Tsu with Raymond Burr in Perry Mason
Tsu, Frank Sinatra, and friends
Chinese-American actror/writer Irene Tsu has made her mark.
On television, the stage, and film, and behind-the-scenes, Tsu has stood firm on principle. With versatility and an upbeat perspective, she remains fearless in her life pursuits and experience of happiness.
Cultured, educated, and talented, she continues to revel in a remarkable life and career. And she's chronicled it all in a compelling memoir: A Watercolor Dream: The Many Lives of Irene Tsu.
"I have lived my life as a water color artist," Tsu explains in the book. "Water color is a fluid art form that drips, runs and moves. Intuition plays a great part in the execution of the water color. Through skill, time, and practice, artists are able to control the strokes better, but it will never be exact. Once the stroke is made, the artist must follow that new path and see where the next stroke will take them. Sometimes there is fear, but there is also freedom."
A Watercolor Dream "probably came about," Tsu says, due to the inkling of a former college professor. When she was attending Los Angeles City College, "a long time ago," she adds with a smile, a professor suggested, "You should write a book."
At first, Tsu thought, "I'm not a writer," and let it go.
But years later, the instructor contacted Tsu, and reiterated, "You should write a book."
This time, Tsu took heed and took a break from acting. "It got into my head," she says. "So, I started writing little bits and pieces at night, on the side of my bed." She enrolled in a few writing courses, and "learned to look back," while "still looking forward. I got into it."
Writing became a part of Tsu's already expansive creative life. "I wanted to write about all the work that I have done," she says. With the help of a friend, she carefully recalled and began to shape her backstory which, from the beginning, has been nothing less than riveting.
Born in Shanghai in 1945, she explains, "My childhood was not great. It was most unusual. I lived in three different countries," those being Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Fleeing from Communism, Tsu left her homeland of China when she was three years old. Beside her were parents Victor Z.M. Tsu and Dulcie Lin Tsu, while a younger sister Florence Tsu Phillips, would arrive later.
Her father was the controller for US Aid to China with Chiang Kai Shek, and after that, an auditor for a trade union in New York. Her mother was a published artist and textile designer in New York. Today, her sibling, a ballet dancer/teacher, and an attorney, resides in Marin County, San Francisco.
Tsu, senior international estates advisor, now lives in Beverly Hills.
By the time Tsu arrived in America, she was 11. Though it was in Hong Kong where her career was ignited by "complete accident." She wanted to audition for the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet from London, who were holding auditions in Hong Kong.
"I was a dancer," she recalls. "I always watched the ballerinas." She wanted to audition for the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet from London, who were holding auditions in Hong Kong. "Every four years, they chose one girl out of the whole commonwealth, and I won." And that victory included a scholarship.
It was then her father arrived from Taiwan, meeting with his wife and Tsu in a Hong Kong high-rise. He met the representatives of Royal Ballet Theatre, who explained what the scholarship would entail.
"There were no promises," Tsu says, that her scholarship would lead to success in the outside world. She would have to dedicate herself, diligently, for the next seven years to pay off the training. That was the only promise. And she had to make it. "You have to work with the Royal Ballet to pay the costs of training. It is like being an indentured servant."
In other words, the dancer's path would be demanding. "You can't eat what you want," she explains. "You are always studying. You rehearse four or five hours a day. You had to measure up height-wise, and weight-wise. And when you're 11 years old and a scrawny little thing, you don't know what you are going to look like."
Concerned about the arduous regimen that dance requires, her father was immediately disenchanted with Tsu's artistic ambition. "He just looked at me and said, 'No,'" Tsu recalls.
Her father then turned to the committee of the Royal Ballet Theatre and added, "She's not going."
Overall, "it was kind of rough," Tsu says of meeting the demands of dancing, and facing her father's objections and not attending the school in London.. "To be a ballerina takes a lot of discipline. But I loved it. It was my passion."
Consequently, she channeled her passion for dance in another direction, towards America. Her family had been waiting seven years for the Refugee Relief Act to clear their path to the States. That path was finally cleared, it ultimately led to Manhattan, and her career moved swiftly from there.
Flashforward to 1959, she was in line at PJ Clark's burger stand in New York, when a man asked her if was Tahitian.
She replied, "What? No."
"Do you speak Tahitian?"
"Here's my card," he said. "I want you to come to my office tomorrow. I'm casting a commercial for Wishbone Tahitian Isle Salad Dressing"
Tsu passed the card around to her high school friends, who said, "Let's go. He's even on Madison Ave."
"We went to the audition," Tsu says, "...and I read the story board and got the job! I never even remember what I was paid."
Soon after, Tsu entered The World of Suzie Wong.
"I heard about an open audition on Broadway...I believe the Broadhurst...for the road company. I borrowed my boyfriend's sister's Chinese dress and met with the stage manager. He asked me to watch a matinee and handed me a script and came back next day to read for him. I got the part. My mom signed the contract at David Merrick's office. I believe it was 1960. I was 15."
When her time with Suzie wrapped, she learned of yet another audition, for dancers, in the film Flower Drum Song, directed by Henry Koster. She got the job, went to Hollywood, and roomed with the film's star Nancy Kwan, upon Kwan's request. "We are still good friends today," says Tsu.
But it was Koster who actually discovered and honed her talent. "He put me in his next film Take Her She's Mine, starring James Stewart and Sandra Dee. I played a French hooker. It was a great little part. The dialogue was all in French." Tsu then retained Japanese agent Fred Ishimoto, "who mentored my career every step of the way," she says.
From there, countless film and television appearances followed. On the big screen, she's worked with legends like Doris Day, James Stewart, Jeff Bridges, Frankie Avalon, David Niven, Bette Midler, and Nick Nolte. She's played a spy in The Horizontal Lieutenant, which was followed by a role in Under the Yum Yum Tree.
And among other motion pictures, Tsu appeared in Paradise Hawaiian Style, starring Elvis Presley, who she recalls as "a really nice guy."
No romance developed with Elvis, but as she describes in her book, Tsu dated comedian Dick Shawn. And she "shared a passionate and adventurous two-year relationship" with Frank Sinatra.
Tsu says her father was "furious" about her relationship with Sinatra, who she met while he was filming Tony Rome in 1967. But for Tsu, the iconic vocalist/actor was "hard to resist...He had the most incredible blue eyes and if he looked at you, forget it."
Into the mix of her personal life, Tsu continued to expand her career with a long list of TV credits.
In recent years, she's appeared in episodes of CSI and Law & Order, while her classic small screen guest-appearances include everything from the original Perry Mason to The New Perry Mason.
She's also performed in Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law; Cannon and The Rockford Files; My Favorite Martian, I, Spy, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and Wonder Woman. "I just wanted to keep working," she says.
"I really enjoyed doing The Wild, Wild West," she says of the famed 1960s series that made a star out Robert Conrad. But the 1970s Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter "...was not a good show to work on. The set was not very professional...too casual and very disrespectful." And the scripts were "not really into the dialogue."
An adventure series that Tsu would have preferred working on was the eastern-western, Kung Fu, starring David Carradine.
A potential guest-appearance on this show, which was recently rebooted by the CW, would have been a coup for Tsu. Kung Fu was the first to feature Asian-American actors in non-stereotypical roles on a weekly basis. "It seemed like such a natural fit," Tsu says of the series, which created by Ed Spielman (and not Bruce Lee, which has been erroneously reported for decades).
But this time, when Tsu auditioned for Kung Fu, she failed to get the part or what today would be considered an unfathomable reason. "I didn't look Chinese enough," she recalls with a smile.
The Hollywood irony, of course, is that Tsu actually is Chinese, and she speaks the language fluently. She has portrayed characters representative of each sector of the Asian community. "Japanese, Korean, Thai, Malaysian...I've played everybody," she says. "I think it's healthy to play different parts."
For Tsu, not winning a role on Kung Fu proved "surreal," but she moved on.
The only other time she faced any form of prejudice occurred in 1967. That's when she appeared The Green Berets, which was released the following year. Except for Tsu, the movie featured an all-male cast including John Wayne, David Janssen (who had just finished The Fugitive), Jack Soo (later of Barney Miller), and George Takei (who was between the first and second seasons of Star Trek), among others.
Tsu and Takei experienced an offensive incident during filming. One night, the two went to dinner at a local restaurant in Ft. Brenner, Georgia, where most of the movie was filmed. "Once we were seated," Tsu recalls, "We heard this voice that said, 'You should be happy you're eating here.'"
It was not a welcoming voice, and it was coming from a nearby table. As Tsu goes on to explain, "I had never heard any racial comment in my life. And I thought, 'This is not going to be good," particularly when Takei, who was livid, began "clenching his first."
Fortunately, before a bad situation became worse, Tsu and Takei heard another "voice." This time, it was athlete Mike Henry, who Tsu describes as "one of the top football stars of all time."
That night, Henry was also a hero. Oblivious to the ignorance that confronted Tsu and Takei, Henry shouted from across the room, "Hey, you guys. Can I join you for dinner?"
At that point, the other voice, "the loudmouth," Tsu says, went silent.
The unruly soul was not only wise enough to steer clear of Henry, but the even fiercer force of nature, art, and freedom that is Irene Tsu.
Herbie J Pilato, host of Then Again, now streaming on Amazon Prime and Amazon Prime UK, is the author of several books about TV including The Kung Fu Book of Caine and The Kung Fu Book of Wisdom.
More articles celebrating Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month.