BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Examiner Assistant Editor
The news was hard to believe. How could Mako, the former U.S. Army Ranger, tree topper, boxer, Academy Award- and Tony-nominated actor and dean of Asian American theater pass away at age 72?
During the late ‘70s and in my early 20s, I practically lived at East/West Players in Los Angeles, the oldest Asian American theater company in the country, founded in 1965. Mako, one of the founders of the company, led it as artistic director until 1989. A great actor, he was an even better stage director, and an even better acting teacher when he told stories from his life to make a point.
And there were also his unforgettable rants. During one rehearsal, three veteran actors engaged in an onstage brawl over something that occurred years ago. After Mako broke it up, he glared at all at the rehearsal. “Bunch of lying actors,” he sneered. “I lived through two wars; I don’t have to take anything from punk kids in their 20s!”
That was the first of many times I heard him express his opinion of “[expletive] actors.” Back then, I didn’t understand why he harbored such disdain for his profession. I share his view now. Actors can often be full of it — especially in Hollywood.
Born in Kobe, Japan as Makoto Iwamatsu, Mako’s parents, Taro Yashima and Mitsu Iwamatsu, belonged to a group of artists opposed to Japan’s militarist government. Imprisoned for their activities, they later left for New York, leaving Mako under his grandparents’ care in Japan.
In one of the many stories Mako told, he recalled growing up in Japan during World War II. When civilians fled to bomb shelters as U.S. planes bombed Japanese cities, Mako remained on a rooftop, fascinated by all the fireworks.
Rejoining his parents in New York, one of the ways Mako taught himself English was by reading and reciting from Carlos Bulosan’s novel, “America is in the Heart.” Studying to become an architect at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, he built sets for theatrical productions and was lured into the theater instead. Skipping his Institute classes so much, he lost his draft deferment during the Korean War era. Challenged to be the “toughest of the tough,” he once said, he volunteered for the elite U.S. Army Rangers.
Another Mako story: While in the Army and using a restroom in Hawaii, a pidgin-speaking Hawaiian asked him, “You pau [finished], or what?” “Huh?” Mako replied. The Hawaiian responded: “Whassamada? You no speak English?”
Attending the Pasadena Playhouse acting school on the GI Bill, he began hearing about the new “Method” approach in which the actor “feels” the role – a technique becoming popularized by actors such as James Dean and Montgomery Clift. His Playhouse acting teacher couldn’t tell him “diddly squat” about the “Method,” Mako said. Leaving for New York, the mecca of the Method school, Mako told tales of his fellow acting students:
Dustin Hoffman’s ambition in life, Mako said, was to become the “first Jewish cowboy.” Robert Duvall played tricks on bus passengers, telling them the bus didn’t make certain stops when it actually did. During boxing training, he remembered what seemed like a “punch-drunk bum” hanging around the gym, bumming people for dimes to buy cups of coffee. That “bum” turned out to be Marlon Brando.
Returning to L.A., Mako began his screen career during the early ‘60s, playing his share of stereotypical characters and often the World War II Japanese enemy in comedies such as the TV series “McHale’s Navy.” One of his more memorable mid-‘60s roles was on the series “The Green Hornet.” Mako played a gang leader who fights a martial arts duel with Bruce Lee.
Then came the 1966 dramatic film “The Sand Pebbles” starring Steve McQueen. Playing a Chinese coolie aboard a U.S. Navy ship patrolling the rivers of China during the 1920s, Mako displayed his acting trademark: his ability to do a lot with a little. In what could have easily become stereotypical characters, Mako would give his roles more emotional content, and therefore more humanity, during 40 more years on films and TV.
Even though he was nominated for the best supporting actor Academy Award for his work in “The Sand Pebbles,” he could not find acting work for seven months after, forcing him to work “straight” jobs instead. The Asian American actors knew the reality in Hollywood that still exists today: a white actor in one hit film will become a star. Not so for the actor of color.
Mako and other Asian American actors including George Takei, James Hong and Beulah Quo formed East/West Players to play the roles they couldn’t elsewhere, and to show the Hollywood industry they could do it. The company mounted the first productions of the pioneering Asian American playwrights of the early ‘70s like Frank Chin, Momoko Iko and Wakako Yamauchi. In an interview I did with Mako for the International Examiner in 1983, he admitted he took some screen jobs just for the money “as long as it doesn’t degrade our people or help perpetuate the old stereotypes.” His real work was teaching acting, and acting in or directing shows at East/West for over 20 years. He nurtured a new generation of Asian American actors.
Mako also spent most of his professional life traveling around the country, conducting acting workshops for fledgling Asian American theatre groups. This is how I first met him, when he walked through an Asian Student Union meeting at the University of Washington, on his way to conduct an acting workshop in 1974. I went just to observe, but ended up participating. I became a part of his theater a couple of years later.
He was held in high esteem by Asian American communities across the nation, and he often lent his presence for community events. He was characteristically blunt, telling an actor that his performance was “pathetic” or that her scene “sucked,” but he did so to make actors rise to the occasion. He was also a practical joker extraordinaire – he loved to put people on, acting like he was going to unleash his temper at someone, only to start cracking up. He never did anything halfway. If he blew, it was volcanically. If he laughed, it was hysterically. And he went all the way with a practical joke.
As of this writing, Mako’s death on July 21 from esophageal cancer has received little press. Pat Morita received much more. Maybe Mako wasn’t “Hollywood” enough, and that would have been fine by him. Instead of spending nights at Sunset Strip lounges, he was directing another play.
After another show at East/West and over a few beers, one of the actors asked Mako if Hollywood would ever change: if Asians would ever be portrayed as full human beings and as the Americans we actually are.
Not in his lifetime, he said. And probably not even in ours.
In that 1983 International Examiner interview, Mako said: “We’re doing somebody else’s point of view created by somebody else. Until we can present our point of view, our stories, our experiences, our history on prime time, I don’t think we can say we’ve made it.”
“In reality,” he concluded, “we see a very little dent being made. Whatever dent being made can be easily pounded out.”
But when that Asian American actor hits the stage in an Asian American theater company production in a play written by an Asian American, Mako had a lot to do with punching in that “dent.”