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With 700-plus acting credits (and still counting), James Hong, 93, is literally a living Hollywood legend, and the fitting Icon Award recipient for the Critics Choice Association’s inaugural Celebration of Asian Pacific Cinema and Television on Nov. 4 in L.A. After a day recording for Kung Fu Panda 4 — where, as Po’s dad, he is the only actor heard in every feature and TV series in the franchise — he spoke to THR about the legacy of his career.
How do you manage your energy and stamina in order to stay so active professionally?
Thank goodness my mother fed me those herbs from her village in China when I was so small in Minneapolis! And my father was a member of the local Hip Sing Tong chapter, looking after the welfare of all the Chinese Americans in the Midwest. So my mother came from a village and raised seven kids, and my father was outgoing and fought for the rights of Chinese Americans, and those genes combined into making up James Hong. (Laughs.)
What types of roles were available to you earlier in your career?
Jamie Lee Curtis, who’s a very good friend of mine, asked me that same question. I’d started to name my first movies, like [1955’s] Soldier of Fortune with Clark Gable and Blood Alley with John Wayne, and she said, “James, were you relegated to sinister characters in all those movies?” I would have to say possibly 70 percent of the early roles were villains. But the fact that I played an evil guy and also a doctor or the eyeball maker in Blade Runner gives you an idea of the range of roles I could play to accumulate almost 500 credits.
Do you know exactly how many acting credits you have?
I was surprised when Daniel Dae Kim — he got me the funds for my star on the Walk of Fame — researched, and I think he said it was over 700. I imagine that includes voiceovers because in film and TV, I have close to 500 on IMDb. The thing is, those credits are mostly different roles. In other words, it’s not like I got a series and 40 of them are of the same character. I’m trying to get in Guinness [World Records] as the actor with the most [guest] features in television.
In fact, on Kung Fu, the early one with David Carradine, I played probably eight different characters, and then in the sequel [The Legend Continues], I played another one. One day I stepped on the set to visit David, and the makeup quickly came up to me and touched up my skin and hair. I said, “Gee, I’m just visiting!”
What makes you say yes to a project?
I have to know who’s in it and that it’s not slandering any minority groups. That’s the most important thing: that there are good people behind it, whether it’s the stars or producers or directors. Look at Everything Everywhere All at Once. That came to me, and I said, “Boy, this is some project.” Although I must admit to you, upon reading the script, I couldn’t understand it. (Laughs.)
With all the work you’ve done, was there anything on that film that was a new experience for you?
It was an old, Chinese-language role, so that was a little tough because when I was a child I spoke [the southern Chinese dialect] Taishanese, but they wanted me to speak Cantonese. I know some Mandarin because I’ve been to China and taken classes, and I did one speech so beautifully, and afterward Michelle Yeoh said, “That’s Mandarin!” So I had to go back and redo it in Cantonese.
Do you see the past few years as a real sea change for Asian Americans in Hollywood?
I came out here in the summer of 1953 with my comedy partner, Don Parker — Hong and Parker, we called ourselves — and we were going to hit it big. We didn’t get any gigs. They didn’t know what an Asian and a half-Indian in a comedy show did. That was the problem in those days. They said “Get out,” in so many words. Now I look at the list of honorees for this celebration, and I’m flabbergasted. The innovators, the creators — like Daniel Dae Kim, Janet Yang, Ang Lee — will drive this forward. My efforts, like starting [the Asian American theater group] East West Players, will be carried on by these new people. When I was a kid, [1937’s] The Good Earth was played by Caucasian leads that taped their eyes up. [My career’s] been 70 years. I won’t live another 70, but you can’t stop artistry. Artistry will always find its way.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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