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The Off-Screen Drama That Changed Sulu From Star Trek Forever

Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" franchise is set in a more enlightened futuristic universe, where the Vulcan philosophy of infinite diversity in infinite combinations is the order of the day (per StarTrek.com). And while that doesn't mean everyone gets along all the time, it does mean that the series as a whole champions tolerance, faith in humanity, and hope for progress. 

Unfortunately, "Star Trek" actors live in the present day, instead of the future, which means that the drama that happens behind-the-scenes can be a bit pettier than the conflicts that the characters experience on the screen.

In particular, there's one off-screen drama that affected George Takei, known to fans not only as Lt. Sulu (and as Captain Hikaru Sulu in later movies), but as a prolific performer, author, viral social media star, political activist and more. The 84-year-old Japanese actor has led an incredibly full life, which included time in a U.S. internment camp as a child and the receipt of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yet he did experienced drama on the set of the original "Star Trek" that influenced his life to such a degree he still talks about it today in front of audiences today.

Takei fanned the flames in his autobiography from 1994

The drama comes in the form of what the media calls a long-running feud between Captain Kirk actor William Shatner and George Takei, two actors whom have spent plenty of time in the same spaces ever since the original "Star Trek" went off the air in 1969 because of its enduring popularity, including press events and conventions. 

Their public statements about one another appear to have started with Takei's 1994 autobiography, "To the Stars," in which he described Shatner on his the first day on the set as having "radiated energy and a boundless joy in his position." Takei wrote, "He beamed out an infectious, expansively joyous life force." However, he wasn't as kind to the star of the show after that, noting that Shatner ended up with many of the good lines intended for other cast members, and this expression of ego and insecurity continued even when the series was resurrected for Paramount's first "Star Trek" film. 

For the second film, Takei began negotiating with producers to advance Sulu in rank. A scene in "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan" was to have Kirk informing Sulu that he was now commander of the U.S.S. Excelsior. However, Takei says in the book, Shatner played the scene so disinterestedly that it was cut from the film as unusable. As a result, Sulu did not become captain of his own vessel until "Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country."

The feud heats up with Shatner minimizing Takei's role in Star Trek

In 2008, Shatner was asked if he felt snubbed by not being invited to Takei's September wedding to Brad Altman. "Well, the whole thing makes me feel badly," the actor said, via The Official William Shatner Page. "Poor man. There's such a sickness there. It's so patently obvious that there's a psychosis there." However, Takei responded to the situation in People Magazine, saying he did in fact invite Shatner to the wedding but did not hear back. "But it wasn't surprising because it's true to his history. He's never responded to an invitation. Every time there was something happy to celebrate amongst us ... he never showed up," Takei said.

In 2020, Shatner posted this tweet in response to a Twitter inquiry pointing out that the other actor was not much more than a "day player," on set one or two days a week. Shatner posted, "Do the math. That's why I don't know him. He was on set maybe 3 weeks total per year. That's why I say he has all of these fake stories from the set; when did he have time to act?" 

Shatner reportedly covered the feud in his own memoir, "Shatner Rules," from 2011, in which he said Takei's dislike of him came from an unwillingness to play second fiddle (per The Los Angeles Times). A set of handwritten notes that went for auction in 2016 also indicated that Shatner did not make an effort to pay much attention to his co-star (via Express).

Despite the negativity, both remain cultural icons to Star Trek fans

Takei has addressed Shatner's minimization of his role in "Star Trek." In 2021, he told Howard Stern, "It is so patently unbelievable ... That is purely fiction of his mind. Or, maybe it is his truth."

Whatever the truth, both actors continue to rehash the situation with fans at conventions, over social media and at events and interviews. In October 2021, Shatner went to the edge of space in Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin capsule. This event led Takei to remark as he spoke at the New York opening of "Thoughts of a Colored Man" (per Page Six), "He's boldly going where other people have gone before." Takei called Shatner a "guinea pig" who is "not the fittest specimen of 90 years old."

At Star Trek: Mission Chicago, a new convention in which both appeared on April 8-10, 2022, Takei brought the topic up again, saying that he felt Shatner always purposefully butchered his name. He referenced a Comedy Central roast of the actor, in which he reminded Shatner that "Takei" rhymes with "toupee" — something Shatner is rumored to have worn for years. Some have taken sides in the battle, with Shatner's supporters saying all the negativity comes from Takei. 

However, it is clear that many fans believe that both are worthy of their titles as "cultural icons," as one commenter on YouTube called them, and that it's a shame that the relationship has badly affected both their lives.