Arts & Culture News

Oh Myyy! George Takei On Swordfighting, Comic Books and Technology.

George Takei just wrapped up a very busy year. He released a cologne called Eau My just in time for the holiday shopping season, then in April he released a book recounting his meteoric rise to popularity on the Web titled, Oh Myyy! There Goes The Internet, he launched a new AARP-produced webseries "Takei's Take," and, in December, he released another book, Lions and Tigers and Bears (The Internet Strikes Back). And now, the 76-year-old actor turned LGBTQ rights activist -- famous for his portrayal of Hikaru Sulu on the 1960s television series that spawned the enduring Sci-Fi franchise -- is in the area for two appearances this weekend.

Fans will have a chance to meet Takei in Plano tonight (Friday) during an autograph session at Madness Comics & Games from 6 to 8 p.m., and then on Saturday Takei will narrate a "Sci-Fi Spectacular" at the Bass Performance Hall, as Jack Everly conducts The Fort Worth Symphony in selections from the soundtracks of sci-fi classics from Star Trek and Star Wars to The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters and more. But before his fans line up for those events, we wanted to know what someone enmeshed in a world of cult fandom is actually a fan of themselves. So, we chatted about his five-million-strong Facebook following, which caused to name Takei the No. 1 most influential person on Facebook. We also talked about which comic books and pop culture elements he enjoys and our favorite Sulu moments.

My call interrupted the perpetually busy star, as he was working on the introduction for a Usagi Yojimbo collection -- a comic book and graphic novel series by Stan Sakai that has won dozens of awards, including a few Eisner Awards. Takei's writing an introduction to the book.

Mixmaster: Obviously, you have lots of fans and now, what, 5 million followers on Facebook. And you've been going to conventions for decades and meeting and interacting with those fans. I'm curious, what are you a fan of? Are there any TV series or shows, artists or comic books or graphic novels that you are passionate about, or that you follow? George Takei: When I was a kid, I was into comic books, but the pull of career and life, you know, got me away from comic books. But I was a chairman of the board of the Japanese American National Museum, which we founded, and our curator at the time recommended Stan Sakai. I knew nothing about him and his Usagi Yojimbo. It was a sensational discovery, because when I was a teenager I had seen Yojimbo, the Akira Kurosawa film. A classic movie, and I was absolutely transported by that. And here's this idea that he came up with to put a rabbit as a yojimbo, a lone vagabond warrior who comes to the aid of the oppressed. What a whimsical idea. And then to place that story into a well-researched, authentic 17th century feudal Japan. There is a smell of authenticity about the stories.

When I was a kid listening to the radio -- I'm of the radio generation -- Lone Ranger and Cisco Kid and Red Ryder were my heroes, and there is that good guy and the bad guy idea, and that idea is universal and by Stan placing Usagi Yojimbo so specifically, and so authentically in 17th century Japan -- that story becomes universal. And that's why [Usagi Yojimbo] is enjoyed in Latin America and Europe and, certainly, in Asia. He is a universal character. And I think [Sakai] is a classic contributor to this world of fandom. I am a fan of Stan Sakai.

You mentioned Akira Kurosawa's film Yojimbo, and, coincidentally, one of the questions on my list here, was if you were familiar with Toshiro Mifune's performances in Kurosawa's films before your performance in [the Star Trek episode] "Naked Time." Specifically, Mifune's typical wily, antihero samurai. Oh, yes! You know, the first time that I saw Mifune was in Rashomon, Kurosawa's film that got international recognition, and I think it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival. [Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards.] And I became a Kurosawa fan and a Mifune fan. And I've seen every one of his films from The Seven Samurai, which became the Hollywood Western Magnificent Seven. And Red Beard. And Ran, but Mifune wasn't in that, it was Tatsuya Nakadai playing King Lear in Ran, but the combination of Toshiro Mifune and Arkira Kurosawa was an absolutely transporting combo. And, again, I've always wondered if you based your performance in that episode on that kind of drunken samurai like Kuwabatake Sanjuro. Isn't it Sanjuro? Ah, you're a Kurosawa fan too, huh? You've seen Sanjuro?

Absolutely, I've seen all the films you mentioned, and even the film noir-style ones Kurosawa did, like High & Low. He really was a cinematic master.

So, I can definitively say that possibly some of Sulu's antics in "Naked Time" may have been inspired by ... The phone call cuts off. I call back.

You were asking me about the "Naked Time" sword fight. To put that in context, I also was a fan of Errol Flynn. And, particularly, when my parents took me to see The Adventures of Robin Hood, I was completely swept away by that. And John D. F. Black wrote that particular script, for "Naked Time," and he happened to be on the set about three or four weeks before we shot that, and he was telling me about the script he was developing and he said, "What do you think about Sulu getting a samurai sword and terrorizing the starship?"

And I said, "Well that's ethnically consistent because I'm of Japanese ancestry," but I told him that when I was a kid I didn't play samurai. You know? I told him I saw The Adventures of Robin Hood and when I got home I had my mother make me a Robin Hood outfit and I organized the neighborhood kids, and my backyard became Sherwood Forest. And, Martha Gonzalez, I still remember, was my Maid Marian. And so I said, "Wouldn't it be more interesting, and more sci-fi, if Sulu saw his cultural heritage not to be so narrowly, ethnically limited, but more that of Earth culture? And I suggested fencing. And he said, "That's a great idea. Do you fence?" You know, you never ask an actor if we know how to do anything, because we are always experts at it. I said, "Oh, yeah, I love it. I've been fencing an awful lot."

That first weekend I was taking my first formal fencing lesson. So what you see was the results of something like two weeks worth of frantic fencing lesson taking.

That's awesome. What a great story. There's another story to that too. I found that fencing instructor out of the Yellow Pages. You know, those were the days of Yellow Pages. And he had a studio called Falcon Studio on Hollywood Boulevard, and I took my first fencing lesson that Saturday, and his name was Mr. [Ralph] Faulkner and he turned out to be the choreographer of the fencing sequences in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and he doubled for Basil Rathbone when Flynn had his closeups. Mr. Faulkner would be fencing with him off camera. So, there was that wonderful, well, Star Trek and my boyhood love of Robin Hood made full circle.

Wow. Very cool story. OK, obviously, you've done plenty of interviews and Q&A sessions over the years. Is there one question that you feel you have been asked over and over again, and you wish folks would just cross off the list of potential questions? Well, I do Star Trek conventions, and it comes up all the time: "What is your favorite episode?" Both from the movies and from the television series, and we talked about my television series favorite, "Naked Time." And from the movie series, its best one of the lot I think, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Which also had a brand new starship called the USS Excelsior with a brand new captain named Hikaru Sulu.

I would be failing in my duties if I didn't ask you about the two events that are bringing you to Dallas, the book signing and "Sci-Fi Spectacular." Music is a binder of society, and science fiction has always incorporated music. From the iconic music of John Williams, as well as the composers who wrote for Star Trek to Richard Strauss whose music was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I will be doing Klaatu's speech from The Day the Earth Stood Still. I've worked with Jack Everly, the conductor for the past 10 years.

The signing came about when they found out I was going to be coming into town to work with the Forth Worth Symphony. I'm going to be doing a book signing. So, I'm covering two different universes that are bound together by sci-fi: one is symphonic music, and the other is comic books. And sci-fi itself has a way of serving as a common ground for a wide, wide range of our culture.

Yeah, and I saw in a recent interview that you acknowledged tapping into "geek culture" with your posts on Facebook. Well, the very foundation of my career support is geeks and nerds, and I consider myself one of them. And I believe in saying "thank you for the support" by doing these various cultural events, whether it's a signing at a comic book stores, or symphony concerts, or university lectures where I tie in my advocacy for LGBT equality as well as tie in my sci-fi creds.

And I have something to share with you that's kind of breaking news. For the past three years, a film documentarian has been following us, by "us" I mean Brad and me, and she made a documentary on us all, and all our doings. And that film got accepted to Sundance, so we're going to be going to Sundance next month for the premiere of To Be Takei.

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Daniel Rodrigue
Contact: Daniel Rodrigue