James Hong may be the most accomplished actor to ever call Minnesota home. But chances are you don’t know his name.
Some of today’s most popular Asian American actors are working to change that, launching a campaign to get the 91-year-old veteran a star next year on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“James Hong just might be the most prolific actor in Hollywood history,” said “Lost” star Daniel Dae Kim when he started a crowdfunding effort to raise money for the long overdue recognition. “This man epitomizes the term ‘working actor,’ and that’s not even taking into account all he’s done to help further representation for actors of color.”
Hong, whose body of work includes over 600 film and TV credits, couldn’t be more pleased.
“When Daniel told me how many people have contributed, it was hard to believe,” said Hong by phone from California this fall. “Because of the coronavirus, money is hard to come by, so I’m very thankful.”
Hong, who was born in Minneapolis in 1929 and attended Central High School, got the performance bug while doing comedy sketches as a child at Westminster Presbyterian Church and practicing impressions of stars like James Cagney in his bathroom mirror. His mimicry skills got him booked on WCCO Radio’s “Stairway to Stardom,” hosted by Cedric Adams, and Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life.”
“Groucho wasn’t interested in people who impersonated him, but he got interested when one of his writers told him that it was a Chinese boy,” Hong said. “The audience roared when I used my pen as a cigar. Then Groucho gave me a spare one. I wish I had kept that cigar.”
That 1954 appearance led to two decades of steady work on television, including the role of “Number One Son” on “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan.”
But despite almost immediate success in Hollywood, Hong found it difficult to land juicy parts.
“There were no opportunities for Asian Americans to portray non-cliché roles,” he said. “All the leading roles were given to white actors who pasted their eyes up and heightened these accents. Even on ‘Charlie Chan,’ J. Carrol Naish was playing Chan. He’s obviously not Asian. The eyepieces were hurting his eyes.”
But Hong never considered hanging it up.
“What could you do? Stop working?” he said. “You had to take the roles that were given to you and do the best you can. So even if I was playing a part that simply said ‘Chinaman’ or ‘Villain,’ I would put my heart and soul into that being.”
The landscape improved slightly in the mid-1970s, when Hong graduated to feature films. But he still had to fight.
“When I got to Hollywood, too many minority actors were happy with what they were getting from white producers. They had become too complacent,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with that. I’m from Minnesota. I wasn’t treated like that. I considered myself a principle person in this walk of life and I brought that attitude to Hollywood.”
We won’t know until next June whether Hong will be among the next class to join the Walk of Fame. In the meantime, we can celebrate some of his most iconic work:
Evelyn Mulwray’s fiercely loyal butler doesn’t appear in too many scenes, but he plays a major part in the tragic ending. Many consider Roman Polanski’s detective tale to be among the greatest films of all time. Hong would also star in the 1990 sequel, “The Two Jakes.”
“I didn’t even have a name in the script. I was just there to take care of my boss. Just before we shot, Faye Dunaway asked, ‘What should I call him?’ I came up with Kahn, one of my Chinese names. Faye treated me like a human being and I felt that. I became that character. I wanted to protect her. I think people saw that.”
‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
In this sci-fi classic, Hong played Hannibal Chew, a genetics engineer who designs replicants’ eyes. He would reprise the role for a 1997 “Blade Runner” video game, and would go on to contribute voices to such console classics as “Call of Duty: Black Ops” and “World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria.”
“It’s hard to predict what’s going to be a classic. But the minute I stepped on that set, I said, ‘Wow, this is something new.’ It wasn’t digital. Ridley Scott built that set. You just get a feeling in your toes that this could be an iconic movie.”
‘Big Trouble in Little China’ (1986)
Hong got to show off his comedy chops as David Lo Pan, a sorcerer who must marry a green-eyed Earthling to break an evil curse. Kurt Russell’s truck-loving maverick stands in his way. John Carpenter’s film initially tanked, but its nonstop action and offbeat sense of humor has since made it a cult classic.
“Even when a script is very cliché, you try to find a real person in there. That’s why Lo Pan became an iconic character. He had heart and soul. All he wanted was a girlfriend. I put that aspect into the role.”
The Season 2 episode “The Chinese Restaurant” is considered the sitcom’s first genuine classic. Hong plays the unflappable head waiter who keeps promising the gang a table. It’s a masterful deadpan performance.
“You might call that a cliché role — the maître d’ — but I think the audience saw that I brought my craftsmanship. Whatever so-called type of comedy ‘Seinfeld’ had, I blended into that. It didn’t really make sense, but for some reason it really worked.”
‘Kung Fu Panda’ (2008)
It’s the franchise that keeps on giving. This animated film has spawned two sequels and a pair of TV series, as well as numerous video games and shorts. Hong’s character, the panda’s father, Mr. Ping, has appeared in almost all of them.
“That role finally got me an Emmy nomination. I just love that character. He made love for the panda real. That’s hard to do in animation. A lot of people who have adopted children or were adopted themselves tell me they really identify with that character.”