He spoke Mandarin with Keanu Reeves in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. He turned his way out of a fight in “Wayne’s World 2”. He was the noodle loving and supportive Mr. Ping in “Kung Fu Panda”. On television, he was the butler in the episode of “Seinfeld” called “The Chinese Restaurant”.
Without exaggeration, Hong could be the most prolific actor in Hollywood history. With over 600 credits to his name, he can claim the most credits of any actor, living or dead.
Hong’s path to stardom began, as many do, as a child practitioner in front of a mirror. But he kept his acting aspirations from his parents.
“All the laundry workers in Minneapolis had nothing to do on weekends, so they would gather at my dad’s store, the herb store,” Hong recalls. “I remember that, because we had these little wooden stools and they all gathered there, and they hired these Chinese opera houses from San Francisco to come and do their thing… I was just a little one. boy. You look at them with wide eyes, “Wow! What a profession. “”
He started his career as a civil engineer
To please his parents, Hong graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in civil engineering. While working for road construction in Los Angeles County, he continued to try and find work as an actor and comedian.
His big break came on a TV show called “You Bet Your Life,” hosted by Groucho Marx.
“I made imitations of Groucho, James Cagney, etc. Hong said.
His appearance was a success. “I received the second largest fan mail ever posted on the Groucho Marx show,” he said.
This television appearance earned him an agent and, with it, the start of a career in Hollywood.
“Suddenly they wanted me to be in a movie,” Hong said. This film was “Soldier of Fortune,” a 1955 film starring Clark Gable.
“It was just a kind of experience that I never forgot, acting with Clark Gable. Then, right after, I got my union card and started one after the other. I had to quit civil engineering, ”Hong said.
Soon he acted alongside John Wayne, William Holden and Jennifer Jones.
Hong fought stereotypes along the way
“From that point on, it was 10 movies or TV [shows] one year, ”recalls Hong. These early roles, however, were limiting to say the least.
“Asians have been placed in a movie or television primarily as a gadget,” Hong said. “We were never expected to play the leading roles, the leading people. It was like that. ”
Hong began his career in a glaringly yellow-faced era in Hollywood, where white actors regularly played Asian characters. Marlon Brando played an Okinawan local in “The Teahouse of the August Moon”, Mickey Rooney played the horsetooth Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and John Wayne played Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror”.
Even in “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan” – a crime television series in which Hong played a supporting role – Irish American actor J. Carrol Naish starred as a Chinese American detective.
“Any other movie that required an Asian lead role most of the time was played by Caucasian actors with their eyes taped and tiny teeth,” Hong said. “I ended up at the start of my career playing mainly launderers or persecuted Chinese… it was hard, very hard, to break out of the mold. ”
But Hong didn’t let Hollywood’s narrow lens limit his abilities.
“I did my best as an actor to overcome the cliché because I had to do it to keep working,” Hong said. “I took those roles and then I used what my teachers taught me and put in the real feelings, even though he’s a bad guy… I’m trying to find out what makes the person really that person. “
That’s not to say that Hong hasn’t resisted the misrepresentation either. In 1962 he was given the screenplay for a film called “The Confessions of an Opium Eater”, directed by Albert Zugsmith.
“I read the script, I said, ‘It’s terrible,’” Hong said. “All the roles were opium drug people and prostitutes and so on. ”
He organized a group of people to approach Zugsmith’s office to advocate for a rewrite.
“I said, ‘It’s not a good image of the Chinese… You have to improve the image of Asians here,” Hong said. Zugsmith, however, would not be convinced and the film continued with production.
This led him to create his own theater company
Realizing that Hollywood would not be able to provide the roles that Asian Americans deserved, Hong decided to carve out his own space. Along with actor Mako Iwamatsu, Hong helped organize an Asian American theater group in Los Angeles. Their first production was “Rashomon”, a play based on two short stories written by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and adapted into a film by Akira Kurosawa.
“It made the industry notice who we were,” Hong said. “We weren’t just extras or stuff. We were in a play that we organized. We were the main players. We were the actors. And we got the attention.
This group of actors has grown into the legendary theater group, East West Players.
“East West Players was formulated to feature work by Asians, who wrote the play, who designed the stage, who perform in the play,” Hong said. “Everything was done by Asians, professionals. ”
And Hong knows better than anyone the importance of having a space for Asian American creatives in Hollywood, where roles are still lacking.
“Even though actors and singers are talented, they can’t move forward because there aren’t enough roles,” Hong said. “It’s a shame, because it’s a waste of good talent. We can’t express ourselves the way we want in movies and mainstream television because it’s being controlled by someone else. But he’s still convinced that change is coming soon.
“Asians are starting to do their own plays and own TV shows and movies and get a big box office. So it is only a matter of time. “
Helped usher in new generations of actors of Asian descent
East West Players nurtured great talent over its 55 years. Actors such as Randall Park, George Takei, John Cho, and Daniel Dae Kim have all been associated with the theater. And according to the current artistic director of East West Players, it is believed that at one point 70% of Asian American actors in Hollywood had some connection with East West Players.
“You know, seeing this thing become the way it is… I still can’t believe it,” Hong said of the theater company. “I must be proud of what I have done. But you cannot be too proud because there is too much work to be done. ”
Even at 91, Hong isn’t ready to slow down anytime soon.
“I could just retire with my pension, my pension (from the Screen Actors Guild), and go to Europe and on tour, and India,” Hong says. “But something inside of me, inside James Hong, wants to go on and make more films and progress… I’m going to make other films until I can’t walk and can’t speak. Then I will do this tour. ”
As of July 2020, Hong had 469 TV credits, 149 feature films, 32 short films, and 22 video games on its IMDB page. That’s a total of 672 credits and a breathtaking legacy that will last in Hollywood history.