In the early days of his acting career, when most roles offered to Asian American actors were caricatures or stereotypes, Mako took just such a part and used it to open the doors of Hollywood and Broadway to others.
In the 1966 film "The Sand Pebbles," he played the Chinese character Po-han, who spoke pidgin English, called the white sailors in the movie "master," and treated them as such. But through the power of his acting, Mako transformed Po-han and compelled the audience to empathize and identify with the engine-room "coolie."
The portrayal earned Mako an Academy Award nomination, which he used to continue his push for more and better roles for Asian American actors.
Mako, who in 1965 co-founded East West Players, the nation's first Asian American theater company, died Friday of esophageal cancer at his home in the Ventura County town of Somis. He was 72.
"What many people say is, 'If it wasn't for Mako there wouldn't have been Asian American theater,' " said Tim Dang, current artistic director of East West Players, based in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. "He is revered as sort of the godfather of Asian American theater."
In an acting career that spanned more than four decades, Mako was a familiar face in film and television. His TV roles included appearances on "McHale's Navy," "I Spy," "MASH," "Quincy," and "Walker, Texas Ranger." In films, he was a Japanese admiral in "Pearl Harbor" and a Singaporean in "Seven Years in Tibet." He was Akiro the wizard in "Conan the Barbarian" and "Conan the Destroyer" with now-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But Mako had a larger view of the possibilities for Asian American actors.
As artistic director of East West Players, Mako trained generations of actors and playwrights. He staged classics such as Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," Chekhov's "Three Sisters," and lesser-known contemporary works. He devoted the entire 1981 season to works pertaining to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The series coincided with the opening of a national discussion on internment reparations. It was a risky endeavor, but Mako said it was crucial.
"Mako, being one of the founders of East West Players 40 years ago, truly is the role model and the pioneer," said Tisa Chang, artistic producing director of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York. "He nurtured so many playwrights."
Though his own career was marked by moments of success, it was also forged by struggle.
"Generally for him it was particularly hard, because he was an immigrant.... There was the linguistic challenge," said George Takei, who played Sulu in "Star Trek." "But he recognized we needed more opportunities to practice our craft."
Mako was born Makoto Iwamatsu in Kobe, Japan, on Dec. 10, 1933. When he was 5, his parents left Japan to study art in New York. Mako stayed behind to be raised by his grandparents.
Because his parents lived on the East Coast, they were not interned during World War II. Instead they ended up working for the U.S. Office of War Information and were later granted residency. Mako joined them when he was 15.
He had a plan to become an architect and enrolled at the Pratt Institute in New York. But that plan changed when a friend asked him to design a set and do lighting for an off-Broadway children's play. Mako was hooked: "That's when the trouble began," he said. "I was out of class so much that I lost my draft deferment."
During his two years in the military, he traveled to Korea and Japan and re-immersed himself in Japanese culture. After his discharge, he moved to California and studied theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Mako married Shizuko Hoshi, a dancer, choreographer and actress. She survives him along with their daughters, Sala and Mimosa. Mako had been working primarily in television and on stage when he was cast as Po-han in "The Sand Pebbles." The movie, which starred Steve McQueen, told the story of a nonconformist sailor assigned to a U.S. gunboat patrolling China's Yangtze River in 1926. It was widely interpreted as a metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which brought filmmaker Robert Wise scorn from some quarters and praise from others. In one scene, Po-han dons boxing gloves to fight an American sailor to save the honor of a Chinese woman forced to work in a brothel. The sailor, who towers over his Chinese opponent, lands some crushing blows, but Po-han responds to knock the sailor to the floor and win the fight.
Po-han might have been a less noteworthy character in the film if not for Mako's acting abilities. Other actors played such parts and simply "did what they were told to do: giggle here, shuffle over there, bow and go out," Takei said. "He was one of the early truly trained actors who was able to take stock roles, roles seen many times before, and make an individual a live and vibrant character."
Mako used the prominence the Oscar nomination gave him to address the dearth of parts for Asian Americans in general. Unless a script specifically called for an Asian American, producers and casting directors rejected them for roles.
"Of course we've been fighting against stereotypes from Day One at East West," Mako said in a 1986 interview with The Times. "That's the reason we formed: to combat that, and to show we are capable of more than just fulfilling the stereotypes -- waiter, laundryman, gardener, martial artist, villain."
The company's mission soon expanded to include training writers. "Unless our story is told to [other] people, it's hard for them to understand where we are," Mako said.
Mako, the group's first artistic director, kept the theater afloat paying the company's bills. He also taught acting classes.
The troupe's first home was a basement in a Silver Lake church, secured by another co-founder, Beulah Quo. Later the group moved to a storefront on Santa Monica Boulevard. Since 1998 it has been housed in the historic Union Center for the Arts and performs in a 240-seat theater.
Despite the company's sometimes shaky financial footing in the early years, Mako maintained a high standard of professionalism.
"He could be very blunt, brutal almost, but only if he thought you had talent," said Alberto Isaac, a friend and director with East West Players. "He was gentler with the less-talented."
The East West Players also helped legitimize the performing arts as a viable profession in the Asian American community, said Takei, who helped with fundraising for the theater.
"In part the Asian American community still had the immigrant values of encouraging their children to go into medicine, law, engineering," Takei said. "They were not only not supporting their children who evidenced talent in performing arts, but outright discouraging them. Having the East West Players gave those youngsters an opportunity to practice their craft, but at the same time developed an audience that supported our performers."
A young David Henry Hwang, author of the play "M. Butterfly," attended East West rehearsals at the theater with his mother, who played piano for productions.
"That's how he got interested in theater," said Dang, East West Players' artistic director.
In 1976, Mako appeared in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Pacific Overtures," playing multiple roles as reciter, shogun, emperor and an American businessman. Set in 1853, the play explores U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's push to open Japan to foreign trade and visitors for the first time in 250 years.
It marked the first musical for Mako, who was not a trained singer. During rehearsals he had trouble getting through the opening number without making a mistake. He flubbed it so often he offered to leave the show before opening night, he later recalled. That offer was rejected.
"It's one of the highlights I cherish most," he said of his experience in the production. "It altered my view of musicals and expanded my view of theater."
The performance also earned Mako a Tony Award nomination for best actor in a musical.
Mako was an active force in East West until 1989 when differences with the board of directors led to a public break. He remained a beloved figure in the company and the acting community.
In the months before his death, he was preparing to appear with his wife in an East West production of the comedy "Motty Chon," the story of an older Nisei couple hoping to nudge their 40-something son out of their house and into his own life.
After he became ill, the company decided to cancel rather than recast the play, a nod of respect to Mako and his legacy.
More than 75% of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in acting unions in Los Angeles have worked at East West, Dang said.
"There has been remarkable growth," Dang said. "There are actually three generations of artists and writers clearly delineated." Yet there remains a dearth of roles for Asian Americans, a nagging need to continuing pushing against stereotypes.
"I remember Mako saying, 'Will there ever be a time when East West Players won't be needed, because everyone will be doing world theater?' " Dang said.
Later Mako answered his own question. "He said, 'No, not in my lifetime.' "