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This story first appeared in the March 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Even the last leg of the unlikely journey that took Sophia Ngor Demetri and her uncle, Haing Ngor, from massacre-ravaged Cambodia to the red carpet at the 1985 Academy Awards had a dramatic twist. Their limousine got snarled in traffic, and they weren’t in their seats when Linda Hunt introduced the best supporting actor nominees. Ngor rushed down the aisle of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion just in time to accept his award. (Demetri wound up seated next to Prince.) Ngor gave an acceptance speech thanking casting director Pat Golden, Warner Bros. and Buddha. Later that night, he gave the Oscar to his niece, telling her: “This is for you. I did this for you.”
This being their entire shared ordeal, which began in 1979, when Ngor and his orphaned niece, then 10, fled their Khmer Rouge captors and made a hazardous escape, dodging land mines and eating rats for food, to a Thai refugee camp on foot (sometimes with Demetri on her uncle’s shoulders) and eventually to the U.S. Four years later, Golden, who was on a nationwide search for a Cambodian man to portray real-life journalist Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, discovered Ngor at a wedding in Long Beach, Calif. “He had an innate gift for acting,” says Golden.
The former surgeon had to be persuaded to take the role, which required him to leave Sophia with a guardian while he shot on location in Thailand. There, Ngor revisited past traumas, such as when he had to watch his wife die in childbirth at a camp (exposing himself as a doctor would have gotten them both executed). Ngor wasn’t afraid to channel that pain: “He was very brave,” says the film’s director, Roland Joffe. “Acting means you have to give of your soul, and he did that.”
Ngor, who continued to act and appeared in more than a dozen movies and TV shows over the next decade, regularly “borrowed” the statuette for speaking engagements and return trips to Cambodia, spreading awareness about and delivering aid to a country that lost approximately 2 million lives under the communist Khmer Rouge regime. The local and overseas Cambodian community nearly unanimously believes that Ngor’s outspoken advocacy is why he was fatally shot at the age of 55 outside his Chinatown apartment in downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 25, 1996. But investigators did not uncover evidence of a political hit, and three local gang members eventually were convicted of murder in a robbery gone awry — according to the prosecution, Ngor resisted surrendering his prized possession, a locket bearing his only photo of his late wife. “I want to believe that our judicial system worked,” says Ngor’s best friend, Jack Ong, the executive director of his namesake foundation. “That way it’s easier to move on.”
Demetri, now 46, finds it too painful to dwell on the case. “He’s all I had — he was both my parents, my uncle and my friend. When he was killed, they took four people away from me,” she says. Ngor’s Oscar usually is draped with a black cloth in her living room (to thwart potential burglary), and over the past 20 years, she has been hesitant to give interviews. “But then I thought, I have to be strong. He used his fame to educate people, and today, every time people see his Oscar, they ask me about Cambodia, and then his legacy goes on,” says Demetri now, uncovering the statuette and taking it out of its display case. “Maybe that’s the reason he won an Oscar in his first time acting. He had his mission to fulfill.”
Ngor (left, with Sam Waterston) remains the only Asian man to win an Oscar for a supporting performance.
Additional reporting by Ashley Lee
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