Aaron: Mr. Hong, I would like to take this opportunity to thank
you for doing this interview with BladeZone. You were born in America, then your family
moved to Hong Kong and then back to America. Why was that?
Mr. Hong: That was when I was small so it was my dad's decision. I was only
five-years-old when he decided to take the whole family back to Hong Kong and be educated.
He thought that we were losing the Chinese culture too fast being in Minnesota.
Aaron: When did you first become interested in acting?
Mr. Hong: First become interested in acting? I guess it was always in my blood in a
sense. As a young boy I was doing speeches, in Chinese by the way, during the war (World
War 2) for the war effort for the Chinese community in Minnesota. When they'd gather on
Sundays, my dad would put me up on a little podium and let me speak. You know, patriotic
speeches. So I guess that was probably the very beginning of it. Of course they did not
promote it. In the Chinese culture the acting profession is very low on the ladder of
professions. So they didn't encourage me to be an actor. However, I guess that interest
took over when I was in junior high school and I joined the drama club and so forth. And
then went to high school, of course. Some in the university, but because I was majoring in
Civil Engineering, I really couldn't do too much acting. I was mainly doing just stand-up
comedy in the University of Minnesota for intermission programs during the dances and so
forth, until I finally came out here to California.
Aaron: Why did you choose engineering and not acting?
Mr. Hong: Again, it was that choice by the parents, or encouragement by the parents to
be a person of a profession that was higher on the ladder of careers, you know. To be an
actor would be too far down. And then to be an engineer, or doctor, it was something of
prestige to be in such a profession.
Aaron: You finished college at the University of Southern
Mr. Hong: Yeah. I finished there. I went there for one year after I attended about
three and a half years in the University of Minnesota. Then I transferred out to U.S.C.
and I came out here one summer and the acting opportunities became prevalent.
Aaron: And then you got a job with the L.A. County road
Mr. Hong: That's right. Yeah. Down there near Main Street, downtown L.A.. The area, of
course, is not very good, but the civil service building was right there. It's still
there, it's an old, old building. I think they still have some part of the L.A. County
Road Department there, although most of it has moved to newer offices. So I worked there
as an engineer for the L.A. road department building curbs and gutters. Designing those
and that went on for about a year or so, until the studios kept calling me and then pretty
soon I had to make a decision. You know, whether to give it a try or not.
Aaron: Around this time weren't you part of a stand-up comedy
team, Hong & Parker?
Mr. Hong: As I said, that's how it all started, in the sense of being
semi-professional, because in the university, there were two reasons I went into stand-up
comedy. One was, probably the major portion, being Asian-American, you couldn't really do
any plays, because in the university, I think that particular aspect of discrimination was
starting to happen, in the sense that what would they do with a Chinese-American on stage
in Shakespeare and so forth. In those days, the thinking was still very narrow. So there
wasn't a chance to do any plays, drama and such. They wanted to put me in radio, but I
didn't want to be just a voice, I wanted to be seen. And so, I said "What's next to
do?" and I loved comedy, so I started doing impersonations and that got me quite far
locally. I went on those programs . . . "Cedric Adams' Stairway To Stardom",
etc, etc. And I got myself a comedy partner and we called ourselves Hong & Parker and
started doing little shows locally. And then that team of Hong & Parker came out to
Hollywood in 1953 looking to make it big. Of course, it was never to be because in those
days there wasn't any "Comedy Store" or "Laugh Factory" and all those
comedy places now on Sunset Boulevard. It was non-existant. There was almost no
opportunities for comedians to begin. And so that team broke up. We were too early for our
times. People didn't know what Hong & Parker were.
Aaron: Are you still acquinted with Donald Parker?
Mr. Hong: Oh, yeah. In fact, I just saw him a couple days ago. No, were still very,
very good friends. And out here on the west coast, certainly, the only high school friend
I have. He's very successful as a businessman now. But he's still a comedian at heart, you
George Takei as Sulu in Star Trek
Aaron: Your movie debut was in "Soldier Of Fortune"
starring Clark Gable. How did that come about?
Mr Hong: Yeah, that was the first one. That was the first movie that I did as an S.A.G.
(Screen Actor's Guild) member, if not the second. I probably did some cheapie first. But
certainly the first feature, with Twentieth Century Fox. I didn't do a scene with him
(Clark Gable), but that scene that I did do for "Soldier Of Fortune" is on the
(video) tape at the stores, and I'm just a young soldier, of course. And it's all in
Chinese. And from that, I went right on, 1... 2... 3... . The next one was "Blood
Alley" with John Wayne and the third one was a bigger part with Bill Holden and
Jennifer Jones in "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing". And that got some attention
for me and it was after that, I think I had to make the decision to quit the L.A. County
Road Department and give Hollywood a try. Never to return! (both men laugh)
Aaron: I read somewhere that you once auditioned for the part of
Sulu in "Star Trek". Is that true?
Mr. Hong: Yes, yes. George and I bumped into each other, George Takei. He was coming
out of the audition and he was just one of two candidates prior to me. And as I entered, I
still remember it, I said "Well, what is this one, George?" In those days we
were fairly busy going to auditions. "Oh," he says "just another low-budget
science-fiction." Something like that, very casual. (both laugh) Of course, it was a
turn of history event for him. And for all of us, really.
Aaron: What were some of your favorite early roles?
Mr. Hong: In those early, early days I pulled out a picture of "Zorro", the
black and white Zorro, with the fat Sergeant Garcia, in those days. And again I looked at
that, I saw it on a re-run and again I spoke all Chinese. It was very strange. You know,
those early days that you're talking about, there was some science-fiction with some
creature, I forgot the name. Some fan put it on tape for me, it was very strange. And of
course, things like "The Outer Limits", the original black-and white series. I
think something about "1000 Days" or something where we'd peel our face off and
we became agents in Washington. I think I was the Vice-President. Let's see, what other
series were semi-famous in those days . . . Oh,one of the things I made and didn't think a
second thing of it, of course, was "Godzilla". I wasn't in the picture of
"Godzilla", but the black-and-white original I did about eight to ten voices. If
you rent that cassette, you'll hear me talking to myself as the lover and the guy that was
against the lover vying for the girl in the same scene. So it was a lot of fun doing it.
We never saw the movie, they just put us into a room and said "Here's the
script", you know. "Do it a little faster," "Do it a little
slower," "Change the voice," and of course it was obviously history day.
They were so lucky in acquiring that black-and-white film. They own the rights to
"Godzilla" or part of it, and since then, how many films and sequels have they
made? One of those Hollywood stories where a person picked up a cheap little film and
became extremely wealthy.
Aaron: After dozens of movie and television roles, we come to
"Blade Runner". How did you get the part of Chew?
Mr. Hong: Now that's a good question. I cannot remember the interview very much,
because one thing for sure, Ridley was looking for an older guy. And I wasn't that old in
those days, you know, for that movie. So he knew I had to be made up. Of course, I had
been doing a lot of "old" roles prior to that and was trained, in a sense, to do
older guys, older Chinese. One of the very first "old men" roles was for "I
Spy" with Bill Cosby. So even in those early days, I would put on make-up and play
the ancient old Chinese wise man type of thing. In that particular "I Spy", I
was a shop owner, curio owner, an old man who turned out to be a dope peddler. And I
schooled myself in playing old men on stage. Day after day I was doing the old gate keeper
on "Rashaman". So when it came to "Blade Runner", I simply did that
voice. (In Chew's voice) "Ah, yes, yes. I just do eyes. You Nexus? I designed your
eyes." So it wasn't hard for me to pull it off, doing young men, old men. And I guess
that's why I've done over 460 movies and tv's, I can do all those different voices,
different characters. Comedy and tough parts, science-fiction, silly "R"-rated
films, anything, you know. "Revenge of the Nerds", anything, you just give it to
me and I'll do it. I'll give it the old college try and usually it turns out pretty good.
So thank God, I've got some kind of a talent because my parents certainly didn't think of
putting me into drama school. So I had no encouragement there. But when we first came out
to Hollywood, we saw Jack Palance at Hamburger Hamlet eating a hamburger, my partner Don
Parker, said to me "Hey look! Jack Palance!" We were hooked! (both laugh) He was
so great in those early movies. But anyway, "Blade Runner", I guess he chose me
because he saw something in the, I imagine the sympathetic quality of Chew, locked up in
that refridgerator who knows how many hours, you know, working on those eyeballs. He
needed that sympathetic look plus the determination and amazement at finding his children,
the two replicants coming back with his eyeballs, and Rutger saying, "If you could
only see what I've seen with your eyes." Great line. So it was luck. Lucky in the
sense that he hired me and I was very happy to be part of it.
Aaron: Was there any preparation for the role other than your
Mr. Hong: Ah, sort of like a training ground . . . Like I say, being on the stage in
"Rashaman" night after night you learn how to walk around like an old man, and I
think I did that in the Chew character and squint the eyes looking at Rutger's and the
other replicant's eyeballs and thinking "Those are my eyes. Those are my children.
Finally I get to see somebody with my eyes. What has he seen?" So the method
training, I took some of that Stanislavski training with Joe Sargent, and from that
training with those great teachers of Hollywood you learn to ask yourself questions as you
look into the other actors' eyes. You actually look at the other character, you get into
character. What is my old man asking? What are the questions he's asking as he looks at
the other person's eyes? What are they after? and so forth. And it became real, very real
because that was a real refridgerator. You didn't have to act cold, you were freezing and
trembling. And those two guys looked really ruthless. They knocked over my eyeballs and
they played with my children and they were very cruel and so the situation was very real.
Ridley Scott, let's admit it, he's a genius. He is a genius of our times. As was Roman
Polanski and all the great directors I've worked with, you know. One of the very early
ones, William Wellman, is in the books as one of the greatest action directors with John
Wayne and such. So all through these hundreds of movies and tv's I've learned a lot from,
I would say probably from each director, good, or mediocre, or even bad. From the bad ones
you learn what not to do, see? Which is very important.
Aaron: The interior of Chew's lab was filmed inside a meat
locker. What was that experience like?
Mr. Hong: Yeah, that was strange. When I went to the location in that industrial park
near east L.A., I said "What in the world are we doing here?", you know. It was
very . . . the location itself was in nighttime in an ominous neighborhood. It was kind of
strange. And you go in and all these crew people are going in and out of this meat locker,
you know, this freezer. And you wonder . . . then you saw the set, and it's just a
gorgeous set inside this food locker, this frozen food locker and you wonder why didn't
they build the set on the studio where they can control the circumstances. And I have no
idea, maybe Ridley just wants that realistic quality. But they did have a lot of trouble
because everything was freezing over. And it was tough. So in that sense, it was a very
trying shoot because of the environment of the frozen circumstances and because of the
lack of time. We were at the end of our shoot and we had no time. And I wouldn't want to
be in that situation too much. Lack of time to create something good. And that's when all
the training, all the training that you've had previously for all those other films, then
all that training is called upon to produce in a rush something that you hope is going to
turn out well. We improvised certain things and whatnot and we had to move on. We should
have taken a good week to shoot that, as it was, I think it went two days. But luckily it
turned out very credible.
Aaron: Yeah, yeah it did.
Mr. Hong: As did the whole movie. I don't see anything wrong with the movie. (laughs)
Every frame is almost perfect. Wouldn't you say?
Aaron: Oh, yeah. I'd agree with that. You said in the book
"Future Noir" that Chew's eyes were like his children. I thought that was a
Mr. Hong: Hmmm. Well this man, that was his life. Like most of us, we have something we
devote our lives to, you know? Chew devoted his whole life to making the perfect eyeball.
Goodness knows how many working hours, days and nights he spent. He must have dreamt of
eyeballs. Everything known to man and beyond that (about eyes), he knew. So in a sense,
they were more than his children, they were like another world, I think.
Aaron: Just how heavy was Chew's coat with all the hoses and
stuff hanging off it?
Mr. Hong: Yeah, that was something, wasn't it? When I first tried it on in the wardrobe
fitting, I said "What is this? Does he know what he's doing?", you know? (both
laugh) There's this stuff like cardboard, you know, sticking out with all this fur on it
and whatnot. By the time he put it all on me with that little hat and the crazy thing that
was sticking up and looks like . . . I don't know, like a beaten-down Madonna microphone,
you know. It was very strange. The whole costume was quite a concept. That alone tells me
that the man devotes a lot of time and talent and craftsmanship to every phase of that
film. You know, to put that much thinking into a costume amazes me. And he did that with
everything. Everything on the set, everything he could do. He devoted everything he could.
And to look at Ridley, you'd think he's just an ordinary next door neighbor and yet this
genius mind is always at work.
Aaron: What was it like working with Rutger Hauer?
Mr. Hong: Very tough, very tough. He's very demanding. And he doesn't seem to have too
much patience. (both laugh) So you just have to do your thing and stand your ground and
take what he says and find out what he really means. And then as an actor, you try to
improve on what you're doing by seeing through his eyes what is happening in the scene.
Aaron: How about Brion James?
Mr. Hong: Well, Brion and I saw each other a lot afterwards quite a few times. He was
just a regular guy. He was very easy-going. I think at the end he was having some problems
and unfortunately this industry is not kind to so-called supporting actors. As great a
background as he had, he was telling me that they were telling him "Either work for
scale or we'll use somebody else." Horrible treatment to a veteran like him. But he
had to do that. And something happened to him and he died. I was sorry to see that happen
to a craftsman like him, a veteran like him who deserves a lot more respect than that. But
in this industry you really have to hold on to what you have.
Aaron: If asked, would you work with Ridley again?
Mr. Hong: Well, I auditioned for him a couple times, I think, for commercials. He did a
couple commercials for, what is it, American Express or something? I came in like second.
I wasn't good enough as the old man! (both laugh)
James Hong as the younger version of David Lo-Pan
Aaron: A few years later you appeared in "Big Trouble In
Little China", another of your more popular films. Can you tell us about working on
Mr. Hong: Well, again, I've never seen so much work put into perfection. In those days
we didn't have the computer special effects we have now, and one day I was passing by the
set, walking by before we started to shoot, I looked at the set of that tunnel, remember
that tunnel, the sewer?
Mr. Hong: And as I looked at it, I said "My god, that looks like the tunnel goes
forever." But what they did was on the sewer each arch was a little bit tinier and
just went in a small ways, but it looked like it was going in and in and in forever. And
when you look at that movie, you'll see that sewer pipe looked like it went on forever.
Well nowadays you can just do that on computer effects, you know, you can do anything. So
it makes you appreciate what they did with their hands in those days. And as I said to
(John) Carpenter, I said "Wow! Somebody's going to deserve . . . the sets are going
to deserve an Academy Award nomination." And he turned around and said "Well,
how about you?". And it was very nice of him to say that. I did Lopan the best I
could, I was very happy and still am happy with that performance. I created something that
I thought was very evil but with a great sense of humor. (laughs) And I think that came
through and the fans remember all those funny lines, you know. (Lopan voice) "You
were not put upon this earth to 'get it', Mr. Burton." Things like that. And we
ad-libbed a lot, I love ad-libbing because of that comedy career. Like that line that
people remember, as I wheel my wheelchair up to the tv and I see somebody entering the
building, I said (old Lopan voice) "Now this really pisses me off to no end!"
(both laugh) That's ad-libbed. And they kept quite a few of those, whether it's that magic
that we did with our funny little hand motions and whatnot, all that stuff was fun. A lot
of fun. Everybody had fun on it. We were kind of sad to see that it didn't get the kind of
publicity and marketing that it deserved in America. They just opened it without any
publicity harldy at all. In Japan, Australia, I guess England, they did do a good amount
of publicity. It came out number one for a while. So sometimes when you do your best work
and you put everything you have into it, still it does not get the play it deserves. Geez,
you created this piece of work, people ought to at least come out and see it, you know.
But if the studio doesn't push it, it's very sad. And if you did a good performance . . .
I did what I thought was a very credible performance in "Black Widow" with Debra
Winger and Theresa Russell. And the director said he was going to try to get me nominated
for an Academy Award. But the studio's reaction was that it was released too early in the
year and the film wasn't quite popular enough. What are you gonna do, as an actor, right?
You've done your best, but it's not in your hands whether you're going to get recognized
for it or not. The only thing that would attest to what I've done is the fact that they
keep hiring me over and over again, whether "Seinfeld" or "The Drew Carey
Show" and "The West Wing" and my picture to be released now is "Art Of
War" with Wesley Snipes. I keep getting hired over and over again, that would be like
my little award. And as long as I can do it, I'll do it for the fans, you know. They're
the ones that appreciate it in the final end.
James Hong provided the voice of Chi Fu forDisney's "Mulan"
Aaron: More recently you did the voice of Chi Fu in the animated
Disney movie "Mulan".
Mr. Hong: Yes, and we did it over again for the pilot of a tv cartoon. And if it gets
sold, I'll be on almost every week as Chi Fu. A little troublemaker really. Again, I put
that humor into it that I think is in all the things I do. It was a very good pilot
especially because it has a little girl as the leader with all these goofy characters
around Mulan. Like Chi Fu.
Aaron: That's one of my favorite Disney films.
Mr Hong: Ahh, the graphics part, when I saw that for the first time, I said
"Wow!" When those horsemen came down from that hill, and Mulan and everybody
looked at that swarm of bad guys coming at them on horseback! The graphics in that are
amazing! But again it shows that the producer dedicated himself, and they did study the
Chinese paintings and that type of pastel colors. And they were able to bring that out in
a Disney film which is amazing. They did that again and again in other movies. Some miss
their mark. I thought that "Tarzan" thing was too goofy. (both laugh)
Aaron: If I hadn't seen your name in the credits, I would not
have known it was you. Chi Fu's voice is so different.
Mr. Hong: Really? Well . . . for instance, in "Godzilla" or in . . . I dubbed
several Chinese films, you know the kind of kung fu movies you see on 'Blackbelt Theater',
I'll do ten voices for those, you see. Again,you asked me what in my training was so
important, I would say to your (BladeZone's) fans and drama students, "Do anything
that furthers your talent." Because in those comedy days when I did those
impersonations, I did probably thirty impersonations, changing my voice and practicing
like crazy. Well, that practice made it perfect for the later career. In that sense, I
haven't begun to use all my voices for movies. Maybe one of these days, who knows? Never
James Hong founded the East/West players
Aaron: You founded the group East/West Players. What is that?
Mr. Hong: Yes. East/West Players has a fairly large theater down in Japanese-town Los
Angeles. It was actually a Bhuddist church of some kind, and they bought it and renovated,
changed it to a theater. It's a very, very beautiful theater. And I think approximately
three hundred, four hundred, a lot of people attend that. It's quite old now, we just
started it back in the days when I did "Rashaman". That was the first play we
did there. I don't know if you're familiar with the actor Mako.
Aaron: Ahh, no.
Mr. Hong: The Asian master in Schwartzenegger's "Conan" movies.
Aaron: OK. Yeah.
Mr. Hong: Anyway, Mako and I sat in my basement apartment one day, and I looked out
through that little high window that you can see the sidewalk through. (laughs) Those, of
course, were the very early days in Hollywood. I didn't have any work and he didn't have
any work and he said, "Well, we're not working. What should we do?". In those
days there were no workshops or theaters for us, you know. Like I say, so-called American
theaters weren't going to hire us. So we said, "Why don't we do a play and see what
we can do." So we chose "Rashaman" and Mako pitched in a great deal of
effort and he became president of East/West Players for a long time. And then from that
little effort of two guys sitting in a basement , chatting, bringing other people in, we
did that play. That led to other people joining us and now there's thousands of people
that pass through the doors. Almost every Asian-American actor has gone down to East/West
Players either to try out for a part or to attend their functions. I'm so happy to see
that group be so successful. It's become a dominant force in American theater.
Aaron: You've done a lot to help support and promote Asian and
Asian-American actors. In addition to the East/West Players, you were once president and a
charter member of the Association of Asian/Pacific American Actors.
Mr. Hong: Yeah, the reason we formed that promoted it is that we're not happy with two
things . . . One is the general image (of Asian-Americans), especially in those days, it
hasn't improved that much, it's improved some. But a lot of young Asian-American actors, I
just spoke to one the other day, and he said, "I'm tired of playing these roles where
you're just a gimmick." You know, when you're a nerd or that kind of a gimmick thing
in movies and commercials. They still don't use us as a regular person or as a
professional person, and that's true. Especially here in California when you go into a
hospital, half of the staff, most of the time, are Asians, and yet "The
Practice" and other series, I played one guest shot on there and they don't have any
Asain doctors. And the same with other series, "E.R." I think finally hired Ming
Na to play a semi-regular (role). But it's the same thing in all these lawyer shows and
whatnot, where the Asian-Americans are very prevalent, you don't see on TV, them playing
human, everyday people who are important. Only, unfortunately, in the villians I play.
Those are the only ones being offered. The image is not that great that the media throws
And the second thing is that because of that, and the unconsciousness of Hollywood, we
just had a meeting at S.A.G. and about 200 hundred people attended. The biggest
Asian-American actors showed up and why were we there? Because there's less employment for
those actors now than years ago. All of a sudden I look on TV, it's void of Asian roles,
period. How are we going to promote that, you know? So in a sense, those young people have
to take over now. I'm getting too far advanced in my age and career to be bothered with
that anymore. I tried to do everything I could. I still help, I still go to functions and
whatnot, but the energy that needs to push that forward must come from the young people
joining the profession. And hopefully something will change.
In the meantime, I'm producing little low-budget films. The next one here is about the
Genie world. The world of the Genies and how a teacher of the Genies taught what the
Genies should do, and they land in the modern world and what happens after that. So that's
a lot of fun. And I use the students and graduates from the computer schools, animation
schools and in fact just before you called me, I was trying to alter one of the animations
and make some suggestions to one of the artists so he can compute it into our little
movie. So I'm giving people a chance, animators, if there's anybody out there who wants a
chance, email or send something to your website (BladeZone) and I'll look at it. We'll do
some science-fiction, some other animated movies, etc. There's always a chance. And you
can see, I've promoted a lot of people into the limelight. One young guy was just a
monster maker. I didn't have a job for him right at that time, but he loved making
dinosaurs. Next thing I knew, he was stepping up to the podium as one of the guys
accepting the Academy Award for Star Wars. So in this industry, you just need a little
boost and if you're talented, you'll get up there.
Aaron: You've been called one of the hardest working actors in
Hollywood. I think you said you did over four hundred roles?
Mr. Hong: Yeah, yeah, over four hundred. Probably four hundred and sixty. I haven't had
the time to try and do what one of the producers said I should do, which is collect all
these credits and send it to the almanac, and say I'm the actor who played the most roles,
regardless of nationalities. Just the actor who had done the most roles. I guess I'm just
kind of waiting, when things really get slower I'll have the time. Right now I only have
forty-seven years in the industry, so maybe by the time I have fifty-two years and I know
nobody can touch me! (both laugh)
James Hong in the Wesley Snipes action thriller "The Art of War"
Aaron: Have you ever thought about retiring from acting?
Mr. Hong: Well you know, actors really never retire. You can look back to, for
instance, my predecessor, Keye Luke, he was the blind master in "Kung Fu". And
very late in his career, he did that movie with Woody Allen, I forget the name of it now,
and he had one of his best roles, he was so happy with that role. And he was getting very
old. He never really gave it up. He used to be brilliant at remembering lines, I really
admired his intelligence. He could remember lines as I was improvising. I finally realized
Keye Luke was getting old, when he started missing some of his dialogue. I said, "Oh
my God, what's happening?", you know? But he was busy till the very end.
Aaron: Where can we see you next in the movies and on television?
Mr. Hong: Well, in "Art Of War", it kind of a small role, but a pivotal role.
And maybe as a voice in the animation of "Mulan" as a cartoon. And from this
film, my Genie film, I'll do other films. So whoever's out there that wants to do
something, mail it to your website (BladeZone) and we'll connect somewhere. If you have
talent, I'm interested. If you don't, don't call me, I'll call you. (both laugh)
Aaron: Mr. Hong, I would like to thank you for taking the time to
speak with us.
Mr. Hong: Okay. Thanks a lot.