With hundreds of acting credits to his name and over seven decades spent in show business, there are very few actors as prolific as James Hong. Having finally been given his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this year, Hong is universally beloved by filmgoers for always turning in an excellent performance in every film and TV series he appears in, regardless of the role. He can be seen proving that once again with his latest role in Everything Everywhere All at Once, which is currently playing in theaters.
As he explains in a new interview with Ben Mankiewicz for CBS Sunday Morning, things had gotten a tad rocky in the earlier years of Hong’s career when he was still looking to make his mark in Hollywood. At the time, he was frustrated with how the only roles available for him as a Chinese actor were always for cliché characters. Hong still took on those roles to get his foot in the door and decided to give his all to the roles he’d get regardless.
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“If you didn’t play the roles that were given to you, you would be not working at all. So, in a sense, in order to keep up my craft, I had to take these roles as the Chinese railroad worker, or laundrymen, and so forth.”
In the late 1950s, Hong had landed a recurring role alongside late actor J. Carrol Naish for the series The New Adventures of Charlie Chan. This led to one of the most “hurtful” experiences of his career that Hong still has trouble thinking about more than six decades later. Hong says he had flubbed a single line which prompted an irate response from Naish, who demanded Hong’s firing immediately after the mistake.
“It’s a very hurtful thing. I was in London, doing the son of Charlie Chan. J. Carrol Nash was Charlie Chan… So, one day, he was on camera, I was off camera. I missed one line. He says, ‘What is this? A school for Chinese actors?’ I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. He started to advance. I had my fists clenched. I thought he was going to slug me or something. He walked past and had me fired. I went to his dressing room and apologized, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Nash, I missed the line.’ He wouldn’t forgive me and had me fired. I don’t talk about it, it just hurts too much.”
Mankiewicz notes that Hong was apparently fired because he had the “audacity to be of Chinese descent in a movie filled with Chinese people.” Hong then offered this response.
“That’s right. I think he was just very prejudiced.”
James Hong Brings Humanity to His Roles
Regardless of Naish getting him booted from The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, Hong did not get deterred from finding success. One peek at the busy actor’s resume shows that the roles had only kept coming, one after another, in the decades since that series ended. Hong believes that the humanity he brings to his performances is why he continues to keep getting hired.
“In every role I played, I tried to make it a human being, and that’s why I think I kept working. Because I think not only the studio but the people saw that James was portraying a Chinese as a real person and not just a cliché character.”
Still showing no signs of slowing down at 93, Hong can currently be seen in A24’s hit film Everything Everywhere All at Once which was recently re-released in theaters with new footage. He can also be heard as the voice of Grandpa Wing in HBO Max’s Gremlins prequel series Secrets of the Mogwai.