EXCLUSIVE: James Hong who has been acting since the 1950s has been fighting for parity for Asian actors for decades. With the success of Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians this weekend employing an Asian cast in all leading roles, the 89 year-old Hong said, “I never thought it would take this long.”
It is, indeed, a watershed moment for Hollywood as this now becomes only one of the few films ever released by a major studio that heralds a full Asian cast. Hong, who has around 500 credits (not counting voiceovers like the character of Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda film franchise) has, through impossible odds, racked up the most credits of any actor — living or dead — on film, TV and stage.
He also soon became a role model to the next generation of Asian actors, as Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Hawaii Five-0, Mulan) told Deadline three years ago.
Hong’s heroic path through Hollywood included fighting racism, relentlessly advocating for non-stereotypical Asian roles and encouraging others to take up the fight and push through to make necessary change in the entertainment industry.
He has worked on films with Clark Gable (Soldier of Fortune) and in TV with Jane Wyman in one of the only TV episodes John Ford ever helmed (The Bamboo Cross) and many, many others, but it was Groucho Marx who gave Hong his start in the most unusual way. Marx had been alerted to a Chinese man out of Minnesota who was an impressionist. Marx booked Hong on his show You Bet Your Life, and Hong — doing spot on impressions of Peter Lorre, Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney and Groucho himself — was a huge hit with television audiences. So much so that Hong landed an agent — with Bessie Loo (the only agent for Asians at that time).
In 1953, Hong left Minnesota where he was born, grew up and was studying engineering, and drove cross country with a friend on Route 66. He transferred his school credits to USC and after graduating worked as an engineer for the Los Angeles County Roads Dept.
He wanted to act, but it was a rude awakening on the West Coast. “When I first came here in 1953, basically, there were no Asian roles that were not cliche … all stereotypes … no real drama classes or clubs, only one Asian casting director and East/West players was non existent. There was no advocacy for Asians actors. There were no leading men roles. I became an actor, but then I had to fight for a very long time for Asian Americans.”
As is characteristic for engineers, if there is a problem, you apply what you know and work to resolve it. “That quality locked together with my acting. I wanted to be able to do something for Asian Americans in this business,” said Hong. “To see so many stereotypical roles … and then to see what was offered us: Confessions of an Opium Eater directed by Albert Zugsmith. I said to a group of us — all Chinese, Asians — we cannot do this film because every role in it is a bad role for the Chinese. I took us all up to the director’s office and several of us Chinese sat around with Zugmsith and said this is not a good image for the Chinese because they are all prostitutes and opium eaters.
“He listened and then said he didn’t care and was going to make the film anyway. He went on to make the film with Linda Ho (released in 1962). I was very perturbed that we couldn’t do anything. Around that time, there was a group called the Asian American Pacific Artists … so I became one of the presidents. We had meetings and wrote some letters to the producers’ and directors’ associations and said there should be better images and better castings. It didn’t do much good because, who ever heard of us? To them, we were just a bunch of Chinks and Japs.”
Hong served in the U.S. Army in the Korean War, and was part of the melting pot that is America, but it didn’t matter.
“I am a Chinese American actor and there was nothing for me, and how can you take that slap in the face back and forth each year?” he said. “Being from Minnesota, I’m a fighter, you know. I was an artist and wanted something more because it’s a lifetime of work. You just don’t want to get a paycheck to become a cliché person. In the beginning, I played all those roles, but they were all houseboys, laundry men, railroad workers and villains, always the bad guy or always the persecuted Chinaman, always being saved by a white person. There were no roles as a principle person in American society.”
Because the Asian creative community was so small, Hong knew a Japanese actor named Mako, who would much later be Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles in 1966, which starred Steve McQueen.
“Mako and (another actor) Al Huang came to my apartment and I said, ‘Let’s do something. We’re not getting anywhere!’ Everything was a step backwards. I said, ‘Let’s form some kind of group here, and do a play.” They decided on Rashomon, which legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had already made into an award-winning film.
“So we took the play, studied it and called whomever wanted to do a role and we ended up with an initial cluster of people who wanted to do something. We put up our own money and opened at the Warner Playhouse on La Cienega. Then we went to the University of Judaism on Sunset and performed there and also at USC, wherever we had the chance, we performed,” said Hong. The play ran for about two years. “Everyone just pitched in, and the play got good reviews. I was the producer and played the gatekeeper. Mako played the bandit. June Kim was also in the play.”
After that, the theater troupe had momentum and they were encouraged. The Asian actress Beulah Quo then got her Church in Griffith Park to give the thespians the basement to perform in. “That became the first home of East/West players,” remembers Hong. The East/West Players was founded in 1965, and was the first all-Asian American theater troupe in America.
“Mako was responsible for really building that theater up,” noted Hong. “He was really a theater man. He got his whole family involved in it.” Later, East/West Players moved to Santa Monica Blvd. and then into a Buddhist Church. The now legendary theater troupe continues to this day.
“I look back, now I’m almost 90 years old, and think is that what I started?” said Hong. “There were so many good students, teachers and actors flowing through those doors. But, I just did what I had to do.”
And it came from wisdom born from pain as he battled racism constantly. When he was around 28 years old, Hong landed a role playing Number One Son in Charlie Chan opposite J. Carrol Naisch. “It was 1958. I went to England to do that role. I was in almost every episode,” Hong remembers. “Then one time, I missed my offstage cue role and missed a line and J. Carrol Naisch took out his anger in whatever state of mind he was in and said, ‘What do you think this is? A school for Chinese actors?’ He was just a mean guy, and had me fired. I had to come back, and it was very devastating. That was the state of mind of the industry at that time. It hurt a lot.”
On another series, he said he was in his dressing room when he heard an assistant director say, ‘Where is that Chinese actor? Get him down here!’ He also noted that when he first came to town, his father arrived from Minnesota and drove them around looking for a house. “We started to knock on the door to negotiate a little bit on a house on Beverly Blvd. in a nice area, and they said they didn’t want Chinese around here.”
“That was the attitude. Now things are just starting to change,” said Hong. “After 50 to 60 years, things are starting to look better. I never thought it would take this long. At least I’m alive to see it, but it took this long to get this far.”
What helped Hong in Hollywood was his versatility as an actor, whether it is playing the villain in Big Trouble in Little China or in a comedic role in Seinfeld, Wayne’s World 2 or dramatic roles in Hawaii Five-O, Blade Runner or Chinatown. In fact, he played eight different roles in the 1970s TV series Kung Fu. “Yes, each time a different character, never the same one,” he laughed. “One day, the producer and I were walking through the cafeteria, and he said to me, ‘You are really a lifesaver. I can call you and you can fill in for any role.’ So yes, that did help.”
Deadline wondered who Hong’s role model could have possibly been back in the 1950s and 1960s. Hong thought for awhile before answering that it was actually a cinematographer — James Wong Howe, who was nominated for 10 Oscars and won for The Rose Tattoo in 1955 and for Hud in 1963.
“I would have to say I looked up to him,” said Hong. “He was a great cameraman. He was a janitor at the studios and when everyone left, he would roll the camera with his hand and one day, the camera man was not on set, and he said, ‘Well, I can do it!’ And everyone laughed and smirked, and they said, ‘Yeah, sure go ahead.’ He rolled the camera so steadily, that they were all surprised. You know, he invented the eye-light on the cameras … he was very in demand after that. He knew what to do to make an actress look beautiful. So he went from janitor to Academy Award winner,” said Hong, who noted that they had many very memorable conversations.
“He was a very short man, looked down upon, but he was so tough. He was the Yellow man who did something great. And they were all tyrants. I remember on Blood Alley, with (director) William Wellman and Lauren Bacall, Wellman was sitting on his directing chair ordering all these Chinese actors around and shouting out orders, and then all of a sudden he was hit on the back of the head with a stickball. It was Lauren Bacall, in her chair behind him, who said, ‘Oh, sit down Bill.’ “
He said the role of Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda film franchise where he does voice over, “was a wonderful peak in my career” because even though it was animated, he was “sort of a leading character. I did the voice as a cross between a Jewish mother and a Chinese waiter.”
Asked what advice he would give to others coming up the ranks, he was adamant: “The young people have to fight and gain more ground. They have to continue to fight for better images and more roles. There are a few roles, but they are still not casting Asians in leading roles like businessmen,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “And I’m sure it will get better because China has all the money.”
As for what is next for him, Hong said that he is still acting and doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon as he is looking to produce his own, yet untitled, feature screenplay about a grandfather and his estranged granddaughter who realize, through an unexpected adventure that pushes them into another world, that family relationships are the key to survival.
He said that there are a number of young filmmakers who have come forth that want to help him realize this film, which will be heavily cast with Asian actors. “Everything is about timing,” he said. “And it seems like the time is right.”