He spoke in Mandarin with Keanu Reeves in “The day the earth stopped.” He came out of a fight in “Wayne’s World 2”. He was the supporter and noodle lover Mr. Ping in “Kung Fu Panda”. On television, he was the episode master of “Seinfeld” entitled “The Chinese restaurant”.
Without exaggerating, Hong may be the most prolific actor in Hollywood history. With more than 600 credits in his name, he can claim the most credits of any actor, dead or alive.
Hong’s path to stardom began, as many do, like a child practicing in front of a mirror. But he kept his acting aspirations from his parents.
“Well, you know, Chinese parents want you to do some professional work rather than being an actor,”
However, he received some of his favorite inspirations from acting from his father’s herbal shop in Minnesota.
“All the laundry rooms in Minneapolis had nothing to do on the weekends, so they would gather in my father’s shop, in the herbal shop,” recalls Hong. “I remember, because we would have those little wooden stools and they all gathered there, and they hired these Chinese opera people from San Francisco to come and do their things … I was just a kid. 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 on the streets of Los Angeles County, he continued to look for work as an actor and comedian.
His big break came in a TV show called “You Bet Your Life”, hosted by Groucho Marx.
“I made imitations of Groucho, James Cagney and so on,” said Hong.
His appearance was a success. “I received the second biggest fan mail ever on the Groucho Marx show,” he said.
That television appearance made him an agent and, with it, the beginning of a career in Hollywood.
“Suddenly, they wanted you to be in a movie,” Hong said. That movie was “Soldier of Fortune”, a 1955 movie with Clark Gable.
“It was just a kind of experience that I never forgot to play with Clark Gable. Then, immediately afterwards, I got my union card and started one after the other. I had to abandon civil engineering,” he said Hong.
Soon, he starred alongside the likes of John Wayne, William Holden and Jennifer Jones.
Along the way, Hong fought stereotypes
“From that moment on, there were 10 movies or TV [shows] a year, “recalls Hong. Those early roles, however, were limiting, to say the least.
“Asians have been put into a movie or TV mainly as a trick,” Hong said. “We never thought of playing the main roles, the main people. It’s like that.”
Hong began his career during an era of flagrant yellow face in Hollywood, where white actors routinely played Asian characters. Marlon Brando played an Okinawan club in “The August Moon Teahouse”, Mickey Rooney played Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, and John Wayne played the Mongolian emperor Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror “.
Also in “Charlie Chan’s New Adventures” – a detective TV series in which Hong played a minor role – Irish American actor J. Carrol Naish starred as a Chinese American detective.
“Any other film that required an Asian role most of the time was played by Caucasian actors with fixed eyes and small teeth,” said Hong. “I ended up at the beginning of my career mainly playing laundry or persecuting Chinese … it was difficult, very difficult, to get out of the mold.”
But Hong did not allow Hollywood’s narrow target to limit his skills.
“I did my best as an actor to get past the cliche because I had to keep working,” said Hong. “I took those roles and then I used what my teachers taught me and put real feelings, even if he’s a bad guy … I try to find what makes that person really that person.”
This does not mean that Hong also did not object to false statements. In 1962, he was given a script for a film called “The Confessions of an Opium Eater”, directed by Albert Zugsmith.
“I read the script, I said, ‘It’s terrible,” said Hong. “All the roles were opium-addicted people and prostitutes and so on.”
He organized a group of people to approach Zugsmith’s office to file a rewrite request.
“I said, ‘This isn’t a good image of the Chinese … You have to improve the image of the Asians here,” said Hong. Zugsmith, however, would not have been convinced and the film continued with production.
It led him to start 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. Together with actor Mako Iwamatsu, Hong helped organize an Asian American acting group in Los Angeles. Their first production was “Rashomon”, a theatrical show based on two short stories written by the Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and adapted in Akira Kurosawa’s film.
“This started the industry to notice who we were,” said Hong. “We weren’t just extras or gimmicks. We were in a theatrical show that we organized. We were the main people, protagonists. We were the actors. And we drew attention.”
That group of actors turned into the legendary theater group, East West Players.
“East West players were formulated to show works by Asians, who wrote the comedy, who designed the stage, who acted in the comedy,” Hong said. “It was all done by Asian people, professionals.”
And Hong knows better than anyone else the importance of having a space for Asian American creatives in Hollywood, where roles are still missing.
“Even if actors and singers are talented, they can’t go on 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 as we want in mainstream movies and TV because it’s controlled by someone else.” But it is still certain that the change will come soon.
“Asians are starting to make their own shows and TV series and films and get big takings. So it’s just a matter of time.”
It helped usher in new generations of Asian American actors
East West Players has cultivated great talent in 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, 70% of Asian American actors in Hollywood are thought to have a connection with East West Players at some point.
“You know, seeing this thing grow as it is … I still can’t believe it,” said Hong of the theater company. “I must be proud of what I’ve done. But you can’t be too proud, because there is too much work to do.”
Even at 91, Hong is not ready to slow down soon.
“I could simply withdraw from my pension, my pension (Screen Actors Guild), and go to Europe, on tour and to India,” says Hong. “But something inside me, inside James Hong, wants to keep going and make more films and progress … I will make other films until I can walk and I can no longer speak. Then, I will do that tour.”
As of July 2020, Hong has 469 TV credits, 149 feature films, 32 short films and 22 video games on its IMDB page. That means a total of 672 credits and a breathtaking legacy that will live in Hollywood history.