You know the face. but you may not know that actor James Hong, who voices Panda's papa, grew up in Minneapolis
The animated "Kung Fu Panda 2" is set in a fairy-tale China but James Hong's character has his origins in downtown Minneapolis.
You may not recognize Hong's name, but you surely recognize his face (even though it's not visible in "Panda," where he plays the father of Jack Black's title character). The Minneapolis native estimates he has made 500 movies and TV episodes in his nearly 60-year career, including "Blade Runner," "Chinatown," "Airplane!" and "Seinfeld" – all of which is a little surprising since he went to the University of Minnesota for 3-1/2 years to study not acting but engineering.
Hong, 82, grew up above his father's store on third Avenue: "We called it the Chinatown of Minneapolis in those days. My father had an import/export/herb/grocery store. on the weekends, all the restaurateurs and laundrymen would gather at my father's store because it was one of the few places where they could see everyone else."
As a boy, Hong was interested in performing but, because of the prejudices of the time, he had few opportunities to do it.
"I had delved into comedy but, in those days, Minneapolis and St. Paul didn't know what to do with Asian talent," says Hong, whose parents are from China. "They couldn't find a role for me in high school because they said they didn't know what to do with a yellow face. And even at the U of M, they'd say, 'What would we do with a Chinese man in our plays?' "
Hong started a comedy act with a friend, Don Parker. in the summer of 1953, they drove Hong's father's beater to San Francisco and then Los Angeles in search of work.
"In those days, even in Hollywood, there was just no opportunity for a Chinese guy and a part-Indian guy," Hong says. "Now, there are all these places – the Comedy Store, the Improv. But we were trying to hit the big clubs like Ciro's and Mocambo, and we were out of luck."
Luck did figure into Hong's next move, though. Through a friend, he snagged an appearance on the Groucho Marx-hosted game show, "You Bet Your Life," where he dazzled the audience with his impersonations of James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart and Groucho himself. while he was trying to scrape together acting gigs, Hong completed his final semester of college at the University of Southern California, but casting agents remembered that "You Bet Your Life" appearance.
"I practiced civil engineering in L.A. county for about a year," says Hong, who soon started to get calls from those casting agents. "They called me for a Clark Gable movie ('Soldier of Fortune') and then a John Wayne movie ('Blood Alley') and a William Holden movie ('Love is a Many-Splendored Thing'). so I said, 'The heck with civil engineering.' "
Hong hasn't picked up his pocket protector since. he has worked steadily for nearly six decades, not that he's always been thrilled with the parts. in the early 1960s, he and Japanese-American actor Mako protested the film, "Confessions of an Opium Eater," which was about a harem of "Oriental" prostitutes.
"I got sick and tired of the cliche images in the Hollywood industry, so Mako and I called together a small group of actors and we started the East/West Players to create opportunities for Asian actors," Hong says.
Although his latest role, as the adoptive father of the title character in "Kung Fu Panda 2," is in a cartoon, the role is far from cartoonish. The film shows the panda (voiced by Jack Black) on a quest to discover his origins, an emotional journey that leads him back to the goose who raised him (Hong) in a noodle shop.
"Most of my roles in that last several years I have drawn from my Minneapolis background, when I would hear all these voices coming up to the second floor, where we lived, from the first floor, where my father had his store," says Hong, who visited the Twin Cities two years ago for a "grand old time" at a reunion of his class at Central High School (which closed in 1982). "All of these restaurant owners would be griping – you know how loud that can be. They'd be yelling like crazy every Sunday, going like gangbusters. every time I have a character like this, I think about those old people. almost all of my characters are based on them."
Hong says he was thrilled with "Kung Fu Panda" when he saw it earlier this week. The character has been very good to him, giving him roles in both films and a TV special (for which he earned an Annie, animation's highest award), as well as an upcoming series. The actor will be seen next, though, in this fall's "Safe," opposite action star Jason Statham.
In other words, the octogenarian is not thinking about retiring anytime soon.
"I'm probably more active right now than I have ever been," Hong says. "And I'm still wanting to do projects to help Asian-American actors be more visible. I feel we haven't progressed enough in the time I have been in the industry."
Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552.
<a href="http://www.twincities.com/entertainment/ci_18152073tag:news.google.com,2005:cluster=http://www.twincities.com/entertainment/ci_18152073Fri, 27 May 2011 05:55:45 GMT 00:00">You know the face. but you may not know that actor James Hong, who voices Panda's papa, grew up in Minneapolis