Politics & Policy

Ode to The Asian-American Type-Cast Actor


Washington is awash with the white stuff. No, not the party favors at Jimmy Caan’s old pool parties “white stuff,” the winter-wonderland variety. This is great news for me. Normally, when I spend all day around the house listening to my belt strain, I feel guilty. But today I’m snowed in like a normal citizen. Very exciting.

Here in Washington everything is ideological. The free-market guys are whining about lost productivity. The good-government types are bemoaning all the good that is not being done by our servants in Washington. My conservative buddies are knocking back a few tall cold ones over the fact that, at least for a day, government isn’t getting a lot of “good” done, and instead the government is following our “don’t just do something, sit there” credo. There are probably others who interpret the snow through political prisms I’m unfamiliar with. For example, I’m sure there are some record-store clerk-anarchists who think the whole world would be one giant snow day with no government at all, but metallic nose-ring poisoning will get ya every time. But the question is, what should I do with my snow day? Yesterday was a work day and I spent it seeing how many grapes I could fit in my mouth at one time, so I feel like I should do something productive. What to do, what to do? I could continue working on my designs for a new starship for the Star Trek spin-off series I’ve been writing in Latin. No, that’s recreation. Design my own Dungeons and Dragons’ style game about the Washington? “I am a level twelve spinmeister, with high verbal dexterity and the ability to tell nine lies per minute.” Naw. Something involving watching a vast amount of television would be perfect.

I know.

My project today is to master the Asian-American type-cast-actor film and television oeuvre. As many of you have no doubt observed, there were only 14 Asian actors in America in the 1970s and 1980s. There were: the guy from Barney Miller, Lieutenant Sulu, Arnold from Happy Days, the Wizard from Conan the Barbarian, Endo-the-Interrogator from Lethal Weapon, and a handful of others, who you no doubt would recognize but couldn’t name to save your life. I’m listing them by their roles, not to be disrespectful or because I don’t know their names (they are respectively: Jack Soo, George Takai, Pat Morita, Mako, Al Leong), but because that is how most of us remember them.

Indeed Asian actors were (and continue to be) so rare on TV and in the movies they really stand out. Take “Endo the Interrogator,” played by Al Leong. Mr. Leong is the long-haired-but-bald Chinese henchman from every movie you’ve ever seen which called for a long-haired-but-bald henchman. Some of his credits include: Uli, the long-haired-but-bald henchman in Die Hard; he played the aptly named Long Hair in Steele Justice; he was the (uncredited) long-haired-but-bald gunman in The Replacement Killers; a member of the fishing-boat crew in the 1998 remake of Godzilla; Chinese gunman #9 in Army of One; Wing Kong, the Chinese Hatchet Man, in Big Trouble in Little China (how the academy overlooked him that year, I’ll never know); and, of course, Genghis Khan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Pat Morita (Arnold from Happy Days and Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid fame) has been in everything, including, of course, The Odd Couple. Jack Soo, who played Woo in Barney Miller and Col. Kai in The Green Berets, was always in demand. And of course Mako is an accomplished actor with many impressive credits.

Perhaps the best illustration of how few Asian actors there were in the ’70s and ’80s was the fact that almost all of them were on M*A*S*H at least once (except, I think for George Takei). Some of them, like Mako, appeared, what, like a dozen times? Did the producers think we wouldn’t notice that this guy had been a South Korean peasant last year but this year he’s a North Korean major?

But don’t blame the producers of M*A*S*H too much. After all, they didn’t have the good sense to get rid of Alan Alda after the sixth season or to keep Wayne Rogers (Trapper John). And on the Asian actor thing, what choice did they have? They at least cast Asian actors. The TV series Kung Fu was created by Bruce Lee and the network believed Americans couldn’t handle an Asian in the lead role of a TV series (Lee had been the sidekick in the short-lived Green Hornet series). So, they betrayed Bruce Lee and gave the role to David Carradine, whose only qualifications were a modicum of martial-arts experience and squinty eyes.

In Hawaii Five-O, Ricardo Montalban was actually cast as a Japanese gangster, presumably because he already had an accent — so what’s the difference? They just scotch-taped back his eyes a little bit and put him in a silk robe. Back then we didn’t know anything about Asian actors and we just didn’t care. It’s a wonder that the producers of Hawaii Five-O even bothered to give their one recurring Asian character a different name than the actor who played him on TV. I must confess, to this day I get a kick every time I see those credits:

Also Starring:

Kam Fong as

Chin Ho.


Twice in the last two weeks I’ve been asked to go on television shows and be prepared to talk about foreign policy. And, twice, we never got around to actually talking about it. But I’m not going to let the work go to waste. Because, as the above column demonstrates all too well, work, for me, is work. Hell, I even called people who know what they’re talking about and everything. I think they’re called “sources.” So be prepared for more stuff-in-other-countries talk from me.

In that spirit I would like to point out that the administration’s current defense about nuclear espionage is remarkably disingenuous. There are two alternative mantras from the White House and Al Gore: “It was under Reagan’s watch,” or “It was under Bush’s watch.” This is playground stuff — “He did it, he did it!” Sure, we now know that bad things happened while Republicans were at the helm. But, at some point you stop worrying about who was at the wheel when you hit the iceberg and you start worrying about a captain who sails blithely along with a big hole in the hull. The administration knew for a long time that the Chinese were stealing nuclear secrets. They didn’t do anything because the president’s polls and Al Gore’s election will always come before that inconvenient thing called the national interest.


Some of you might recall that I have strong feelings about dogs. Well, I’d like to call your attention to a piece I did in the current issue of Slate magazine called “Mau-Mauing the Dogcatchers”. They linked to my column, so the least I can do is link to their magazine.


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