George Takei speaks April 8 at the National Tutoring Association's conference in Tampa, Fla. On his lecturn is a photo of the actor in his best-known role: Lt. Hiraku Sulu on 'Star Trek.'

Tampa Bay Times photo / James Borchuck

George Takei speaks April 8 at the National Tutoring Association's conference in Tampa, Fla. On his lecturn is a photo of the actor in his best-known role: Lt. Hiraku Sulu on 'Star Trek.'

Engage laugh engines, Mr. Sulu

By Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Tampa Bay Times

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Captain’s log, star date 2014: Lt. Hiraku Sulu is on the line, talking about his legendary role in the “Star Trek” television series and the equally legendary hipness that keeps 76-year-old actor and civil rights activist George Takei on every teenager’s Facebook feed these days.

“I shattered the stereotype of Asian drivers, didn’t I?” Takei said in a phone interview from the California home he shares with his husband, Brad, whom he’s been with for 27 years.

These days, he is the overlord of an Internet following of more than 6 million Facebook and Twitter fans who revel in his impish humor. (“Pot legalized in two states, and the maker of Twinkies shutters its doors? Now that’s irony.”) With a staff of interns helping, Takei (pronounced TAH-kay) passes along everything from hilarious cat memes to grammar lessons, “Star Trek” references, brain teasers and everyday wisdom with a heavy dose of social justice thrown in.

Of course it all began for sci-fi fans in 1965 when producer Gene Roddenberry cast him as Sulu in “Star Trek.” He was at the helm of the starship USS Enterprise, the best Asian driver in the galaxy, fully embracing the show’s revolutionary model for diversity.

Here are some excerpts from a wide-ranging talk:

  • On being a 5-year-old Japanese-American child taken to a U.S. internment camp in World War II – “We started every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed wire fence and sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words ‘with liberty and justice for all.’ It was just something they taught us, and I memorized by rote not understanding the stinging irony behind those words.”

He lived in the camps for three years.

  • On building his social media profile – “It’s the funny that keeps people coming back,” he said of his adventures in social media, such as the election season meme of Capt. Kirk shouting “Yes we Khaaaaaaaan!” that went viral.

Once he had grown his audience, Takei said, he started slipping in his pleas for social justice and was astonished at how rapidly they took off, too.

“I, too, am astounded by the rapidity of growth and size of the growth (of his social media profile). On Facebook, I have more than 6.3 million friends. Isn’t that amazing?”

  • On the death of Fred Phelps, founder of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church – “I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing,” he wrote on his Facebook feed. “We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding ‘God Hates Freds’ signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”
  • On William Shatner – His relationship with his former starship captain has been prickly over the years, with Shatner once implying that Takei’s marriage was a publicity stunt, with their ex-castmates who played Uhura and Chekov in the wedding party.

“Bill is Bill,” Takei said of Shatner. “Fred Phelps may have been a tortured soul, but Bill is a self-possessed soul. So you recognize people for what they are and you carry on.”

His greatest hero is his father – “He summed (up his humiliating internment experience) to me by saying that both the strength and the weakness of American democracy is in the fact that it is a people’s democracy. And it can be as great as a people can be but it’s also as fallible as people are. ... It’s dependent on good people, and that’s why I’m a political activist.”

  • What’s next – Where to begin? The musical “Allegiance,” inspired by the Takei family’s internment, comes this fall to Broadway with Takei playing the narrator and his own grandfather.

The documentary “To Be Takei,” about how he and his husband, Brad, have become the poster couple for marriage equality, premiered at Sundance and is slated for release this summer.

He spends a week at a time at the Howard Stern radio show every couple of months. He’s done it for more than a decade, forming an unlikely kinship with the shock jocks there.

He will do a speaking tour this year at universities in Japan and Korea, organized by the U.S. State Department, to talk about his life, his family’s internment and his career as an openly gay Asian-American. He also will lead the Seattle Gay Pride parade in June.

“What a blessing each day is,” Takei said. “I’m sitting here looking out at a flawless blue sky, golden sunshine, a beautiful green garden. What a gift that we have. And when you see the news and watch stories like the Malaysia airline, all of this could be taken away that quickly. Enjoy your life, and don’t spend it hating.”