‘To Be Takei’: The joyful, painful life of ‘America’s Gay Uncle’

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How did this happen?

How did a supporting character on a cult TV show that aired for three years in the 1960s become a social media rock star, the inspiration for a Broadway musical, a Howard Stern semi-regular, an actor much in demand, a leading activist and “America’s Gay Uncle,” to quote Out magazine?

From the time George Takei was very young, his life has been the stuff of a movie, and in the documentary “To Be Takei,” even non-Trekkers and those who can’t resist mimicking Takei’s “Oh my!” catchphrase will understand exactly why the 77-year-old Takei has become a much bigger star than he was a half-century ago — a career arc nearly unheard of in the business of show.

Writer-director Jennifer M. Kroot is smart enough to know she has a glittering diamond of a subject in Mr. Takei, so for the most part she keeps things straightforward, allowing George and his longtime partner and now husband Brad Altman, who is also George’s manager, to take center stage. (You could make an entertaining movie just by following George and Brad through their day, with George almost always sunny and revealing, and Brad often wincing at George’s openness.)

Although this is primarily a lighthearted romp, showcasing George’s quarterly appearances as the announcer and raconteur supreme on Stern’s show, his immensely entertaining feud with William Shatner, his interplay with Brad and the public appearances where he is showered with love by adoring fans of all ages, there’s also a substantial amount of time devoted to the two prisons Takei inhabited.

In 1942, when Takei was 5 years old, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066, which declared all people of Japanese ancestry be removed from their West Coast homes and placed in internment camps. George and his family were imprisoned in a camp in Oklahoma, and then moved to a camp in California, where they were held until the 1945.

Seven decades later, Takei is a passionate, living survivor of that shameful chapter in American history, when tens of thousands of people were rounded up simply because they looked like the enemy. Takei’s experiences are the inspiration for “Allegiance,” a musical that premiered at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego to sold-out crowds.

And as anyone even remotely familiar with Takei’s story knows, the actor was well into his 60s before he finally came out of the closet, prompted to do so after then-governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation. (The only time in the film we see Takei coming close to losing his temper is when someone refers to the “gay lifestyle” or homosexuality as a choice.)

Roles for Asian actors were sparse enough back in the day. (Takei admits he’s embarrassed by some of the stereotypical parts he played in the 1960s and 1970s.) It’s easy to understand why Takei didn’t want to further narrow his opportunities by coming out of the closet during an era when even Liberace was pretending to be on a constant search for a wife. But since Takei came out, his career as an actor and as George Takei, spokesman/activist/humorist/social media personality, has exploded. “To Be Takei” is a celebration of a man of great resilience, infectious humor, a voracious appetite for the richness of the human experience, and the best laugh in the history of laughing.

He also tells the fantastically insufferable Shatner, “F— you and the horse you rode in on,” so there’s that, too.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper

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