After working with a who’s who of Hollywood heavyweights like Clark Gable, John Wayne, Harrison Ford, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and literally hundreds of others in between over a sixty-year career, one might think that 85-year old James Hong might have a story or two or 10,000. Sure enough, this 85-year old Minneapolis native, who has appeared on screen in more than 500 movies and television shows, doesn’t disappoint on that front, as what was planned to be a 15-minute telephone discussion for this story from his home in Southern California ticked happily towards an hour.
In each minute there is another story, like when he and his childhood friend Don Parker – who formed the amateur comedy team of Hong and Parker in a time when duos mixing Anglican and Chinese were rarely seen and still rarely more accepted – took off for San Francisco and then Hollywood in search of the American Dream in the summer of 1953.
“I did impersonations, like Groucho Marx, Jimmy Stewart” recalled Hong of his early days. “All we could get were auditions at burlesque houses. I think one was called the Diamond Knee — the marquee had a garter and everything. We were college kids, too young to be in a burlesque house, but there we were. We didn’t get too many offers.”
Hong, born in the Chinatown section of Minneapolis, comprised of “about three stores,” he quipped, and Parker made their way to Hollywood next, where one of Hong’s first experiences was seeing the strapping actor Jack Palance, just coming into his own on his way to stardom, of all things, eating a hamburger at Hamburger Hamlet in its original Sunset Boulevard location.
Hong had nearly completed his civil engineering degree at the University of Minnesota when he began his Pacific Journey. He would in short order finish the remaining credits at USC, the degree coming in handy when the numbers game of Hollywood didn’t always strike in his favor early on.
The young actor “went on every interview,” getting a few bit parts in big films like Soldier of Fortune and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, supplementing the acting gigs with a job in his field of academic expertise.
“I made the road curves and gutters in L.A. County,” he said. “I did that for about a year, and then I got a break when I went on ‘You Bet Your Life’ with Groucho Marx. I did my whole Groucho routine and that got me noticed.”
Hong had his first extended run on a series in the TV revival of the old radio program “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan,” appearing as the famed “#1 Son” Barry Chan, then averaged about 10 films and shows each for the next 40 years. “I played dirty villains, cliche villains, persecuted Chinamen, businessmen, on shows like ‘Kung Fu,’ ‘Hawaii Five-0,’ ‘I Spy,’ anything because as an impersonator I turned out to be a pretty good actor.”
Good enough to become as familiar a face as any character actor over a six-decade span that has seen the octogenarian earn new generations of audiences with his voice work in animated classics like Kung Fu Panda and Mulan. But perhaps the film that draws the most attention from Wizard World fans at Hong’s booth and Q&A panels is Big Trouble in Little China, in which he played the memorable part of David Lo Pan opposite Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall.
“I try to think of the reason, but none of them are really good enough,” said Hong about what makes the 1986 film so enduring and endearing. “Like most movies that are popular, you can’t put your finger on it. As far as Big Trouble, I think it’s a good thing that we never made a sequel; it’s seemed to live on. I think it’s the campy humor and that the monsters are all real in the sense that they were really acted, not digital. I’d spend eight or nine hours in makeup with Steve Johnson, that’s how meticulous he was.”
But another reason also stands out to Hong — old fashioned hard work. “Everyone gave 150% on that film, 12-14 hours a day,” he added. “That kind of effort made it great. That and the mystique of the Chinese Kung Fu and the magical element, the spirit of Lo Pan. It really was special.”
Hong has been a popular guest at numerous Wizard World shows, but the inaugural Minneapolis Comic Con will have a special place in his heart when he appears there May 2-4 as a homecoming to the place he left in body six decades ago but never in spirit.
“I’m taking the opportunity to bring my wife and daughter back to the place I was born,” he beamed. “I want to share all those memories, where as a child for five cents we could fill a bag with potatoes, the places my father took me, the places I used to hang out. I look forward to seeing my old friends from the neighborhood, from Central High, from the University of Minnesota. It’s been, I’d say, seven years or so since I’ve been there.”
Of the hundreds of marquee stars and thousands of others he’s worked with, Hong is reluctant to name a particular favorite. Though he enjoyed working with many, citing immortals Lorne Green (“he would sit with the Chinese actors and play cards”) and Faye Dunaway (“an incredible actress”), he did offer one bit of insight into his acting influences.
“I’d have to say Jack Nicholson — he’s one of my favorites and a role model,” said Hong. “He is able to take any character and play it well.”
Takes one to know one…