Alumnus, activist and icon George Takei once helmed a starship. Then he dedicated himself to fighting for equal rights for all.
Take a childhood stint in Japanese internment camps. Add years growing up in East L.A. with Latino schoolmates and friends. Mix with campus plays as a UCLA theater major, working in film and television on the side. Then, season with a role in a multiethnic civil rights musical written by a pair of UCLA professors – earning the young actor thanks and a handshake from Martin Luther King Jr.
Given this background of challenge and diversity, it’s not surprising that George Takei ’60, M.A. ’64 was more than ready to take the helm as Mr. Sulu in the 1966 television debut of Star Trek. Even in his 20s, Takei had faced the dilemma of typecasting: He needed work, but he refused to pursue demeaning roles as a houseboy. The role of Lt. Sulu, who was described by the producer as a bright young officer of pan-Asian heritage, was a dream role in a series that tackled the social and political issues of its time.
The “five-year mission” of the Enterprise lasted through just three television seasons. But 10 years later, Star Trek would be revived as a series of feature films and numerous spinoffs. Lt. Sulu – who over the series run had become a fleshed-out character known for his interests in fencing, botany and ancient weaponry – ultimately became captain of his own starship, the Excelsior, at the end of the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
The offscreen character developed, as well. Long an Asian-American activist, Takei became a leader for gay rights and marriage equality. Takei and his husband, Brad Altman, made television history in 2009 when they became the first gay couple to appear on The Newlywed Game. They won – and donated the $10,000 prize to L.A.’s Japanese American National Museum.
The actor/director/activist is the subject of the documentary To Be Takei; he inspired and starred in the Broadway musical Allegiance. And he has become a massive force in social media: Millions follow his posts, and at least one commentator has dubbed him “the funniest man on Facebook.” Because for George Takei, there is no final frontier.