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Cambodian Star of ‘Killing Fields’ Shot to Death in L.A.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Academy Award-winning actor Haing S. Ngor--who survived the savage horrors of the Khmer Rouge before starring in “The Killing Fields,” a movie about the brutality in his native Cambodia--was found shot to death outside his apartment near Dodger Stadium, police said Monday.

The motive for the shooting was unknown, detectives said. But the victim’s cousin, Pich S. Dom, guessed that it might be revenge by the Khmer Rouge while neighbors thought that Ngor probably died during a robbery.

Investigators said the 55-year-old actor apparently was shot in the torso about 8:30 p.m. Sunday as he got out of his car, which was parked in the carport of his two-bedroom apartment in an aging building in the 900 block of North Beaudry Avenue. No suspects were identified and none was in custody, said Lt. Al Moen of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Robbery/Homicide Division.

Director Oliver Stone, who gave Ngor a role in the 1993 film, “Heaven and Earth,” recalled the actor Monday as “a man of great strength and courage” who seemed “always ready to meet his death.”

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Stone said the actor--who donated much of his income and time to humanitarian causes--had devoted his life to the Cambodian people, with whom he suffered in Pol Pot’s killing fields.

“For him to be killed so senselessly--whatever the motive--shows us that violence is no less a threat in the streets of our own cities than it was in Cambodia,” Stone said.

Ly Thuch, a spokesman for Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the Cambodian prime minister, said: “All of Cambodia is shocked at the news.”

Thirteen years ago, Ngor was plucked from obscurity as a $400-a-month counselor at the Chinatown Service Center and given a leading role in “The Killing Fields,” a movie whose graphic depiction of life under the Khmer Rouge showed Americans the grim reality of the Cambodian holocaust that claimed more than 1 million lives.

The film was based on the memoirs of New York Times reporter Sidney Schanberg, played by veteran actor Sam Waterston.

Ngor, who played Schanberg’s translator and photographer, Dith Pran, won an Oscar as the best supporting actor in 1984. Ngor was the first nonprofessional in more than 30 years to win an Academy Award for acting.

The “Killing Fields” depicts the collapse of Cambodia in 1975, the torture of Pran by Khmer Rouge revolutionaries who seized the nation, and Pran’s eventual escape to Thailand--events terrifyingly similar to those of Ngor’s own life.

According to his highly successful autobiography--"Haing Ngor, a Cambodian Odyssey"--Ngor was a physician who divided his time between military hospitals and a lucrative private practice before the fall of Phnom Penh. A chauffeured Mercedes ferried him to and from work, and his evenings were spent at fashionable French bistros.

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All that ended abruptly in 1975, when the victorious Khmer Rouge drove Phnom Penh’s citizens from the city. Tens of thousands fled in terror, among them Ngor, who left a patient dying on an operating table.

The young doctor and his family resettled in a small village, where they were treated as “war slaves"--chattel to be used, or abused, at the whim of Angka, the dreaded new “organization on high.”

Doctors were among the educated professionals singled out by the Khmer Rouge for execution, and Ngor survived by pretending to be an ignorant taxi driver. He said he was forced to stand by, silent, as Khmer Rouge medics mistakenly injected a young patient with drugs that he knew would prove fatal.

Caught scavenging for wild roots to supplement his family’s officially sanctioned diet of rice gruel, Ngor was sentenced to prison. There he watched as women were tortured and killed.

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“Never had I seen deliberate killings before, carried out by professionals, in front of terrified spectators who knew that their own turns to die would come soon,” he wrote.

Ngor’s turn came later, when he was crucified, burned and deprived of food and water for four days. But somehow he survived, only to be returned to a miserable existence as a fieldworker.

Although his father, his wife and several other members of his family died, he escaped to Thailand, eventually reaching the United States and his new life as a counselor in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1980.

“He was very dedicated and very much concerned in the community,” said Deborah Ching, the Chinatown Service Center’s executive director.

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Three years later, Ngor rocketed to stardom in “The Killing Fields,” but his success did not go to his head. “He seemed to be very levelheaded about it,” Ching said. “He saw an opportunity but was clear about what he wanted to do: help other people. What he was concerned about was health services, medical services for refugees.”

In recent years, Ngor spent much of his time and income supporting international refugee groups. He was instrumental in the formation of two refugee organizations--the Brussels-based Aid for Displaced Persons and the Paris-based Enfants D’Angkor--and he helped launch and sustain relief funds for flood victims and to purchase hospital supplies.

While spending much of his time in Cambodia, he also was active in the local Cambodian community in Long Beach.

“People will be saddened,” said Sovann Tith, director of the United Cambodian Center in Long Beach. “That movie made people aware of what went on in Cambodia.”

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Ngor donated most of his royalties from “The Killing Fields,” along with earnings from a subsequent film, “The Iron Triangle,” and fees from the lecture circuit, to the Cambodian cause.

His other film credits include “Vietnam Texas,” “Ambition,” and “My Life.” His television work included roles on “Miami Vice,” “China Beach,” “Highway to Heaven” and “The Vanishing Son.”

Police said they learned of Ngor’s shooting Sunday night from an anonymous phone call. They said that when officers arrived about 15 minutes later, they found Ngor lying in a pool of blood. Neighbors said they had heard three shots.

“We’ve gotten lots of calls from friends and acquaintances,” Lt. Moen said, including one from Roland Joffe, director of “The Killing Fields.”

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Hailing Ngor as a “brave and passionate” man, Joffe issued a statement Monday expressing hope that “the shocking arbitrariness of his death doesn’t overshadow our sense of the sweetness of humanity that Haing brought to all those around him.”

On Monday, bouquets of flowers, bundles of incense sticks and packets of paper (which in the Asian community represent money for the afterlife), were stacked neatly beside Ngor’s carport.

There also was a multicolored wreath of carnations. In its center was a photograph of a smiling Ngor holding his Oscar.

Times staff writer Jeff Leeds and Times wire services contributed to this story.

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