James Hong is everywhere.
No, really — at the spry age of 91, he is one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood history, with 672 credits to his name. He’s starred in several notable films, including “Blade Runner” and “Big Trouble in Little China,” and voiced Po’s father, Mr. Ping, in the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise. His TV resume includes a slew of classics such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and both versions of “Hawaii Five-0.” He also has an upcoming movie, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” in which he plays father to Michelle Yeoh’s character.
“I could just relax and tour the world, but I don’t want to do that,” Hong tells Variety in his third Zoom call ever. “My occupation is an actor, producer and I’m a little too old to be a director, but that’s tempting.”
The longtime actor is in the spotlight after Daniel Dae Kim launched a GoFundMe campaign on Aug. 5 to get Hong a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Nomination for the Class of 2022 honorees isn’t until spring, but Kim told Hong he wanted to start fundraising in advance, to allow ample time to secure the $50,000 price tag required to apply for a star. Kim and fellow actors Randall Park, Ming-Na Wen and Ken Jeong even promised a virtual conversation with anyone who donates $5,000 or more.
Hong was unaware of the campaign until Kim emailed him, days before it launched. And before Hong could reach out to his relatives for donations, the grassroots fundraiser ended, in three days, collecting more than $55,000 from 1,700 donors.
“When Daniel told me, ‘James, don’t do anything, it’s over,’ I thought he could be fibbing. Can you imagine someone just giving $55,000 or even donating $10, $50, $100 in a pandemic to boost my star on the Walk of Fame? Can’t even imagine that,” says Hong.
“I worked hard — comedy, drama, in all fields — and there isn’t a role I can think of that I didn’t work hard on,” he continues, playing coy about his popularity online. “I can’t say how gratifying it is to have this support, because I haven’t received an Academy Award or anything, and people support me as if they know me — like I’m the guy next door.”
But Hong’s rise to stardom did not come easily — it took him nearly 70 years.
The first-generation Chinese American actor grew up in Minneapolis, where he perfected his impressions in front of the mirror. Hiding his acting aspirations from his parents, he studied civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, until he was drafted to serve in the Korean War. When he returned in 1953, Hong moved to Hollywood with a friend, under the guise of finishing his degree at the University of Southern California.
While he couldn’t escape the stereotypical roles assigned to AAPI actors at the time, namely “villains, immigrants being rescued by the white guys or gimmicky, ch–ky roles with heavy accents,” Hong didn’t let the industry’s narrow lens limit his talent. “I took those roles because they were the only ones available. But I did the best as an actor to overcome the clichéness, tried to show what makes the person really that person.”
The following year, he had a breakthrough performance on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, “You Bet Your Life,” with his Marx impression. Then after starring in small roles in films with John Wayne and Clark Gable, both of whom Hong looked up to at the time, he began asking himself, “When will James Hong get to play main roles?”
Hong didn’t settle with Hollywood’s response, but set out to carve his own path. Joined by Japanese-American actor Mako Iwamatsu, in 1965, he founded East West Players — the Asian-American theater company in Los Angeles — to advocate for AAPI actors and to produce “not just Asian stories, but stories that speak to the community.” The company has since then nurtured other Asian-American actors, including George Takei and John Cho, paving the way for today’s Hollywood landscape.
“I’m obviously very happy, very proud of the progress Asian Americans have made during my lifetime, but there’s still a far way to go,” he says. “It took me too long to go from nothing to where I am now, because there was no one, no producer, director to help me. But now, we must keep advancing to the highest level and share our talent with the world — because now, you can find help if you have talent.”
Hong has one advice for AAPI actors making their mark in the industry. “I say follow Daniel Dae Kim’s example,” he says with a laugh, then adds he’s very serious. “To advance from being a great actor, to being a producer with 12 projects in line, like ‘Good Doctor’ — that’s amazing. I’m so proud of Daniel Dae Kim. In fact, I think I’ll campaign to get him a star.”