James Hong is the Asian Hollywood Legend With Almost 500 Acting Roles

james hong

With hundreds of movie and television credits under his name, it is long overdue that James Hong gets recognized as a true Hollywood legend.

We’ve seen him somewhere/everywhere: The 91-year-old thespian has played a variety of Asian roles on the small and big screen since the 1950s but has largely remained an “unknown” to the viewers who have seen his work.

  • Hong has appeared in hit TV shows (“Seinfeld,” “The Big Bang Theory”), classic movies (“Chinatown,” “Airplane,” “Blade Runner”) and animated favorites (“Kung Fu Panda,” “Mulan” (1998)).
  • Hong’s IMDB page lists 439 TV and movie acting credits, 32 short film acting credits, and 22 video game voice acting credits under his name, making him one of the most prolific actors working today.
  • In addition to acting, he has also contributed his talent in writing, producing and directing in other TV and film productions.
  • In his first few decades in the industry, Hong faced stereotypes, as Asians at the time were often cast as a side character, he told CNN in a recent interview.
  • “Asians were put into a movie or TV mainly as a gimmick,” he was quoted as saying. “We were never thought of playing the main roles, the leading people. That’s the way it was.”
  • White actors played lead Asian characters in yellowface, while Hong was left with “mostly playing laundrymen or persecuted Chinamen.”
  • While Hong admitted it was “very tough to get out of the mold,” he managed to overcome the cliché roles by injecting emotion and character to his roles no matter what it was. “I try to find what makes the person really that person,” he said. 

Starting young: Born in Minnesota to Chinese immigrants, Hong grew up with an early fascination with acting but mostly kept it from his parents as he believed that most Chinese parents would rather have their children pursue other professions.

  • As a child, he observed and took acting inspirations from Chinese opera actors performing in front of a small crowd gathered at his father’s herb shop.
  • Years later, Hong graduated with a civil engineering degree from the University of Southern California.
  • He eventually found work building roads for Los Angeles County, but he still tried to find work as an actor.
  • Hong landed his first big break as a guest on a TV show hosted by Groucho Marx called “You Bet Your Life” in which he impersonated Marx and other celebrities.
  • His appearance on the show was an instant hit, generating massive positive feedback from viewers.
  • A talent agent soon got in contact with him, and that paved the way for the start of his Hollywood career.
  • Hong’s movie was with Clark Gable in the 1955 film “Soldier of Fortune.” 

Paving the way for others: Hong would later start his own theater company in a bid to provide worthy roles for Asian Americans who wanted to act in Hollywood.

  • Hong and actor Mako Iwamatsu created Asian American acting group in Los Angeles. 
  • The group’s first stage play production “Rashomon,” which was based on Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short stories, soon caught the attention of the entertainment industry. 
  • “We weren’t just extras, or gimmick people. We were in a play that we organized. We were the main, lead people. We were the actors. And we commanded attention,” Hong noted. 
  • The group would later evolve into the East West Players, the legendary theater group known for opening the doors to generations of Asian American actors.
  • Over the 55 years of its existence, the group has been associated with actors such as George Takei, John Cho, Daniel Dae Kim and Randall Park among others.
  • Talking about the theater group, Hong said: “You know, seeing this thing grow as it is to what it is … I still can’t believe it. I have to be proud of what I’ve done. But you can’t be too proud, because there’s too much work to do.”

 

Hong’s latest project is A24 film’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” in which he stars alongside Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis.  The film is currently in production, according to Deadline.

Feature Image via Aeoli Pera (left), Getty (middle), What A Clip! (right)

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