Asian American actors career was forged by struggle

Mako, the Japan-born actor who used his Oscar nomination for the 1966 film “The Sand Pebbles” to push for better roles for Asian American actors, died July 21. He was 72.

Mako, whose birth name was Makoto Iwamatsu, was born in Kobe, Japan, in 1933. He moved to the U.S. when he was 15 to join his parents who had emigrated earlier. After his service in the U.S. military, he embarked upon a career in film and theater.

Mako was a familiar face in film, theater and television. His TV roles included appearances on “I Spy,” “MASH,” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

On Broadway, his multiple roles as reciter, shogun, emperor and an American businessman in Stephen Sondheim’s 1976 musical “Pacific Overtures” earned him a Tony Award nomination for best actor in a musical.

He co-founded East West Players, the nation’s first Asian American theater company in 1965. As its artistic director, Mako staged, among other plays, classics such as Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.”

“What many people say is, ‘If it wasn’t for Mako, there wouldn’t have been Asian American theater,”’ Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players, said. “He is revered as sort of the godfather of Asian American theater.”

In the 1950s and well beyond, there were few roles for Asian actors on the American stage or screen. Those parts that existed were often demeaning. Typically written in pidgin English, they portrayed stock figures like houseboys, “coolies” (a deragotory term for Asian unskilled laborers), laundrymen and white slavers.

George Takei, who played Sulu in “Star Trek,” credited Mako’s acting abilities for making the most of a limited role.

Most actors played such parts and “did what they were told to do: giggle here, shuffle over there, bow and go out,” Takei said. “He was one of the early truly trained actors who was able to take stock roles, roles seen many times before, and make an individual a live and vibrant character.”

Such a role was Po-han, a Chinese laborer Mako played in “Sand Pebbles.” Most reviewers hailed the performance, saying it transcended the role’s stereotypical confines.

“Of course, we’ve been fighting against stereotypes from Day 1 at East West,” Mako said in a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the reason we formed: to combat that, and to show we are capable of more than just fulfilling the stereotypes — waiter, laundryman, gardener, martial artist, villain.”

“Unless our story is told to [other] people, it’s hard for them to understand where we are,” Mako said.

In 1981, he devoted the entire season to plays pertaining to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to coincide with the start of a national discussion on internment reparations.

Despite the progress Asian actors made during his lifetime, Mako remained adamant that many barriers still existed. As he explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1992:

“I go into a young film director’s office these days and he says, ‘Hey man, I know who you are. I grew up watching “McHale’s Navy.” ’ And I think, ‘Oh boy, here we go again.’ ”