marriage, and finding global fame in Star Trek
My father Takekuma was my first great mentor, and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was my second major influence after he hired me for the role that changed my career at 29.
Gene was a true visionary who felt that Sixties American TV drama was not reflecting the times. So he set a story in the 23rd century on the Starship Enterprise, which was a metaphor for Earth, and showed the strength of the diverse spaceship crew, with half-human, half-Vulcan science officer Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy), African communications officer Lt Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and me as Hikaru Sulu, who represented all of Asia!
The series, which launched in September 1966, became a global phenomenon and I still speak at Star Trek fan conventions. Of that original cast, William Shatner (Captain Kirk), 91, Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov), 86, and me are the only survivors.
Nichelle was a dear friend and I was very sad at her passing last July; she was best woman at my marriage in 2008 to my husband Brad Altman. Walter was best man.
I regret that I never came out to my father before he died in 1979. I didn’t want to say anything that might worry him about my future as an actor – he’d already warned me my ethnicity would limit the roles available.
At one time, Hollywood would not touch gay people, so I was closeted for most of my adult life and came out very late at 68, by which time my father had passed on.
However, I did introduce Brad, then my partner, to my mother as a friend. So when I finally came out, she knew him as a person first rather than just as a gay man – and she had no problem making that adjustment. He was a saint for helping me to care for her when she became terminally ill.
We have been together 36 years, 14 of them married: ours was the first same-sex marriage in West Hollywood. He was a financial journalist but became my manager as he’s very organised and detail-oriented. He tells me what to do, when and how; we are a real team, inseparable.
My legacy is a Broadway musical, Allegiance, which I developed, and for which I’m narrator on stage in its current UK production.
I’ve dedicated my life to telling this story as we must ensure it never happens again, especially with fascism on the march once more.
It was inspired by my childhood experience in internment camps in Arkansas and then California into which 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Families were put into one or two small, unfurnished rooms in blocks behind barbed wire with machine guns trained on us and perimeters patrolled by tanks. It was a racist act by the US government. No German, Austrian and Italian Americans were interned during the Second World War; we looked different, so we were.
People had to leave businesses and property; bank accounts of all Japanese-Americans were frozen, so my parents couldn’t access money. I was five, my brother Henry was a year younger, and our sister, Nancy, was a baby.
When we were allowed to leave the California camp in 1946 to go back to LA, I was nine. Our hearts were torn out, left behind with Blackie, the hungry stray dog we had adopted but had to leave.
Now I’m in my ninth decade, I try to keep active physically and mentally – I think it’s the secret of staying young.
I write books and give talks around the world, and I’m very active on social media. I watch what I eat: fish and fowl, fresh fruit and veg. I’ve run six marathons and I work out daily at our LA home.
Allegiance is at London’s Charing Cross Theatre until 8 April. Tickets on 08444 930650 or at allegiancemusical.com
As told to Maureen Paton.
This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Saga Magazine. Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Saga Magazine today.
Written by George Takei