Feature story for Minnesota magazine, University of Minnesota, Winter 2018
Most of my professional opportunities come directly from my local network. St. Louis passes around freelance writers as if they were sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving.
So I was a bit surprised when the editor of the alumni magazine for the University of Minnesota emailed me out of the blue.
We had no LinkedIn connections in common. I'd never visited the university and had only been to Minnesota once to cry along with the other Prince mourners at Paisley Park. Her outreach seemingly made no sense.
But in an email, she mentioned that she'd enjoyed a few pieces I'd written several years prior for City Pages, the alt-weekly newspaper in Minneapolis. That, too, was a fluke, enabled by the former parent company that had also owned the Riverfront Times, St. Louis' alt-weekly. For City Pages, I'd written extensively about Wizard World, a traveling entertainment convention, and had interviewed actor James Hong as someone who would be returning to his hometown for the first time in years just so he could talk to fans as part of the event.
James Hong had attended the University of Minnesota. See the connection now? It took me a while.
The alumni magazine's editor remembered my Hong piece and wondered if I'd be interested in talking with him again, this time for the university. Of course I said yes. Of course. Chatting with Hong is like talking with your favorite uncle who has all the best stories and can entertain you for hours with impression after impression.
Appropriately, that's how we titled the short Minnesota piece: "The Entertainer." For nine decades and counting, Hong has brought joy and wonder to audiences of all ages through acting, singing and teaching. But I'll always remember him as one of the most genuine celebrities I've ever talked with.
Actor James Hong considers his legacy.
By Allison Babka
Photo courtesy of James Hong
James Hong is a man of many talents, as one might expect from a guy who has earned nearly 600 film, television, and voiceover acting credits spanning seven decades. But he has a few additional skills that perhaps aren’t so obvious.
“I’m 88 now—89 pretty soon— and still can breakdance!” Hong says with a laugh.
Long before he became known for his roles in top Hollywood vehicles like Blade Runner, Big Trouble in Little China, and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, Hong grew up above his family’s herb store in the now-gone Chinatown area of downtown Minneapolis. After graduating from Central High School, Hong studied civil engineering in the early 1950s at the University of Minnesota, where, when he wasn’t studying, he entertained friends with his impressions of Clark Gable and Groucho Marx. He also did celebrity impressions on famed Minneapolis broadcaster Cedric Adams’s radio show, “Stairway to Stardom.”
Hong moved with his family to California just as his senior year at Minnesota was getting underway. And that’s when it became clear that acting—not civil engineering— was his true path. Along with his Central High friend Don Parker, Hong began performing in Hollywood nightclubs and theaters, eventually becoming one of the most prolific actors in history.
With that kind of longevity, Hong has a bird’s eye view of the entertainment industry and the state of film today. He recently saw Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the 1982 sci-fi film in which he played eyeball geneticist Hannibal Chew. He’s not sure the movie lives up to the original.
“I think the sequel is trying to be a little bit too philosophical, a little too artistic,” he says. “It didn’t excite me as much, even though it had all the special effects, which were wonderful— probably the best I’ve seen.”
Hong is an expert at entertaining audiences. His recent turns include Star Wars: Rebels, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and the upcoming Gnomeo & Juliet: Sherlock Gnomes with Johnny Depp. He says his Minnesota upbringing honed the observational skills that led to more than a few Hollywood opportunities.
“All that time practicing in front of that Minnesota bathroom mirror paid off,” Hong says. When he was being considered for the 1977 film The World’s Greatest Lover, director Gene Wilder, who was also the film’s star, needed a character called “Yes Man #3” to play opposite actor Dom DeLuise. He asked Hong if he could do any accents.
“I said, ‘Oh, yah, sure, I am from Minnesota,’ in my Swedish-Minnesota accent,” Hong remembers. “[wilder] said, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’”
With a full plate of acting work, Hong doesn’t make it back to Minnesota often, but during a visit in 2014 he noticed how much the U of M campus had changed. “There are more buildings of course,” he says. “And the wonderful river flats are gone. That’s where we used to park our car and climb up the hill. In those winter months, you had to park way down there where the ice was blowing across your face and walk up those steep hillsides to the campus.”
Hong eventually graduated from the University of Southern California. But he says he’ll always be a Gopher at heart. “I would love to get an honorary degree from the University of Minnesota,” he laughs. “I deserve it, you know.”