He spoke Mandarin with Keanu Reeves in “The Day the Earth Stood Nonetheless.” He backflipped his means out of a struggle in “Wayne’s World 2.” He was the supportive, noodle-loving Mr. Ping in “Kung Fu Panda.” On tv, he was the maître d’ within the episode of “Seinfeld” titled “The Chinese language Restaurant.”
With out exaggeration, Hong is perhaps essentially the most prolific actor in Hollywood historical past. With greater than 600 credit to his title, he might lay declare to essentially the most credit of any actor, dwelling or lifeless.
Hong’s path to stardom began, as many do, as a baby working towards in entrance of a mirror. However he saved his performing aspirations from his mother and father.
“Effectively, you already know, Chinese language mother and father need you to do some skilled jobs somewhat than be an actor,” Hong says. “Being an actor is just like the final rung within the ladder of professions. They do not even name it a career as a result of it is shameful to reveal your emotions in entrance of an viewers. You have been taught to be type of quiet and to maintain to your self.”
Nonetheless, he acquired a few of his favourite performing inspiration from his father’s herb store in Minnesota.
“All of the laundrymen from Minneapolis had nothing to do on weekends, so they might collect at my father’s retailer, herb retailer,” Hong remembers. “I do not forget that, as a result of we would have these little wood stools and so they all gathered there, and so they employed these Chinese language opera folks from San Francisco to come back and do their factor … I used to be solely somewhat boy. You watch them with broad eyes, ‘Wow! What a career.’”
He began his profession as a civil engineer
To please his mother and father, Hong graduated from the College of Southern California with a level in civil engineering. Whereas working for Los Angeles County constructing roads, he continued to attempt to discover work as an actor and comic.
His massive break got here on a TV present referred to as “You Wager Your Life,” hosted by Groucho Marx.
“I did impersonations of Groucho, James Cagney, and so forth,” Hong stated.
His look was successful. “I obtained the second-biggest fan mail ever on the Groucho Marx present,” he stated.
That TV look landed him an agent, and with it, the beginning of a profession in Hollywood.
“Impulsively, they wished me to be in a film,” Hong stated. That film was “Soldier of Fortune,” a 1955 movie starring Clark Gable.
“It was just a few type of expertise I by no means forgot, to behave with Clark Gable. Then, proper after, I obtained my union card and I began one after one other. I needed to stop civil engineering,” Hong stated.
Quickly sufficient, he was performing alongside the likes of John Wayne, William Holden and Jennifer Jones.
Hong battled stereotypes alongside the best way
“From then on, it was 10 films or TV [shows] a 12 months,” Hong remembers. These early roles, nonetheless, have been limiting, to say the least.
“Asians have been put right into a film or TV primarily as a gimmick,” Hong stated. “We have been by no means considered enjoying the principle roles, the main folks. That is the best way it was.”
Hong started his profession throughout an period of flagrant yellowface in Hollywood, the place white actors would typically play Asian characters. Marlon Brando performed an Okinawan native in “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” Mickey Rooney performed the bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and John Wayne performed Mongol emperor Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror.”
Even in “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan” — against the law TV collection wherein Hong performed a supporting function — Irish American actor J. Carrol Naish performed the lead as a Chinese language American detective.
“Some other film that demanded an Asian lead more often than not was performed by Caucasian actors with their eyes taped up and their little enamel,” Hong stated. “I ended up within the early profession largely enjoying laundrymen, or persecuted Chinamen … it was powerful, very powerful, to get out of the mould.”
However Hong did not let Hollywood’s slender lens restrict his talents.
“I did the very best as an actor to beat the cliché-ness as a result of I needed to as a way to maintain working,” Hong stated. “I took these roles after which I used what my academics had taught me and put the true emotions, even when it is a villain … I attempt to discover what makes the individual actually that individual.”
That does not imply Hong did not additionally arise in opposition to misrepresentation. In 1962, he was given a script for a movie referred to as “The Confessions of an Opium Eater,” directed by Albert Zugsmith.
“I learn the script, I stated, ‘That is horrible,’” Hong stated. “All of the roles have been the opium dope folks and the prostitutes and so forth.”
He organized a bunch of individuals to strategy Zugsmith’s workplace to make a case for a rewrite.
“I stated, ‘This isn’t an excellent picture of the Chinese language … You have to enhance the picture of the Asians right here,” Hong stated. Zugsmith, nonetheless, wouldn’t be satisfied, and the film continued on with manufacturing.
It led him to start out his very personal theater firm
Realizing that Hollywood would not have the ability to present the roles Asian People deserved, Hong got down to carve his personal area. Together with actor Mako Iwamatsu, Hong helped set up an Asian American performing group in Los Angeles. Their first manufacturing was “Rashomon,” a stage play primarily based on two brief tales written by Japanese creator Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and tailored into movie by Akira Kurosawa.
“That began the trade noticing who we have been,” Hong stated. “We weren’t simply extras, or gimmick folks. We have been in a play that we organized. We have been the principle, lead folks. We have been the actors. And we commanded consideration.”
That performing group became the legendary theater group, East West Gamers.
“East West Gamers have been formulated to showcase works by Asians, who wrote the play, who designed the stage, who act within the play,” Hong stated. “It was all completed by Asian folks, skilled folks.”
And Hong is aware of higher than anybody the significance of getting an area for Asian American creatives in Hollywood, the place roles are nonetheless missing.
“Though the actors and singers have expertise, they can not transfer ahead as a result of there should not sufficient roles,” Hong stated. “That is a disgrace, as a result of it is a waste of fine expertise. We will not categorical ourselves in the best way we wish to within the mainstream films and TV as a result of it is managed by any person else.” However he’s nonetheless assured that change is coming quickly.
“Asians are starting to do their very own performs and personal TV collection and flicks and getting massive field workplace. So it is solely a matter of time.”
Helped usher in new generations of Asian American actors
East West Gamers has nurtured nice expertise over its 55 years. Actors resembling Randall Park, George Takei, John Cho and Daniel Dae Kim have all been related to the theater. And in response to East West Gamers’ present creative director, it’s thought that at one level, 70% of Asian American actors in Hollywood had a connection to East West Gamers.
“You realize, seeing this factor develop as it’s to what it’s … I nonetheless cannot consider it,” Hong stated of the theater firm. “I’ve to be pleased with what I’ve completed. However you may’t be too proud, as a result of there’s an excessive amount of work to do.”
Even at 91 years outdated, Hong is not able to decelerate any time quickly.
“I might simply retire on my pension, my (Display Actors Guild) pension, and go to Europe and tour, and India,” Hong says. “However one thing inside me, within James Hong, desires to maintain on going and do extra films and progress … I will do different films till I am unable to stroll anymore and may’t speak anymore. Then, I will take that tour.”
As of July 2020, Hong has 469 TV credit, 149 function movies, 32 brief movies and 22 video video games to his IMDB web page. That makes for a complete of 672 credit, and a wide ranging legacy that may reside on in Hollywood historical past.