Remember when it wasn't cool to be a Trekkie, or care about science fiction -- or even science?
Then the Internet happened, and geeks suddenly ruled the world.
How else could one explain the rise of George Takei -- 76-year- old former supporting actor on "Star Trek" -- who has become one of the most popular personalities on the Internet. His more than 4.6 million followers on Facebook and 800,000-plus Twitter followers represent something exceedingly rare in the internet world: near- consensus.
In a medium where people will engage in monthlong arguments about fictional TV characters, and being a troll (anonymous, deliberately provocative) is almost an art form, just about everybody can agree about liking George Takei.
He'll be in town this weekend for the Steel City Con at the Monroeville Convention Center.
Of course, being a supporting actor on "Star Trek" is different from being a supporting actor on any other show. As Hikaru Sulu, original helmsman of the USS Enterprise, he'll always have a place in science fiction and television lore.
In many ways, "Star Trek" saw the future that was coming and gave the people building that future some ideas to work with.
"What made 'Star Trek' distinctive, so singular, is that (creator) Gene Roddenbery didn't take sci-fi as just 'letting your imagination go wild,' " says Takei, whose deep, distinctive baritone lends a certain gravity even to undistinguished fare like "Ninja Cheerleaders" (2008) and "Transformers: Animated" (2009). "The imagination and philosophy has to be there, but he also had futurists from the Rand Corporation as technical advisers. For example, the communicator was something being worked on at that point -- and now we've gone way past the simple cordless telephone. This was supposed to be set 300 years ahead of ourselves."
In addition to Takei's long acting resume in TV, movies and onstage, he has a parallel career as outspoken activist in support of social justice, gay rights and same-sex marriage. He married his partner of 18 years, Brad Altman, in 2008. Takei has been a semi- regular presence on "The Howard Stern Show," which proves he can take a joke and return fire in that famously un-P.C. environment.
Add to that his love for social media -- and a pithy, highly visual sense of humor that fits the shareable, quick-hit brevity of social media perfectly -- and you've struck Internet gold. Online, Takei feels free to comment on everything. When there's nothing to say, he posts goofy pictures.
Of course, no one's immune to criticism online. But all the trolls and haters who think their phasers are set on "stun," barely register as a tickle to Takei.
"They're there, whether you say something (back) or not," he says. "You can't pay attention to them. They expose themselves to being haters. At the same time, it's important to listen to the other side of the coin, to see what their opinions are. You can learn a thing or two. If they have a thoughtful, reasonably rational backing to their positions, you listen and exchange dialogue. Hopefully, you can get them to see the larger picture.
"But at the same time, mindless haters -- you can't respond to them. They just want attention. If they're bullheaded and unmovable, there's no hope."
Takei is a living rebuke to those who think that older people can't, don't or won't adapt to the Internet era. One recent project is a bi-weekly YouTube video series called "Takei's Take," produced by AARP. The plan is to showcase the best of what's on the Web, from memes to online dating to special guests. He hopes to "go in depth about topics that will be relevant across generations."
Takei has a bit of recent history in Pittsburgh. He stayed here for several months while shooting the now-cancelled Nickelodeon action-comedy TV series "Supah Ninjas" (2011-12).
"I got to know it reasonably well," Takei says of the city. "I fell in love with it. When I first went to Pittsburgh, I had the traditional image of this soot-covered industrial city. But you sure know how to make an impact with the tunnel, then that skyline, the way the rivers come together, that triangular park Downtown, the neighborhoods across the Monongahela."
He even pronounces Monongahela correctly. But Takei is kind of a stickler for pronunciation -- an issue in his famously testy relationship with "Star Trek" co-star William Shatner.
"For 40 years, we've been working together -- until the (Comedy Central) 'Roast' of Bill Shatner, he continuously mispronounced my name," Takei says. "It's tah-KAY."
It's no secret they haven't always gotten along. He points out an online scuffle involving Shatner.
"I think it's unfortunate," he says. "Bill Shatner himself started that type of thing. He got into a YouTube conversation with Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia of 'Star Wars'). Then he started talking about her weight -- he, of all people, should talk! He can be so childish, and silly and irrational at times."
Takei says he felt compelled to step in and put a stop to the argument over whether "Star Trek" was better than "Star Wars."
"I proposed the 'Star Peace,' " he says, "because we have a common adversary: 'Twilight.' "
Heading to Broadway
One of Takei's current projects tackles an issue close to his heart, the mass internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. It takes the unlikely form of a musical, called "Allegiance," in which Takei stars. The production broke the 77- year record for the Old Globe Theater attendance and box office in San Diego. Takei hopes to have a Broadway run set up soon.
As a child, the Los Angeles-born Takei and his family were taken from their homes and forced to live in the stables of the Santa Anita racetrack before being sent to internment camps in Arkansas and California.
"Many people know nothing about it," he says. "I meet lots of otherwise educated, informed people, who say 'I had no idea something that horrible happened in the U.S.'
"That's one of my missions in life," he says. "From the time I was in my late teens, I've been speaking to high schools, and I've gone on nationwide speaking tours to corporations, military bases, government agencies. I think we learn more from the times when our democracy faltered than when it was glorious. To improve it, we have to know where its fallibilities lie.
"The musical talks about these innocent American citizens -- who simply looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor -- who were put into prison camps."
The characters are asked to take loyalty oaths -- one specifically forswearing loyalty to the emperor of Japan.
"That was outrageous. We never even thought of the emperor. I had no loyalty to forswear," he says. "I know the price of what it means to be an American because I know the price that was paid."
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.
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