James Hong reflects on 70-year career, from white actors in yellowface to unfilmed 'Blade Runner' scene to Oscar-dominating 'Everything Everywhere'
At 94 years young, the "Kung Fu Panda" star has appeared in more than 700 movies and TV shows.
Everything Everywhere All at Once wasn’t just a boon to beloved actors Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis, who all won Oscars Sunday night.
The film’s ubiquitousness in recent months during Hollywood’s long-running awards season also reminded the multiverse what extraordinary contributions 94-year-old co-star James Hong, who plays Yeoh’s father, Gong Gong, has brought to film and television over a remarkable 70-year career.
When the Everything Everywhere cast won Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild, their acceptance speech turned into a veritable tribute to Hong. The veteran Chinese-American actor, meanwhile, used the moment to condemn the social climate during the early days of his professional life when white actors used yellowface and taped their eyes back to play Asian characters.
Jimmy Kimmel also gave Hong his due during Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony (the first Hong has attended), while also providing a roasty mini-bio: “James is a legend,” the host said. “James has been in more than 650 movies and TV shows. He didn’t even start acting professionally until he was 25. He was a civil engineer who helped design the road system here in Los Angeles. So James, allow me to say, you’re one of our great living actors, and one of our worst civil engineers. The roads are unconscionable.”
Truth of the matter is no one knows exactly how many projects the actor, comedian, martial arts pro and impression master has done. You’ll find conflicting counts online — 500, 600, 700. "He's probably been in more movies than any actor in history,” CNN once noted.
“Daniel Dae Kim did some research and came up with a figure of over 700, which included some voiceovers I’ve done,” Hong tells us, referencing the Lost and Hawaii Five-0 actor who successfully lobbied for Hong to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in May 2022.
In a new Role Recall interview with Yahoo Entertainment, the Minnesota native walked through some of the most significant of his 700-plus credits, from his inexplicable and painful firing on The Adventures of Charlie Chan to the amazing scene they never filmed in Blade Runner to tickling Kim Cattrall in Big Trouble in Little China to being the only actor in every installment of the Kung Fu Panda franchise. And no, he’s not slowing down any time soon. Hong will soon be seen in the throwback fantasy-adventure Patsy Lee and the Keepers of the Five Kingdoms (which he also co-wrote and produced), and heard in the animated projects Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai and Kung Fu Panda 4.
On transitioning from civil engineering to acting and making his first film appearance in the 1955 Clark Gable film Soldier of Fortune:
“I started as a civil engineer, cause I graduated from USC as such. So I designed roads for the county, and took acting jobs on the side. That summer I came out to Hollywood in 1953, I got onto the Groucho Marx show You Bet Your Life. I did some impersonations and Groucho asked me to do him. [I did, and] it got the second biggest amount of fan mail ever for the show. So that attracted some attention. I transferred all my credits from the University of Minnesota here to USC and graduated as a civil engineer. So that was the beginning of my career.
“Then I got Soldier of Fortune right away. My agent got me jobs immediately. I averaged about 10 a year in those early days. Soldier of Fortune, I wasn't on camera with Clark Gable. I was a [Chinese policeman], doing my thing as an actor. [I didn’t meet] Clark Gable. He had just returned from some kind of hiatus, so was always in his dressing room… But that is my first credit, then John Wayne’s Blood Alley. Then Love Is a Splendid Thing with [William] Holden. That got me going very well.”
On still having no idea why he was fired by J. Carrol Naish after playing his son for 36 episodes on The New Adventures of Charlie Chan (1957-1958):
“I had a good time in London. I was a son [Barry]. ‘Um gee, where's pop? What's going on?’ I did fairly well… J. Carroll Naish was the [dad]. He taped up his eyes with these eye pieces [to make himself look Asian]. And I was horrified that they couldn't find a Chinese actor like Keye Luke. He was very good at that time. He would've played a wonderful Charlie Chan [wouldn’t have had to alter his face] because he is Chinese. J. Carrol Naish had those horrible eye pieces that made his eyes slant and every day had to glue those on with acetone and glue. And that hurt him a lot. And he was very irritated because he couldn't move his face. The minute he moved too much, the camera could see that hole between his eyelids. He couldn't blink.
“So when he got real aggravated, he just had me fired. I could not believe what was happening. I didn't do anything wrong. I went to his dressing room, I said, ‘Sir, Mr. Naish, I'm sorry if I did anything, if I missed a line.’ He didn't say anything. He just told the producer, ‘It's either him or me.’ So they fire me. It hurts even now to think about it, because it took me about five years to recover from that. It's just not one of those pleasant things… After The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, things began to get better and I started to recover. So I formed [the first Asian American theater company] East West Players with Mako Iwamatsu, because [there weren’t any roles for us that were] non-cliché. You know, maybe two doctor parts, and that's about it. The rest of all those hundreds of roles were all railroad workers, coolies and villains. A lot of villains. And store owners.”
On playing Khan, butler to Faye Dunaway, and working with Jack Nicholson on Chinatown (1974), and again in its lesser-celebrated sequel The Two Jakes (1990):
“On Chinatown, at least everybody played what they are, what roles fit them the best. And Jack Nicholson did a great job. And Faye Dunaway should have won the Academy Award that year. [Dunaway was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.] She was just super. I always looked at Jack Nicholson as a model for acting. 'Cause to me, he's that good of an actor. And to be opposite him was something of a dream came true… I idolized him. I always looked and studied why he's doing what he's doing and so forth. Obviously, he and I got along very well because he hired me for the sequel, The Two Jakes [which Nicholson directed]. He always shows that scene where I'm in the garden talking to him about the plants and what went past and so forth. So he definitely liked what I did for The Two Jakes. And I thought he was very good as a director, too. But unfortunately, The Two Jakes was not as popular as Chinatown.”
On his memorable scene as synthetic eye maker Hannibal Chew in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-classic Blade Runner, and the death scene they scrapped from the movie:
“That was a great role. There was going to be more to it, but they didn't have the time. Again I learned so much from the director Ridley Scott. Everything he did had that genius touch… I was struck by that beautiful set. They didn't have digitized sets in those days. They built them… The sets were awesome. Awesome. And my costume, remember, it was very stiffened. [It was] raw hide. I think they just took it from some cow or something, and the stiffness, heck it. [I could] hardly move in it… At that time, I thought they were kind of crazy to give me that costume. But when I see it on the screen and what he was after, again, you can see the genius of the director, what he had in mind, to be able to take a simple thing like a cow hide and make it Chew’s costume… I thought of the idea that I should treat these eyeballs as my children… He's been in that laboratory for weeks, months, perfecting eyes, giving those eyeballs a birth. They were his children… He was happy making those eyeballs.
“And there were more scenes to follow, which they had to cut out because they didn't have the time or were running over the budget… After they ripped my coat off, that cow and whatnot, I was freezing. And so then the next scene after that, the cops come to the refrigerator to investigate, and they see that Chew was frozen [to death]. And one of the cops in the party happened to bump against me, poor Chew, frozen [stiff], and the scene was written that Chew just falls over and [shatters] into pieces of ice. It was a great scene, but they had to cut it. So I was sorry that they had to do that.”
Never heard this before: James Hong tells me that there was originally going to be a second scene with Hannibal Chew in #BladeRunner where he's found frozen to death, accidentally bumped into by one of the investigating cops, and crashes to the ground, shattering into pieces. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/b94wFlZ2T4
— Kevin Polowy (@djkevlar) March 14, 2023
On playing the ‘good evil man’ David Lo Pan in John Carpenter’s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China (1986):
“That was more or less the turning point of my career. From that, it went up further and further. However, as you can see, there weren’t any big roles that followed that big show. Even though I was recognized as a good actor able to do any role… I created that character of Lo Pan and put all of my emotion and dreams in back of it. It became a person. I always tried to make my so-called villains a real person with real feelings. And in essence, Lo Pan just wanted a girlfriend [laughs]. He wanted somebody to marry and and love. So I think that's what the audience sees in Lo Pan… He's a good evil man, because all he wanted was love. As you can see in the movie, he really didn't kill anybody. All he wanted to do was tickle Kim Cattrall on the chin. That was something I just adlibbed in there. It's not in this script. So it's just me, James Hong as Lo Pan, loving that girl with the green eyes, with all my heart, because [quoting film], ‘two girls with the green eyes, what am I to do?’
“They didn't make a sequel. I don’t know why.”
On the popular sequel he did make, Wayne’s World 2 (1993), and kung fu fighting with Mike Myers:
“I started the first kung-fu studio in L.A., and maybe even the United States. I lent some money to a friend who was a master from San Francisco, and we opened a dojo, a kung fu studio, down there by Western Avenue [in Hollywood]. And he taught me a lot [shows off some kung-fu moves to camera]. And I can still move like that, thank goodness.
“Mike loved that scene so much, and it was good. We carried it off beautifully… [When] my double flew across the room, the director says, ‘OK, you just stand there.’ I said, ‘No, I don't want to stand there.’ I've been through these fight scenes before. ‘Sir, would you kind of just put a small platform out of camera next to me?’ So I used one of the tricks I learned. I stood on that platform, which was about oh, four feet high. And then when they say ‘Action!,’ I jumped off of the platform and landed right there. And it worked. When that guy flies over and he drops, then that's me, right? So you can't just stand there. When you put the two scenes together of the [stunt] double doing something, and you do the rest of the action, to make it overlap, it looks so much better.”
On how he originally missed out on the Kung Fu Panda series (2008-present) before taking on the voice of goose restauranteur Mr. Ping:
“In Minneapolis, when I was a young, I used to do all these impersonations in front of a mirror because there were no audience for my comedy. So when I came to Hollywood, I did the same old things and I got paid for it [laughs]. So that was quite a reward.
I was in the original Kung Fu feature number one. And from that moment on, I've done two, three and now comes number four, and all the voices for the TV series, about four of those. So I'm the only voice that has continued from the first moment on through what is now still going on.
“I was very happy that that voice became so popular and the character became so popular because I wasn't scheduled to be in that movie at all. I had auditioned for Shifu, that little weasel guy… Then one day they called me up and my agent says, ‘I'm sorry, James. They changed their mind. They changed the direction. You don't get that role.’ So I had to forget it. [Dustin Hoffman was cast instead.] And then they called me back and the director said, ‘There's one role. I don't know if you wanna do it, James, but it's yours.’ So I went to it blind and created Mr. Ping, and it became the much better character for me than the original one that was offered. Mr. Ping’s alive forever.”
On telling Jimmy Kimmel he didn’t know what Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) was about — and how the film represents how far Asian and Asian Americans have come in Hollywood:
“Well, it's deeper than that. You shouldn't really know what the film is about because you have to experience that film. It's not a so-called story film, where you just go in and see a movie. You have to sit there and let yourself go and let yourself be in the mood of the two Daniels directors. Because in essence, they didn't just write a movie. They experienced the movie before they even started the first frame. Somehow I can feel that the two directors had this mood, these nightmares or whatever, and added these feelings into the movie. And doing so they did a grand job because you can feel what they feel and that is so important. I think that's what the audience feels, they experience the emotions of Michelle Yeoh’s character and the rest of the people. And so I think it's almost like a new wave of making movies, to make you experience, almost like an abstract vision. And you can share the vision in the movie. It's not just a pictorial movie. It's an experience movie. And I'm so glad to be in it, because to me, this is the future of a lot of the movies up and coming. You have to see you what the director and the creators and the characters [experience].
“[With the East West Players] I started a movement and it just grew because there was a need. Now, we’re going to SAG awards, we’re going to the Oscars, and a lot of Asians, they're winning awards… There are colleagues out there who now support us, and [Asian] producers and directors who are creating works that are very prominent. We’re not just those railroad workers and people being rescued by the white guys all the time. In Everything Everywhere All at Once, we are the heroes.”