Makoto Iwamatsu died on Friday at the age of 72, of esophageal cancer. It’s a huge loss to Asian Americans.
If you know him at all, you probably know him better as simply Mako, the Japanese actor, who played countless character roles and supporting parts in television shows and movies starting in the early 1960s. I distinctly remember the first time I saw him, in a 1967 episode of the TV show “The Time Tunnel.” In the episode, the star, James Darren, traveled back in time to the day his father died: December 7, 1941. I don’t remember what role Mako played, but it was an emotional, wrenching episode, and I’ve always remembered Mako’s face and his raspy, unique voice. I even saw Mako live on stage, in the Broadway musical about the U.S. opening of japan in the 1850s called “Pacific Overtures.” The play didn’t last long, but I caught a performance in 1976, when I was an art school student in New York City.
Mako played his most famous role, as a Chinese engine-room sailor in the 1966 film “The Sand Pebbles,” and was nominated for a supporting-actor Oscar. More recently, he played Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind behind the Japanese attack in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor” and the 2003 Chow Yun Fat action film “Bulletproof Monk.” He even had a tiny role as the father in the beginning of this year’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
He also played bit parts in tons of TV shows in the ’60s — “McHale’s Navy,” “The Green Hornet,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Hawaii Five-O” and many more. He played Japanese and Chinese, often stereotyped roles. In movies such as “Pearl harbor” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” he spoke his native Japanese.
Mako’s most important work was off the small and big screens.
He was a giant of Asian American theater. He realized early on that Asians were only getting bit parts playing stereotypes of Asians, so in 1965 he co-founded East West Players, the nation’s first Asian American theater company, which is now based in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district. The theater gave young Asians a venue to hone their craft; Mako was the first artistic director.
The LA Times’ obit quotes Tim Dang, East West Players’ current artistic director, saysing that more than 75 percent of Asian and Pacific islander actors in acting unions in LA have worked at the theater.
That’s quite a testament to a man who came to the U.S. as a teenager; his parents came to New York in the late ’30s to study art, and Mako followed in the late ’40s to study architecture and fell into acting when he was asked to do set design and lighting for a children’s play.
Mako’s legacy is the three generations of APA actors he’s left behind. Few have accomplished as much. Here’s to a real hero of the community.