Comic and science fiction fans worldwide may know George Takei from his years play Sulu on "Star Trek" both in television and film, and more people today may know him for his hilarious internet presence where his signature "Oh myyyyy" phrase is mixed with humorous memes and gay rights advocacy via his Facebook page.
But last week, young readers of Archie Comics got to know the full story of Takei's life and work in the pages of "Kevin Keller" #6. The series that stars Archie's now well-known gay teen welcomed the actor to Riverdale in a story written and drawn by Dan Parent that sees the TV legend meeting up with Kevin after the teen writes a school report about his life.
CBR News spoke with Takei shortly after the book's release last week, and the actor explained his own history with Archie Comics, telling why this appearance is only the latest in a long line of efforts to advocate for the rights of Americans not well represented in the mainstream and how internet and pop culture are changing the face of gays in America for the better.
CBR News: George, your advocacy has been a big part of gay rights place in pop culture over the past few years, and the Kevin Keller character has been a big discussion point in comics since Archie introduced him in 2010. Had Kevin been on your radar before Archie started talking to you about this story?
George Takei: Frankly, no he was not. Although I grew up reading Archie comic books as a pre-teen and as a teenager. I really thought that Riverdale's community and Archie's circle of friends was something perfectly Americana. But I never imagined at that time that eventually I would be a part of that Americana. So here I am. It's certainly a very pleasant surprise. I was actually approached by Dan Parent, and that's how this came about. I must confess, I had not been reading Archie Comics in my recent years.
I saw something on TV the other night that made me think of you and this comic. Ian McKellen was on "The Colbert Report" talking about "The Hobbit," and when Stephen Colbert asked him, "You're a gay rights advocate, is that right?" McKellen just said, "Well, I'm a gay man...so of course I am."
Your own advocacy has grown over recent years as you've spoken out more and more on gay rights, but do you feel similar to him? Is there a way in which being a celebrity who's out galvanized how you talk about these issues?
Well, it's a little bit more than that for me. You may now know all of this, but before I was a teenager reading Archie Comics, I was incarcerated in a U.S. internment camps – two of them. One was in the swamps of Arkansas, and the other was in Northern California, right near the Oregon border. At that time I was too young to really understand what was going on. I was just eight years old. But as a teenager, I started reading history books and civics books and hearing about the ideas of American democracy knowing that I grew up behind barbed wire fences. So I had many discussions with my father after dinner to reconcile what I knew by that time as a teenager of my childhood and of the ideals of American democracy are.
I distilled all that discussion down to something my father said. He said, "Both the strength and the weakness of American democracy is in the fact that it's a true people's democracy. It can be as great as a people can be, but it can be as fallible as people are." And he said it was important for us to be actively engaged in or democratic society. So he was the one that urged me to run for student body offices, and I was eventually elected student body president. And even before I could vote, he took me to the Adlai Stevenson For President headquarters, and he volunteered me.
So my activism came as a result of this irrational incarceration of American citizens who just happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. So I was actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. I was actively involved in the redress campaign for Japanese Americans for that internment while at the same time being closeted. When I came out, I carried that same kind of active engagement with society out in order to make this a better society. So what Ian McKellen said, I share of course because I am a gay man. But also because I'm an American and a child of American citizens who happened to look like the enemy of the Second World War, I've been playing the part to make our society a better one. Being a gay American at the same time became part of my identity, who I am and let me to advocate for equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans.
There are many different ways to advocate including making appearances and giving speeches, which you do, but it seems there's also an advocacy in terms of making entertainment – be it comics or TV or movies – as diverse as possible as well. Did you think of those things years ago when working on "Star Trek"?
Well, no. When I started out, my first acting gig was when I was 18, and I knew the opportunities would be extremely limited. Obviously, I'm visually Asian American and orally as well, so I couldn't do anything about that. But I knew I was gay also, and that was something I could hide. So I became a closeted actor for many years. When you go up for auditions for various roles, there are more rejections you get than hires. Usually, you hear, "Too tall. Too short. Too fat. Too skinny." You try to avoid any other reasons people would have for eliminating you. Since I started my career back in the late '50s, that would not have been a persuasive thing, to be gay. So at that time, advocacy for the LGBT people was something I was not engaged in and tried to hide it as much as possible. But once I was out, it became a part of my identity again.
Over the years, there have been many "Star Trek" comic books that have come out, so you must be used to people drawing a likeness of you. How did Dan Parent stack up in getting you right?
Dan did a fantastic job, and certainly it's a job that's the polar opposite of how Asians or Asian Americans were depicted in comics way back when – you know, buck teeth and thick, horn-rimmed glasses looking very unattractive and sometimes fearsome. Now here I am as me – not just as an Asian American but as George Takei! I'm looking very handsome for a person of my age with a lot more hair than I really have and a lot less waistline than I really have. [Laughs] So I think Dan's done a tremendous job – a very flattering likeness. I'm proud to look like my image in the comic.
And you were able to talk to Dan about the final copy in person at a signing last week at Midtown Comics. How'd that go?
It was tremendously successful, but I felt terribly because the line went on and on, and there were people lined up a block long and around the corner. I felt terribly because it was bone-chilling that night! I told them when they got their autograph that they could go home and get warm. [Laughs]
I had to bring up your Facebook page because it is a compendium of amazing and funny things. Part of the story in this issue is that the internet brings you and Kevin Keller together. Do you really have situations like this in real life where because of your internet presence, you cross paths in real life?
Absolutely. It's really a change where I can be walking down the street here in Manhattan or in Los Angeles in a pedestrian area like Melrose Avenue or downtown LA or Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and people will stop and go, "Wow! There's George Takei! Can I have a picture with you?" That's totally different than the climate I grew up in, and American society is changing in many, many ways. Sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically. But I think it's because people are starting to see the presence of LGBT people in every area of our society. We've always existed, but people weren't aware of our existence. And when people strop me on the street today, it's not because I'm a gay Asian American. It's because I'm George Takei. And the more we have this kind of recognition and enjoyment – a recognition that we all contribute to the rich diversity of America – the closer we come to a healthier society. And that idea is very much depicted by the community of Riverdale.
Yeah. And I think that the Riverdale you read about as a child is at this point far different from the Riverdale kids today are reading about. This version does more it seems to helping them see a more diverse world in front of them.
I think they already do. It's no big thing to kids today. Of course Kevin Keller is gay. He's also a blonde, and he's got a nice personality. It's all a part of who Kevin is as opposed to when I was a teenager growing up where of course I looked who I look like, but they couldn't know the whole me. Today, it's not just in comic books but with television series regulars or movies or books that we read. It's all throughout our society. And it's that recognition of "He's a brunet" or "She's a blonde" or "He's a soldier." All of those people might be gay, but that's just a part of who they are organically just as much as if they're a policeman or a star professional football player. But he might just be gay as well. That's the norm or at least the ideal that's depicted by Kevin Keller. And we're getting closer to that ideal in American society.
"Kevin Keller" #6 is on sale now from Archie Comics.