Sulu in San Diego: An Intimate Interview, Part III
In Part I of this chat with George Takei at the 2007 San Diego Asian Film, the actor talked with SDAFF founder and executive director Lee Ann Kim about his experience on STAR TREK and his relationship with Gene Roddenberry. In Part II, he discussed lobbying for Captaincy in the STAR TREK movies, his memories of being forced to live in a Japanese internment camp during World War 2, why he came out of the closet, and his disdain toward Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and President George W. Bush. In Part III he reveals his satisfaction doing the William Shatner Roast on Comedy Central, how he got involved in THE HOWARD STERN SHOW and HEROES, and how he met Bruce Lee. As with the first two parts, rather than write this as an article, I felt that it would be more respectful to share Takei’s words using Q&A format so his nothing is taken out of context.
The audience was in stitches when Lee Ann Kim showed some clips from the William Shatner roast, in which Takei let loose with a barrage of intensely lewd and licentious remarks, some directed at the other guests, but most directed toward Shatner, whose mouth was so wide open that he put every Venus flytrap to shame.
LEE ANN KIM: That was very funny.
GEORGE TAKEI: Yes. In the past we had conversations about his hobby, about him trying to get all the lines and close-ups, but I was finally able to take my shots at him at this thing and really let it out. Over all the years, he really could just not pronounce my name right; everyone else could, but not him. But after the roast, he is getting the name correct now [crowd laughter]. I could not get it into his noggin then, but I got it onto his noggin now [louder laughter]….It is George Takei… [crowd in hysterics] …just think of it as “toupee.”
KIM: Many haven’t seen that side of you, being so witty and funny, but many more people have now seen this side of you because of being on THE HOWARD STERN SHOW.
GT: Oh my.
KIM: There is a back-story of how you got on that show since it is a most unlikely partner for you, and Brad [George’s life partner] had a lot to do with it since he was listening to the show into the wee hours of the morning in bed.
GT: I was actually on the show a few times before that. I was doing a play in New York, in 1990 I think, and when you are doing a play they arrange daily interviews, and on a particular morning my assignment was to go to this radio station on Madison avenue. So I went there. At that time, I didn’t know Howard Stern from Adam. So I am in the guest waiting room, and the radio was on and it was the grossest and most disgusting conversation. And I said to the guy next to me, “Why don’t they get some nice music in here?” He said, “That is the show you are going on.”
I walked into the studio, and there is this wild, skinny guy. We exchanged salutations, and then he said, “Oh, you have a deep voice. Anyone with a voice like that must have a big dong.” I stared at him and said, “Are we on the air?” [laughter all around]
So that was my intro to him. I talked about the play, and he tried to divert me to other discussions and I played along. And when it was over, I thought that was that, left the station, and got into a cab. The cab driver recognized me and laughed, “Hey, you were hilarious on the radio.” There were several phone messages waiting back for me back at the hotel. I realized eventually that a lot of people were listening to his show, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I told my agent I would not wish to do that anymore.
But he loved me and wanted me back on. I of course said, “No!” Then in 1994, when my autobiography came out and I was in New York for a promotional meeting and the publicist had a list of things to do and one of them was Howard Stern, I crossed that out. But she said I have got to do that show, and I replied, “I doubt if his listeners can even read.” She said it could mean tens of thousands of book sales, and then she actually got on her knees and begged me to do it. I said, “Okay.” It was the same kind of interview, and he really tries to hone in on your vulnerable spots. I held my own, and so he called my agent again to get me on the show. I said [more emphatically], “NO!!” And that was that.
KIM: The fans were speaking.
GT: Oh yes, in fact, one morning I was back home in Los Angeles, and my phone rang and the voice on the other end said, “Good morning, George, this is Ricardo Montelban. What are you up to?” I told him that I was preparing to go on a cruise, and then he heard my dog yapping in the background, and he said, “Oh, you have a dog.” I of course went on about that she’s a French breed, her name is La Reine Blanc, which means “White Queen,” and that she’s very regal. And then suddenly Ricardo’s accent starts to fade, and I’m like, “Hey, I don’t think you are Ricardo.” He started to laugh, and then I thought it was a crank call and hung up.
The next morning, the phone rings and my friends are telling me that I was hilarious on THE HOWARD STERN SHOW. Now since I wont do the show, he gets these so and so’s to call me. This time I was serious, and I said, “No more!!”
Then one night, I discovered that Brad goes to bed with earphones on for what I thought was a late night show. As it turns out, he listens to Howard Stern live in bed. I said, “Are you listening to that garbage in my bed?” [laughter]. Brad remarked, “Yes, but he makes sense.” I replied, “So long as I don’t have to hear it.”
Then last year, January 2nd, the phone rings, and it is Gary Dell’Abate the producer of THE HOWARD STERN SHOW. He says, “ George this Gary Dell’Abate, producer of the HOWARD STERN SHOW…don’t hang up!!” I asked if it was really him calling from the show, and he quickly said, “Yes and you are not being recorded.” [laughter]
He explained that they wanted me on the show, and that they were beginning their broadcast on satellite radio and would like to have me be their official announcer. I immediately thought they were pulling my leg again. I said, “I’m going to hang up.” Gary blurted, “Don’t hang up, we’re serious.” When I asked why didn’t he call my agent, he simply said that he wanted to first check with me to see if I was interested in doing it. When I told Brad that I was offered this, he got all excited and said that I had to do it. So I’m looking at Brad saying, “I thought I knew you Brad.” So I did the show for him.
So one day on the show we get a call from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and we began to discuss the same-marriage sex issues with him. I reminded him that this was very undemocratic and it was against American democracy. I also told him that I grew up behind barbed wire fences, but today there are legalistic barbwire fences that now makes another group of Americans have an abnormal life, and that this is against the law. Two people who live with each other and take responsibility for each other through thick and thin, sickness in health, should have the right to be married. We are supposed to have a separation of church and state yet they are trying to work that into our legal system.
And there is this attitude in America that affects all Americans, that being, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” We live in a time of terrorism and national security is of paramount importance and this is more important. I get a lot of mail at the show saying that we should have rational equality for all people. The irony of this all is all those people claiming they are going to protect marriage…they have been divorced.
So at the end of all of this…I find out…it was not Arnold but someone Howard had call in. He really did a great voice of Arnold and I was fooled. [embarrassed laughter]
KIM: It seems that many times people in the past maybe only see you as Sulu, but since being on HOWARD STERN, they now must see you as George Takei, a 3-dimensional human being. Do you think that might have led to your role on HEROES?
GT: No. [moment of silence] In fact, in HEROES they asked me to audition for the role. I usually won’t do that, audition for a role, but on the other hand I am not hung up on the whole propriety thing of, “Don’t you know who I am?”
So I told my agent I would do the audition, and she said that the lines were all going to be in Japanese. So I was expecting a script in Japanese…but no, it was in English. I called my agent and asked if they wanted me to audition in English? My agent told me that they wanted me to translate everything. I translated everything and then did my audition in Japanese. I guess it stems from that when an actor is asked if they can do a certain role, they always say that they can, and maybe they thought I was one of those and wanted to test my Japanese. Anyway, I did it in Japanese, and they even had a Caucasian woman there who engaged me in conversation, and my Japanese was better than hers. Apparently she had lived in Tokyo for two years and had a working command of the language but it was heavily accented, but I proved to them that I could speak Japanese.
KIM: So what is going to happen in the second season?
GT: Well, they keep things very secretive to the cast. One of the writers of HEROES is a STAR TREK fan; they are everywhere, don’t you know. And one day we are talking about future story ideas, and he said, “George, you had a wonderful fencing scene in STAR TREK. Why don’t we work a samurai fight scene with you in the show. Well, since I’m a recurring character, I finally get the script for that show and have little time to prepare for the samurai sword choreography. However, because Masi [Oka] is a regular, he was practicing for six weeks prior to our fight. So when we were on set, I didn’t know the choreography, so during the scene I whacked him with the sword. So there I was from this stern, father figure and instantly I’m like, concerned, voice losing that deep grunting thing, and I’m saying, “Ow…are you okay?” [his face and voice pattern change breaks up the audience]
Anyway, in terms of the second season…stay tuned.
Thus ends a dynamic, intimate afternoon with Takei. I have interviewed Takei several times by phone over the past three years and was now finally able to introduce myself to him. He remembered who I was via certain key aspects of our previous conversations, and I was curious to ask him one question. Had he ever met Bruce Lee?
George looked at me with a smile and reminisced about a time in the late ‘60s when he was filming an episode of STAR TREK. He was taking a break between shots and out the corner of his eye he saw a man in a t-shirt dressed in riding pants, kicking and punching a mile-a-minute. The man stopped then went back into the studio.
It is the only time that America’s most famous Japanese-American actor saw America’s most famous Chinese-American actor. It is a pity that history could not have made them American friends.