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'Hangover II' Star Ken Jeong Becomes a Billion-Dollar Star

Ken Jeong
Warner Brothers

Doctor-turned-actor Ken Jeong is the breakout comedy star of 2011, and among the most unlikely stars ever.

“The times, they are a-changin’,” says Ken Jeong, the unlikely star whose movies Transformers: Dark of the Moon and The Hangover Part II collectively broke the billion-dollar mark this week in global grosses. His new comedy Zookeeper is expected to add another $20 million domestically when it opens this weekend.

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Times sure are changing for Jeong, a shortish, roundish 41-year-old doctor who moonlighted at standup comedy clubs and first won fame as the angry gangster Mr. Chow, who pops out of a car trunk in the first Hangover film in 2009 and returned in the sequel.

“Ken is one of the most fearless comic actors I’ve ever worked with,” Hangover director Todd Phillips tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s such a danger to him. Anything can happen when you see him in a movie, and audiences feel that. I’d envisioned Mr. Chow as an older character, but I saw a YouTube video Ken made and said, 'We’ve got to see this guy.' In the script, we had him in slacks with no shoes or shirt. Ken said, ‘Y’know, maybe it would be funny if I did it naked.’ We slipped a nudity waiver under his door, ‘cause we were shooting it the next day. Ken will do anything. It’s one of the all-time great comic entrances.”

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“Leaping from the trunk was his chest-burster moment,” says Roger Ebert’s Movie on Demand blogger Jeff Shannon, referring to the monster that shockingly bursts through a man’s chest in Alien. “Nobody saw it coming.”

Now you see Jeong everywhere – hosting the Billboard Music Awards, collecting the Breakout Comedy Star of the Year award at the July 29 Just for Laughs comedy conference and playing the mad Spanish teacher Senor Chang on NBC’s Community, whose third season begins in September. “I never thought Mr. Chow would be someone we’d bring back in a sequel,” says Phillips. “I’m not sure we’re gonna make Hangover 3, but if there was one he would absolutely be in it.”

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“He’s blowing the lid off of politically correct politeness,” says Shannon. “He’s also doing comedy that has nothing to do with his ethnicity [Korean-American].” Says Phillips, “He likes to play with comedy stereotypes. There’s a funny outtake in Hangover II when he says, ‘Alan [Zach Galifianakis], you’re using the chopsticks all wrong, it’s offensive to Chinese people!’ In Hangover, when Alan falls out of the car, Ken did a totally improvised line, ‘Ah, ha! It’s funny, because you’re fat!’ It wouldn’t have been funny if Bradley [Cooper] said it, but it’s funny because he’s fat.”

Jeong, who played an irritable doctor in 2007’s Knocked Up, practiced as a real one on his dehydrated colleagues on Hangover II’s Bangkok set. “He was like an on-set medic,” says Phillips. Jeong also made an amusing video for the American Heart Association, showing how the disco hit “Stayin’ Alive” provides precisely the right 100-beat-a-minute tempo to perform CPR and save heart-attack victims’ lives. “Another One Bites the Dust” will work, too.

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Jeong’s career isn’t about to bite the dust – in fact, he can’t escape his newfound fame. “There’s always someone yelling out a Chowism,” he told Conan O’Brien. “A middle-aged man in a convertible is staring at me deadpan. I’m at an ATM. He goes, ‘Toodle-oo!” But with one sci-fi smash, a buddy comedy, a family comedy, and a cult TV show going, we won’t be saying “Toodle-oo” to Ken Jeong anytime soon.