James Hong

James Hong

James Giovanni Pan
James Hong with J. Carrol Naish

James Hong with J. Carrol Naish in The New Adventures of Charlie Chan

Courtesy of Everett Collection
James Hong in Seinfeld

James Hong in the Seinfeld episode "The Chinese Restaurant," with Eun-Kyung Ryu, Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Courtesy of Photofest
James Hong

James Hong with family, celebrating his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

James Giovanni Pan
Fill 1
Fill 1
September 29, 2022
The Interviews Archive

The Interviews: James Hong

From Dragnet to Seinfeld and beyond, the actor discusses his journey in Hollywood and the advancements in Asian-American representation.

Stephen Bowie

On May 10, 2022, ninety-three-year-old James Hong became the oldest recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Fellow actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Daniel Dae Kim came to salute him, and a traditional Chinese lion dance was performed for the occasion. It's been quite a year so far for the actor (who also occasionally writes and produces). With more than 650 film and television credits, he experienced yet another wave of interest with his appearance in the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, which came out in March.

Hong's television roles date back to the 1950s, in shows such as The New Adventures of Charlie Chan and Dragnet. Decades later, he memorably played a maître d' in a 1991 episode of Seinfeld, and subsequently has appeared in series such as The West Wing and The Big Bang Theory. He has also voiced roles in many animated series, winning an Annie Award in 2011 for his voice acting in Kung Fu Panda Holiday. And he is lending his talents to the current series Kung Fu Panda: Dragon Knight.

On the feature side, soon to be released from his own Pan Pacific Productions will be Patsy Lee & The Keepers of the Five Kingdoms. Iconic movie roles from the '80s — including Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China and Hannibal Chew in Blade Runner — still bring him recognition today.

Versatility, he maintains, is at the heart of his technique. "You just roll with the moment," he says. "Combine that with the deep-thinking method actor, and you come up with your own method."

Seeking to expand opportunities for his fellow performers, in 1965 Hong worked to found the East West Players, the prestigious Los Angeles–based theater company dedicated to raising the visibility of the Asian-American experience. As one of the company's nine original artists, he helped build a creative center that has since premiered some 230 plays and musicals and serves more than 25,000 theatergoers each year.

Hong was interviewed in April 2010 by Stephen Bowie for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. Since that time — and especially of late — Asian-American representation in the industry has become a pivotal topic in discussions surrounding diversity and inclusion. Recently reached by phone by Adrienne Faillace, producer for The Interviews, Hong commented, "Though there have been advancements in Asian- American representation in film and television in recent years, there still needs to be more representation both in front of and behind the camera."

The following is an edited excerpt of Hong's conversation with Bowie. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and spent my childhood there.

Q: But you also spent part of your childhood on another continent....
A: Yes, when I was five, my father took our family back to Hong Kong, because he thought we were becoming too Americanized. So I attended grade school in Kowloon for about four years.

Q: As a boy, did you enjoy movies? Listening to the radio?
A: We gathered around the radio as if it was a TV. And I got on one of the Minneapolis radio shows, Cedric Adams's Stairway to Stardom. I was a contestant and did impersonations — Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper.... I thought I had won first prize because the applause was pretty good, but I only got second.

Q: How old were you then?
A: I must have been seventeen. My classmate [Donald Parker] heard me on the radio and called me and said, "We have to do something, Jim." He became my comedy partner. We were Hong & Parker in those early days.

Q: Where did you go to college?
A: I went to the University of Minnesota as a civil engineering major. My parents forbade me to be in show business. And during that time, I also went to Fort McClellan and Camp Rucker [in Alabama] and served in the army during the Korean War. I was a foot soldier in the artillery, and during off hours I would join the guys from New York. That was my first opportunity to be exposed to show business.

The major of Camp Rucker saw that I had some talent, and also the ability to organize things, because I was an engineer. He wanted me to organize his live shows. So, I stayed in Camp Rucker instead of going to Korea. I served my eighteen months with the Special Services, organizing live shows. After the army, I went back and finished my schooling. Until one summer, Hong & Parker decided to take off to Hollywood....

Q: I understand you drove Route 66 to California in 1953. Tell me about how you got on You Bet Your Life once you arrived in Los Angeles....
A: In those days, there was no comedy club or improv place like you have now on Hollywood Boulevard. There was no place for beginners. But somehow a writer picked me up and started to write material for [Hong & Parker]. He wrote for Groucho Marx and asked the people at You Bet Your Life, "Why don't you have this Chinese kid come on your show?" So I got on the show. That was the beginning of my career in Hollywood.

After the show, they said I'd received the second-largest amount of fan mail of all the contestants, so that resulted in a San Francisco nightclub, called Forbidden City, offering to have me come up and do my impersonation act. I didn't do it right away; I took up that offer later on. But I jumped into show business and practiced engineering on the side. Pretty soon I quit engineering, which I never regretted.

Q: Was there a particular role that was a breakthrough for you?
A: The first three features I had were a conglomerate of breakthroughs. The first was with Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune. Small role. The second was Blood Alley with John Wayne and Lauren Bacall — I had a better role there. And the third was Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing [with William Holden and Jennifer Jones]. Those three features leveraged into easily ten television shows per year, each time a different role.

I hardly ever played a regular role on TV. My ability to do comedy gave me the experience to play a range of roles, from comedy to heavy. I played a lot of villains and a lot of the so-called cliché Chinaman roles in early TV. It was always the Chinaman with the hat, the guy being rescued by the white heroes. Those early roles were all pretty much the same type of role, but at least they kept me working.

If you look at TV and movies now, the roles are still very gimmicky. The roles are not principal characters. There have been some changes in TV — there are a couple of roles played by Asian Americans that are just regular people, cops, doctors and so forth. It's changing, but have there been a lot of changes? No.

Q: Let's talk about some of your earliest TV roles. Do you remember doing a show for Fireside Theatre that John Ford directed?
A: Yes, Bamboo Cross, with Jane Wyman. I thought, "I don't think I really fit this role, but I'll give it a try." I knew John Ford, the great director, was on the other side of the door with the casting director, so I opened the door and he said, "That's it — that's the kid." How can you forget something like that?

Ford knew exactly what he wanted. It was great to work with him. Except that once I was late coming back from lunch with my agent — by three or five minutes — and when I opened the door, the producer was there with Ford. He said, "You're too late," and they chewed me out. I could never forget that. That was one of the faults, you might say, of Ford — he was always looking for somebody that he could bring down. I don't admire that about the man.

Q: Bessie Loo was an agent who specialized in Asian-American performers. How important was she to your career?
A: Bessie Loo — an icon. Very much part of the movie industry, certainly of television. Quite often I would hear Bessie's voice on the telephone, because I worked a lot. Bessie would say, "Jim, you got the part." That was the most beautiful thing I could hear.

Q: In the late '50s you were cast in the crime drama The New Adventures of Charlie Chan. How did that come about?
A: [Producer] Rudy Flothrow auditioned me. I was trying out for "Number One Son." I read my role, and Rudy was looking at his notes and not paying attention. So I slammed on the desk and said, "Look at me. Mr. Flothrow, I'm going
up to San Francisco to do a nightclub act, but if I'm the guy you want, please remember my name. Here's my picture." I walked out and said, "I'll never hear from this guy again." I went up to San Francisco, did my impersonations. After a week, I got a call from Bessie: "He wants you; come on back." That's how I got the role. You really have to stick your neck out once in a while to pursue your career.

That show was my first time in Europe, going from one country to another. I was having a ball, and maybe that's why I got fired.

Q: How did that come about?
A: I was daydreaming one day when J. Carrol Naish [who starred as Chan] was on camera. I was supposed to be feeding him lines, but I was wondering what I was going to do after the show. I forgot to cue him, and he stopped the camera and said, "What do you think, this is a school for Chinese actors?" He really got mad, and he stormed past me. I thought he was going to swing at me. I was ready to fight him, but he just walked past and that was the end of my Charlie Chan series. I tried to apologize, but he wanted me off the show.

He was portraying a Chinese detective, and he had deep-set eyes, like mine in a way. But they wanted him to have that Chinese eyepiece so he would look more Asian. He couldn't turn his head very much, because if he did, the camera would pick up the hole in the eyepiece when he blinked. After about nine episodes, the glue that held the eyepiece — and the removal of it every night, with acetone — burned his eyes. He was hurting. He couldn't do his work as an actor expressing himself freely. He was really mad, and I think he took it out on me.

Q: As an Asian-American actor, did you resent playing against a white actor who was made up to appear Chinese?
A: Yes, it was hard to look at him with those eyepieces, because they were so fake and he was playing the cliché Chinaman. They did that all through the history of Hollywood, putting that eyepiece on. I hated those eyepieces.

Q: I can imagine.... I'd like to ask about some of your guest-starring roles, like on Dragnet in 1958.
A: That's one of the un-clichéd roles I've played. [Actor-producer] Jack Webb cast me as a store owner, but he said, "I don't want the cliché image. I want this to be a real hip store owner." I was just myself, being a very hip American, and it came across beautifully. I thank him for that farsightedness in casting me as just an American store owner rather than a Chinese store owner.

Q: And in 1962 you appeared on Have Gun — Will Travel....
A: I learned something from [star] Richard Boone. He was a method actor, and as a young actor I learned from him that it's okay to hesitate and think a little, pause and then deliver your lines. It's very effective. Richard had that wonderful quality of getting into something deeper during that moment.

Q: Do you remember Hawaiian Eye from 1960–61?
A: Oh, yeah. It was a fun series. In those kinds of shows, you learn another method — how to just roll along with the fun of the scene. None of the actors were method actors — Connie Stevens, Jim Byrnes... they were so-called personalities, and you just roll with the moment. Combine that with the deep-thinking method actor, and you come up with your own method. Now I teach the James Hong method of acting, another way of approaching the art. I also helped form the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists and the East West Players, which is still very active in fighting this situation of either no work or cliché roles.

Q: In the '70s you appeared on Kung Fu in about ten different roles....
A: The producer [Alex Beaton] stopped me one day and said, "James, I just wanted to compliment you. Having you on a show is like having gold in my pocket." That's my Academy Award in a sense, because he said, "Every time we run into trouble finding the right actor, we go for James Hong." They trusted me to do everything — from a villain to a sympathetic vagrant stealing food, to a sympathetic tortured Chinaman, to royalty of some kind. I just went from one episode to another of Kung Fu.

Q: Didn't you have a writing credit on Bachelor Father back in 1960?
A: Yes. Eleanor Wong Telemaque and I were newcomers in Hollywood. I said, why don't we write something and submit it to Bachelor Father? So we did, and we called it "The Matchmaker" or "The Match," because the Chinese believe in matchmaking — that's the way that my father was married. They bought the script idea and paid us, I think, $400 for it. They took the idea and made several episodes out of it. We should have gotten a better break.

Q: And now we come to Seinfeld and the episode "The Chinese Restaurant."
A: Yes, I played the maître d' in a Chinese restaurant. People identify so well with the simple, idiotic things that happen on Seinfeld. A lot of it is nonsensical, almost illogical comedy. But as an actor, it was difficult for me to find sense in a lot of the comedy. In the script, a lady comes to give me a five-dollar tip to get a table, [but I was supposed to ignore her]. I said to the director, "I'm a maître d', and she's giving me a tip. Why wouldn't I take the tip and just give her a good table? Why would I go on as if nothing's happened?" He said he didn't know, just play it.

So I came up with this: I play the maître d' who is very concentrated on his work. I have the reservation list and simply flip the list, cover up the tip as if it isn't there, and continue with my work. It worked. Come up with something within the character to go with the comedy.

Q: You've discussed some of the clichéd roles that you've had to play over the years. How do you see the future of the industry for today's young Asian-American actors?
A: I wish that there were more roles out there for us, and especially for young people. I see a lot of young people dropping out of the industry because there are just no jobs. The supply is there, but the demand is not. It's something that the industry has to be very conscious of, because we are your brothers. We are part of you, and you guys have to take care of us, too.

Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: As a good actor and a good human being.

The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.  

To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #9, 2022.

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