Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

RIP, Pat Morita

Lawrence Downes, a NY Times op-editorialist, has a fitting memorial to Pat Morita in today's Times. In it, he questions where the quality roles for Asian American actors, particularly men, are.

But it's distressing to think that the life's work of one of the best-known, hardest-working Asian-American actors is mostly a loose collection of servile supporting roles.

I know nothing about Mr. Morita's ambitions; if he had a longing to interpret Eugene O'Neill on Broadway, I have not heard of it. But actors generally have to work within the range of what's available. And with Asian-Americans, particularly men, what's available generally stinks.

I was taken by the piece because it's rare that East Coast papers, especially the "paper of record," discusses the paucity of APIA representation on screen. However, Downes does a great job of paying tribute while questioning (bitch-slapping) the system that Morita worked within.

Mr. Morita was one of the last survivors of a generation of Asian-American actors who toiled within a system that was interested only in the stock Asian. Harold Sakata played Oddjob in "Goldfinger" and was typecast as a mute brute forever after. Philip Ahn played houseboys and villains for decade upon decade.

Some actors - well, a couple - broke out, like George Takei, Mr. Sulu in "Star Trek," and Jack Soo on "Barney Miller." B. D. Wong's role on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is a major improvement, but it will be a long, long time before we erase the memory of the bucktoothed, jabbering Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," or Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan. . . . . .

Mr. Miyagi remains everybody's idea of a positive character. Who can forget "wax on, wax off," his wise counsel linking car care to karate? But still, it bother me Miyagi-san so wise, but find so hard use articles, pronouns when talk. [Emphasis mine.]

Perhaps this piece will be used as a launching point for the fat cats in Hollywood to look within themselves or the creative agencies or the writers' workshops and to come out with some meaty roles for Asian American men. I can still try to pin my hopes on runaway trains. At this rate, I would even welcome a character who has a model minority job like a nuanced Asian American male doctor role, as long as it's not the wacky sinister dentist with the coke bottle eyeglasses from Alias. The only thing that guy lacks is a Fu Manchu mustache.


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