If you’ve watched movies or television anytime since the mid-1950s, you have probably seen some of James Hong’s work.
One of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood, James, 93, has amassed a whopping 672 credits, including 469 TV appearances and 149 roles in feature films.
He’s lent his talent to iconic films like Blade Runner and Chinatown and enjoyed roles in a vast variety of television series, from adventures like Bonanza and The Fugitive to comedies including I Dream of Jeannie and The Big Bang Theory.
James even voiced a role in the recent animated Disney feature Turning Red. “I could easily retire,” he tells Closer. “But I want to do more films.”
This summer, James received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame — and it’s about time! “It took 70 years, so it’s a great prize to me,” he says. “The Chamber of Commerce of Hollywood did me a great honor.”
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Minnesota. I think I was about 4 or 5 when my father said, “You kids are becoming too Americanized.” Even in the old days, can you imagine? He said, “Pack up and we’ll go to Hong Kong and live there.” So that’s what we did. I stayed there about five years, through their grade school. And then the Japanese war was coming so we had to flee. At the age of about 9, I returned to America and went to back to Minnesota where I was born.
That must have been a culture shock!
I couldn’t speak any English. As a child, I was speaking Chinese in Kowloon, Hong Kong. So I started life all over again at 9.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Actually, I wanted to be an engineer who would build beautiful buildings and bridges. I graduated from college as a civil engineer. Also, I dreamt that I could be a famous actor.
Was choosing between your careers hard?
No. I worked for L.A. County building roads. So you might say some of the roads here were designed by me! But my love of acting took over.
You’ve worked with so many wonderful actors over the years. Who have been some of your favorite costars?
Jack Nicholson. He is very creative. That scene I did with him in the garden in the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, was incredible. You could tell he was searching into the soul of that character. He is my idol in terms of how to do a scene. I also enjoyed Lorne Greene. When I walked on the set of Bonanza, there were a lot of Chinese extras there, playing cards. And there Lorne was, playing with them. He was really a regular, nice, friendly guy.
How did you deal with prejudice in your profession?
It’s that silent type of prejudice that bothers me. You don’t know what’s happening because it’s happening in the offices. In the early part of my career, all the main acting parts were played by white people instead of Chinese people. I kept hearing the statement that “Chinese actors were not salable,” so we didn’t get those roles. That lingered for a long time. We were sort of like the silent minority. But I just kept doing what I’m doing, and now I see the fruits of my labor.
How have you tried to advance Asian American actors?
Especially during the early part of my career, Asian Americans were cast in very cliché roles only. I created and formulated the first acting class in Hollywood specifically for Asian Americans in approximately 1960. From that, eventually, I formed the East West Players, which really blossomed into a nationally recognized theater. Our showcases caught the attention of the industry, and that was the beginning of the movement to consider Asian Americans as real actors.
One of your most famous roles is Hannibal Chew in Blade Runner. What do you recall about playing the part?
I remember I went in to try on the costume for playing the eyeball maker. They put this heavy, stiff animal hide on my shoulders. But it was exactly what my character should have been wearing! The set really had such creativity to it. I said to myself, “Geez, how should I play this scene?” I started talking to the eyeballs in Chinese as if they were my children, my grandchildren. I created a dialogue, which they used part of, and it created a very warm scene.
More recently, you voiced Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda movies.
Yes, Mr. Ping is the only character that has run through all of the Kung Fu Panda movies and series. That is an honor the producer bestowed upon me to say, “James is the only guy that can play Mr. Ping!”
Did any of your children follow you into show business?
They all did. All three of my children started early in show business. They did many roles in TV and movies. However, as is common in this industry, female roles are very few and far between; therefore they dropped out of acting on the screen. At this time, [my daughter] April Hong is still doing many voice-over roles.
And you’re a grandfather. What do you enjoy about it?
The best part is to watch them do silly things. Actually, they all love performing. A few of them are musicians. I don’t see them as much as I’d like as they are way up north, near Oregon.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Yes, I have the TV series American Born Chinese — which has an all Chinese cast. I have to learn more Mandarin for it. I also have the animated series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai and Rebel Ridge with Don Johnson. And I will be on The Muppets! I love the puppets. For my own production company, I have a new feature film being released soon — Patsy Lee & The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms. I can’t believe I am so busy!
Do you have any other career goals?
To win the Academy Award. Also to establish myself in Guinness World Records as the actor with the most acting roles ever. I also want to help open a Chinese restaurant that serves food like my father did. It’s time to have a Chinese American restaurant that stands out in California’s history.