Curious George

8.12.2014

By Chadwick Moore

The unlikely ascent of America’s gay uncle, George Takei

Photography by Jill greenberg | Suit by Burberry London. Shirt by Louis Vuitton. Tie by Calvin Klein.

On a recent morning, George Takei and his husband, Brad, cram into the tiny office of a production company in Midtown Manhattan with a Broadway producer, a director, a makeup man, a script writer, a reporter, and two interns. Through the window, a torrent of yellow cabs can be seen barreling down Seventh Avenue through the dirty haze of a hellishly warm July morning. The Takeis, wearing matching black-and-gray New Balance sneakers, are exhausted. They arrived home late the previous night from a grueling stretch of press events and haven’t read today’s scripts.

“You be you, Brad,” says the tan, young director several cuts into the short YouTube promo for their new documentary, To Be Takei.

They’re seated in front of a green screen, and Brad’s acting plays too much to the camera. “It’s hard to be me,” says Brad. “You have no idea how hard it is.”

“Can we get rid of the word ‘friends’ here?” George asks. “I wouldn’t say that.”

Brad is exasperated. “Just try to do a read-through without stumbling,” he says to George.

To Be Takei, which premiered at Sundance this year, introduced Brad to the Takei brand. The couple’s constant bickering was a hit on-screen, both hilarious and endearing. Now the two are launching a YouTube series, It Takeis Two, which is slated to debut later this year.

At some point during the shoot, an amateur video titled “Portland Parking Fail” gets posted to Takei’s Facebook page. It shows a random motorist’s lumbering attempt to parallel-park her sedan into a spot large enough for a jumbo jet. In a short time, the video receives 137,000 likes and 36,000 shares. Shortly after, another post — a cartoon depicting an imagined argument between an e-reader and a hardcover book (the book prevails) — gets 65,000 likes and 59,000 shares.

In recent years, Takei, the 77-year-old actor who played Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek series, has exploded into one of the most popular personalities on the Internet. Since joining Facebook in 2011, he’s seen his audience grow to 7.2 million followers (as of press time), with an additional 1.25 million on Twitter, many from a much younger generation that knows Takei only as the Internet’s go-to avatar for Grumpy Cat memes and other viral tomfoolery.

“With the social media, I initially wanted to raise the awareness in the general American public about the internment [of Japanese Americans], which has been my life mission. Through trial and error, I discovered that humor was a thing that got the most likes and shares,” Takei says in his lingering basso profundo, pronouncing the word “humor” with no discernible h. “My fans are my writing staff — they send me the memes. We’re just resharing. Grumpy Cat started three or four years ago, and I’ve been sharing ever since.”

The internment he refers to is Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which ordered all 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the Pacific Coast to be removed from their homes and sent to “relocation centers.” At age 5, Takei, a native Angeleno, was sent with his family to Rohwer, Ark., the easternmost of the camps, and later to Tule Lake, Calif., where they remained until 1946 when internment ended.

Decades later, after two chance encounters with Broadway producer Jay Kuo, Takei began collaboration on Allegiance, a musical that Takei calls his legacy project, about Japanese American internment. The musical premiered in San Diego in 2012 to a sold-out audience and is currently awaiting a booking in a theater on Broadway.

“I’ve been an activist throughout my life because of that experience,” George explains over lunch one afternoon at a restaurant  on West 57th Street. “As a teenager I was reading history books about the shining ideas of our democracy, but nothing of that related to my childhood experience, which I knew to be grossly, egregiously unjust.”

Brad, who is also George’s manager, peers up from his iPhone. “There’s a resilience in George that most people don’t have. He became an actor and that’s a career of rejection. You develop a thick skin,” he says. “All those years he was in the closet and not openly gay, he was marching for civil rights, with the farmworkers, but he had that one fear: that if he opened up as a gay guy, he would not get any work.”

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