As a child I wasn't consciously aware of the Asian faces I saw on TV and in the movies, though my awareness grew as I grew into my teenage years and beyond. Eventually, I took notice of the Asian and Asian American actors who seemed to get screen work most often -- most prominently, folks like Pat Morita, James Hong and Tamlyn Tomita, who seemed to be increasingly hard to find after her promising debut in the late '80s and early '90s.
Of course I loved iconic characters like Morita's famous Mr. Miyagi, as much for the ethnocentric pride that 'The Karate Kid' and 'The Karate Kid Part II' stirred in me as for the more general appreciation stemming from the fact that I was a child of the '80s and loved just about all of the decade's glorious coming-of-age films. Morita himself surely deserves a dedicated column, but I'd like to highlight another of the great Japanese American character actors who put a face to the underrepresented minority on stage, film and television: Makoto "Mako" Iwamatsu.
The Japanese-born actor, better known by his nickname, Mako, relocated to America after World War II and started his professional screen career with an uncredited role in the Frank Sinatra-Peter Lawford-Gina Lollobrigida-Steve McQueen war drama 'Never So Few.' (George Takei and James Hong also appeared in the film, uncredited, early in their respective careers.) Indicative of the times, Mako made numerous appearances on popular television shows 'McHale's Navy' and 'M.A.S.H.' playing different Japanese, Chinese and Korean background characters. In response to the lack of significant roles available to ethnic actors, Mako and co-founded the award-winning East West Players theater troupe in 1965 with fellow performers with the mission of giving Asian Pacific American artists a forum to explore the full spectrum of the Asian American experience. The East West Players, now in their fourth decade, continue to operate out of downtown Los Angeles.
A year after establishing the East West Players, Mako landed a supporting role in Robert Wise's 'The Sand Pebbles' playing Po-han, a laborer who befriends Steve McQueen's rebellious Naval mechanic on a gunboat in 1926 China. The film notched eight Oscar nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Mako's tragic turn. When asked in a 2002 interview to name the favorite film of his career, he chose 'The Sand Pebbles' before reflecting on the big budget war drama he'd most recently completed, adding that "unfortunately, 'Pearl Harbor' is not one of my favorites."
No one's arguing with Mako on that count, but his film career did owe a debt to the cinematic spectacle as contemporary audiences became familiar with his name once stereotypical roles for Asians gave way to more interesting work. There was 'Battle Creek Brawl ' (1980), the silly Jackie Chan crossover dud that saw Mako as Chan's martial arts mentor. And the cult comedy 'Under the Rainbow' (1981), about little people in a Hollywood hotel auditioning for The Wizard of Oz. But the role for which many genre fans know Mako best came in a sword 'n' sorcery pic opposite a relatively unknown Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The epically beefy fantasy adventure 'Conan the Barbarian' (1982) introduced mainstream audiences to Mako as the Akiro, a wisecracking wizard who brings Conan back to life and, in the sequel 'Conan the Destroyer' (1984), becomes his sorcerer sidekick. (Mako would later play another sorcerer in 1994's critically-derided 'Highlander III: The Final Dimension,' a year after pitting ninja robots against the cyborg formerly known as Murphy in 'RoboCop 3.')
For all the cheesy genre roles and dramatic turns he made, perhaps most memorably in 'Seven Years in Tibet' and most recently in 'Memoirs of a Geisha,' 'TMNT' and 'Rise,' my favorite Mako role has always been his role in 1992's 'Sidekicks.' Call it an "at that age" movie or blame it on my '90s-era Jonathan Brandis obsession; the 'Karate Kid' knockoff made a great companion film to other youth chopsocky movies of the time that also made it into heavy rotation in my VCR , films all about spunky children learning martial arts from a wise old Asian man. '3 Ninjas' had Victor Wong, 'The Karate Kid' had Pat Morita and 'Sidekicks,' of course, had Mako.
In 'Sidekicks,' Mako schooled wimpy Jonathan Brandis in martial arts and in life, teaching him lessons (example: "Always expect the unexpected") while retaining a knowing, subtle sense of humor about his own stereotypical nuggets of wisdom. He was the wise old martial arts-teaching grandpa we never had, whose guidance could turn any nerdling into a champion. (To Mako's credit, and to Wong's and Morita's as well, those characters never felt as pandering and insulting to me as they could have been.) Only in retrospect have I realized that Mako also bore a resemblance to my own maternal grandfather, which might explain why I always loved him a little bit more than his peers.
Victor Wong passed away in 2001, followed by Pat Morita in 2005 and Mako in 2006, leaving a void among the folks who formed my childhood movie memories. So here's to the sage mentors and wise grandfathers we knew, whether in the movies or in real life. We miss them all.