In 1953, James Hong left Minnesota with a buddy in a Buick and hit Route 66, bound for California.
After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, during which he put on shows for his fellow troops, the Minneapolis native planned to spend a summer in Los Angeles before resuming his engineering studies back home. Then an unlikely big break changed his life: impressing Groucho Marx with an impression of Groucho Marx on an episode of “You Bet Your Life.”
He moved to L.A., got an agent and started booking small roles. The rest was history — much to the initial disapproval of his tradition-minded parents.
“They thought I was crazy. They thought I was no good,” said Hong, 93, with a smile on a recent afternoon in the courtyard of his Beverly Hills home. “James Hong had to be a black sheep and become an actor.” Back then, he had no idea how far his acting dreams would take him, the challenges he’d face as a Chinese American in Hollywood, or that he’d become one of the most prolific film and television performers in American history.
So it was an emotional affair when, almost 70 years later, the “Blade Runner,” “Big Trouble in Little China” and “Kung Fu Panda” actor received his star on the Walk of Fame last month in front of the former Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. With nearly 700 film, television and video game credits to date, he became the oldest person and one of relatively few Asian American and Pacific Islanders to do so as family, friends, fans and jubilant lion dancers cheered him on.
After a campaign spearheaded by fellow actor Daniel Dae Kim, James Hong made history Tuesday with his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
May 10, 2022
“It was well deserved,” said actor and producer Daniel Dae Kim, who first met Hong when they worked together on an episode of “Charmed” in 2001. In his speech at Hong’s ceremony, Kim pointed out a startling statistic: As of this year, only 19 of 2,723 motion picture stars on the Walk of Fame, or 0.69%, are for AAPI talent.
Attempts to get Hong his star had been unsuccessful until 2020, when Kim helped rally a public effort to push his application through and crowdfund the $55,000 fee. As not just an icon but an agent of change, the battles Hong and his peers fought to simply work, live and persevere as artists in the industry paved the way for the generations that followed, Kim told The Times.
Before breaking out in the ensemble cast of “Lost,” Kim played leading roles starring in David Henry Hwang’s “Golden Child” and as Prospero in “The Tempest” for East West Players, the Asian American theater company Hong co-founded in 1965.
“I know how hard it was for Asian Americans during that era to find meaningful work,” said Kim. “So it was significant what he did to blaze a trail for all of us.”
Still aglow days after the ceremony, Hong laughed at the notion of retirement and reflected on a question he’s often asked about his prolific and trailblazing career: How’d he do it?
“Obviously,” he said in the understatement of a lifetime, “it took a lot of work.”
Forget Kevin Bacon; cinephiles can jump from Clark Gable to Jack Black, from Douglas Sirk to the Daniels, in just two degrees of James Hong. Taking nary a break since the 1950s, he leaned on his natural instincts and genre-hopping versatility, worked with John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Chuck Norris and Sammo Hung, left indelible impressions in “Chinatown,” “Wayne’s World 2” and “Airplane!” and lent his voice to animated films from “Mulan” to “Turning Red.”
More Hong projects are on the way, including the upcoming HBO Max animated series “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai.” He can currently be seen in theaters traversing the multiverse as the grumpy grandpa Gong Gong in A24’s sleeper success “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” in a performance that upends expectations and makes use of the nonagenarian’s dynamic range.
It was on the L.A. set of “Everything Everywhere” that Hong instantly bonded with co-star Jamie Lee Curtis, who revved up the crowd when she spoke at his induction ceremony in May: “It’s about f—ing time!”
“We were both survivors,” she later described of their fast friendship, forged over common experiences in the film industry. On set, he brought a playfulness to filming — and tested his co-stars’ resolve. Once in a scene at the desk of Curtis’ IRS auditor character when he had no lines, “James started burping,” said Curtis, laughing.
“It’s like working with a child because he is an inventive performer, and he will fill that space. Of course, Ke [Huy Quan] broke. Michelle [Yeoh] didn’t break. I broke,” she said. “For me, he is the exemplification of being alive at 93 and creative and interested and influential, and still working in his craft in a beautiful way.”
Hong’s credits run the gamut across genres and generations, from “Flower Drum Song,” “The Sand Pebbles” and “Kung Fu” to “Tango & Cash,” “The West Wing,” “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory.” His long career as a character actor speaks to a skill for turning small parts into meatier roles with depth and wit and imbuing roles with main character energy, almost defiantly so.
He played replicant eye designer Hannibal Chew in sci-fi classic “Blade Runner,” went toe to toe with Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown” and its sequel, “The Two Jakes” and comically stymied a starving Jerry, Elaine and George as the manager of a busy restaurant on an episode of “Seinfeld.”
But Hong’s most beloved role, filled with a delicious winking wickedness and surprising pathos, remains one of his most complex: the powerful sorcerer David Lo Pan of 1986 cult classic “Big Trouble In Little China.”
“All he wanted was a girl with green eyes,” said Hong of the humanity he found in his charismatic villain. “I don’t know about your dreams, but in my dreams, I’m lost — I’m still looking for something. I put that feeling into David Lo Pan. Seeking. Looking. I think you could see in the old man’s eyes that he was lonely. He was looking for something he couldn’t find in the universe, so he came down to Earth.”
“It’s easy for me to create a character that wants love,” he said. “Well, I think that’s true with everybody, whether it’s men or women. That search for love — a perfect love — always gets people into trouble. That is the basis of human nature! When you stop searching, you’re dead.”
“Through it, he had to battle with kung fu [masters] and that crazy Kurt Russell character, who’s a dumb nitwit in the movie.” Hong smiled. “Maybe that’s why the movie is so popular. Because here’s a mastermind fighting a nitwit.”
“He’s an extraordinarily talented guy,” said “Big Trouble in Little China” director John Carpenter. “His acting ability is amazing. He can do subtle, he can do big. He came in to read for the part and he was brilliant. [Lo Pan] was right in front of me. And he was not afraid to take risks, just go out there and do it.”
It’s easy for me to create a character that wants love... that is the basis of human nature.
— James Hong
Ask Hong where his story begins and he rewinds past the showbiz moments to the long gone Chinatown enclave, etched in his memories, where his immigrant parents put down roots. There, in a semi-basement apartment on either 7th Street or a few blocks away, on 3rd Avenue — a discrepancy exists as to the precise location, he notes, but he is one for details — Hong was born in 1929, the middle child of seven.
Decades earlier, Hong says, his paternal grandfather came from China to work on the railroads. His father, Frank, later emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. and managed to bring over a bride amid racist U.S. exclusionary laws. “My mother came from the village of Toisan. She had not seen any American culture whatsoever,” said Hong. “She hardly ever stepped out because she was afraid.”
His father, who managed a popular Minneapolis restaurant during the Depression, was a leader of the local Hop Sing Tong who aided members in a time of extreme hostility toward Asian immigrants. Later, laundrymen would congregate after hours at his herb store. “He survived fairly well in America being aggressive and being well respected,” said Hong. “You had to be. If you were a nobody you were going to get beaten down to nothing.”
When he was 5, the family moved to Hong Kong, and when they returned a few years later Hong didn’t speak English. One of few Chinese kids in his neighborhood, he endured racist harassment through grade school and spent a lonely childhood in and around the family apartment.
So he worked hard to fit in — “to become ‘American,’ become more ‘white’” — by shedding his Asian-ness. Yet even as he rose socially he felt the sting of prejudice in high school, where he never got the lead roles in school plays that went to his white classmates. At home, he honed his talent for celebrity impersonations in the mirror.
Years later, after the war, that work paid off when he wowed Groucho Marx on air and decided to transfer to USC to finish his studies. Soon he was booking several acting gigs a year while working as an engineer for Los Angeles County. But like other Asian American actors in Hollywood, Hong grew increasingly frustrated with the racist stereotypes and bit parts he had to navigate.
“Through those first two decades, I cannot remember roles for Asian Americans that had a lot of heart and a lot of feeling,” said Hong. “They were cardboard characters. They were clichéd.” He lamented the colleagues who’d come before him who had no choice but to take demeaning or “gimmick” roles, or else not get work, such as Keye Luke, Benson Fong and Victor Sen Yung.
Still, as he paid his dues, those roles paid the bills. In 1957 Hong landed his first regular paycheck on “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan” opposite J. Carrol Naish, a white actor in yellowface. Finally, his father took note. “He said, ‘That’s my son!’ As soon as I made money, my father was very proud,” Hong said.
Among his other jobs, Hong worked as a sales rep for Roger Corman (“I think to this day Roger still owes me some of the commission,” he quipped), who also gave him one of his earliest film gigs: playing multiple Asian soldiers in a low-budget war film. “I became Roger Corman’s army behind sandbags,” he said with a laugh.
It was living and working in Los Angeles, and finding community with other Asian Americans, that Hong credits with helping him reembrace his heritage.
“I realized that I am Chinese and I am very proud of having that double culture,” he said. “In Minnesota, I didn’t have that chance. In L.A., I could mix with people who are of my double heritage, or at least they knew what being an Asian meant. I started to build upon that side and recover my background.”
His fellow Asian American artists also shared his professional frustrations. One day, he called future Oscar nominee Mako Iwamatsu and their friend, dancer Al Huang, to his apartment. “We said, ‘We have to do something,’” Hong recalled.
In 1965, Hong and Iwamatsu established the all-Asian American theater troupe East West Players with seven other artists — Rae Creevey, Beulah Quo, Soon-Tek Oh, Pat Li, Guy Lee, Yet Lock and June Kim — to give themselves the starring roles they were typically not cast in and to tell their own stories, launching with a staging of “Rashomon.”
“They wanted to create opportunities for themselves as artists to play roles that they traditionally were not considered for, outside of the stereotypical roles that Asians are still cast in today,” said Snehal Desai, producing artistic director of EWP, now the oldest and largest Asian American theater company in the U.S.
We said, ‘We have to do something.’
— James Hong on the founding of East West Players in 1965
“They empowered themselves when they felt like they weren’t getting the opportunities that they wanted or should,” said Desai. “We can’t speak enough of the outsized influence James has had on the Asian American community, particularly the Asian American artistic community.”
The company also changed his life behind the scenes when, in the 1970s, Hong met his future wife, Susan, in the prop department. “When I grabbed a prop, her hand was on it. And that’s when it all started,” he said, smiling as she joined him outside on an unseasonably warm afternoon. “Another East West Players product!” she added.
And as studios had little interest in making movies starring Asian leads, tips Hong had picked up from B-movie maestro Corman came in handy. He started directing his own films, like “The Vineyard,” a 1989 supernatural horror romp self-funded for $280,000, in which he cast himself in a lead role, dancing, romancing and terrorizing a group of young people as a gregarious winemaker in search of eternal life.
“I learned from the great innovator of ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’” said Hong. “His formula for his average film was there has to be something happening that is terrific every 10 minutes.”
Watching co-star Ke Huy Quan during filming also filled him with pride, and reminded him of his own Hollywood battles, after hearing that the former child actor left acting for two decades because of a lack of opportunities.
“I said, ‘This guy is really good! Why hasn’t he been doing movie roles forever before this?’” said Hong. “He should not have been hibernating for 20 years.” Playing scene-stealing Waymond, Quan “didn’t lose a stitch,” said Hong. “He was right in step.”
“The ability to to just act and perform, that is a born quality in Ke,” said Hong. “And I would say there probably is another 200 actors and actresses have that talent. But they’re not getting recognized because their industry still is not producing enough movies with roles — with good roles — for Asian American actors.”
Maybe that’s why, after fighting for so long for change, Hong is in no hurry to ease up. In addition to the “Gremlins” animated prequel, he’ll reprise his voice role as Mr. Ping for Netflix in July’s “Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight” and make an appearance on Disney+ series “American Born Chinese” alongside “Everything Everywhere All at Once” castmates Yeoh, Quan and Stephanie Hsu.
Also upcoming is fantasy feature “Patsy Lee and the Keepers of the Five Kingdoms,” directed by Zack Ward, which Hong stars in, co-wrote and is producing, about a girl and her grandfather who are transported to a magical kingdom of the past.
Since his star ceremony, the calls have kept coming.
“It’s busier than ever, it’s nonstop,” he marveled of the acting opportunities that have resurged for him in recent years, as roles have slowly gotten better and bigger in the industry he worked for decades to be seen by. “I like it that way.”
Dania Maxwell is a staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times. Before joining the newsroom in 2018, she worked in Colombia, South America and at the Naples Daily News in Florida. Her work has been awarded an Emmy, POYi, Sigma Delta Chi and Edward R. Murrow. Maxwell received a master’s degree in visual communication from Ohio University and a bachelor of arts from Sarah Lawrence College.