Japanese-American actor Mako (1933–2006), who used only that single name professionally, almost single-handedly established a tradition of Asian-American theater in the United States, providing inspiration in the process to several generations of film and television performers. Mako himself had a high-visibility Hollywood career, beginning with an Academy Award-nominated performance in the film The Sand Pebbles (1966).
"In 1965," noted David Henry Hwang in the Los Angeles Times , "there were no Asians in America. At least according to Hollywood, there were only Orientals, Japanese and Korean enemies, mysterious foreigners crammed into exotic Chinatowns, geisha girls beguiling American servicemen abroad, Charlie Chans, Fu Manchus, and the cook on 'Bonanza.'… Yet in 1965, a young actor named Mako believed Asians did exist in this country, and he spent his life proving it." As a result of Mako's efforts, audiences flocked to plays by Hwang himself, such as M. Butterfly and other works by Asian American authors.
Raised by Grandparents in Japan
Mako was born Makoto Iwamatsu in Kobe, Japan, on December 10, 1933. When Mako was five, his parents moved to New York City to study art, but with relations between the United States and Japan deteriorating, Mako was left with his grandparents in Japan. Unlike the majority of Japanese in the United States, Mako's parents, because of their New York City location, escaped imprisonment in the internment camps set up in the Western states during World War II, and they worked for the U.S. government Office of War Information. They were later granted U.S. residency, and Mako came to New York to join them in 1949. Moving from devastated postwar Japan to New York, he was amazed and disoriented by the contrasts between wealth and poverty in America. At first he aimed toward the former, giving up his Japanese ways. But his father scolded him. "You don't know the assets and legacy you were born with," his father said, as Mako recalled to Patrick Pacheco of the Los Angeles Times . "You're a fool if you let them erode."
Mako enrolled at New York's Pratt Institute to study architecture, but he found his true vocation when a friend asked him for help designing a set for a children's play. Mako began spending time around actors and theater students. "That's when the trouble began," he was quoted as saying by Jocelyn B. Stewart in the Los Angeles Times . "I was out of class so much that I lost my deferment." Drafted into the U.S. Army, he served for two years in Korea, visiting Japan on leaves and reestablishing his connections with his native culture.
When he was discharged, Mako settled in Los Angeles, California, where his parents had moved in the meantime. Using funds he was paid under the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, known as the G.I. Bill, he enrolled in theater classes at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, an important theater education institution in the Los Angeles area. He married dancer, choreographer, and actress Shizuko Hoshi, and the pair raised two daughters, Sala and Mimosa. With little acting experience and few role models to follow, Mako lacked confidence in his skills. But the classes at the Pasadena Playhouse were competitive, with students being cut from the program after each quarter-year term. As Mako continued to make the cut, he became more confident and more committed to the idea of an acting career. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1956.
After he completed the program in Pasadena, Mako went to New York for two years and took classes in so-called "Method" acting, the technique of having an actor immerse himself or herself in the emotions being portrayed. His teacher was Nola Chilton, whom he credited in a 1986 interview with Janice Arkatov of the Los Angeles Times as "the foundation I have now as an actor and director." He paid his way during this training by working as a cab driver and produce market assistant, telling Arkatov that "all the things I did in those days gave me a 'file' on the various characters I had to work on." Finally he returned to Los Angeles and tried to break into the acting profession in Hollywood. He faced long odds, for many serious Asian roles at the time were still played by Western-born actors. The few roles open to Mako were written in a stilted, stereotyped dialect that hardly resembled the actual speech of Asian Americans.
Landed Series of McHale's Navy Roles
Starting out in his career, however, Mako took what roles he could get. His first television role came in an episode of McHale's Navy in 1962, and he appeared in seven episodes of the show, in various roles, over the next three seasons. For decades, to his dismay, he remained identified with those roles. "I go into a young film director's office these days and he says, 'Hey man, I know who you are. I grew up watching McHale's Navy ,'" Mako told Pacheco. "And I think, 'Oh boy, here we go again.'" Mako also had roles in such popular series as I Dream of Jeannie, I Spy , and Burke's Law .
Frustrated with these roles and with the lack of serious acting opportunities for Asian Americans generally, Mako and a group of like-minded friends founded the East West Players in 1965. It was the first Asian-American theatrical organization in existence. Star Trek actor George Takei lent the group financial support during its financially precarious early years, which saw its inaugural production, Rashomon , mounted in a church basement in 1966. David Henry Hwang's mother served as piano accompanist during the company's early years. Later the organization prospered, moving to a storefront on Santa Monica Boulevard and then to a 240-seat theater in Los Angeles's Union Center for the Arts.
Mako invited Hollywood director Robert Wise to attend that first production, and the director agreed. That led to Mako's casting as Po-han in Wise's epic film The Sand Pebbles , set in China in 1926. The role was still a typically subservient one (and portrayed a Chinese, rather than Japanese, character), although Mako's character did win a boxing match against an American sailor at one point. More important, Mako virtually remade the role with his performance, which added multiple dimensions to the character and made him a sympathetic figure integrally involved in the action. Mako was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, and he won a Golden Globe for his performance. Takei, as quoted by Stewart, pointed to the performance as a turning point in the depiction of Asian Americans on film. Other actors, Takei said, "did what they were told to do: giggle here, shuffle over there, bow, and go out. [Mako] was one of the early truly trained actors who was able to take stock roles, roles seen many times before, and make an individual a live and vibrant character."
Mako continued as a linchpin of the East West Players until his departure from the company over artistic disagreements in 1989. He acted in plays, directed them, and even wrote several, including There's No Place Like a Tired Ghost (1972) and Christmas in Camp (written with Dom Magwili in 1981). The company moved beyond contemporary Asian-American plays, mounting productions of works by Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Bertolt Brecht, Henrik Ibsen, Federico Garcia Lorca, and other Western playwrights from whose productions Asian Americans had long been excluded. "Ninety-nine percent of us are born and raised here," he told Arkatov, referring to the company of actors at East West, "so sometimes we feel a lot closer to Western than Eastern culture. We do those plays to show that we, too, can accommodate the work, give audiences a chance to see us in untraditional roles."
Appeared on Broadway
Publicity from The Sand Pebbles also propelled Mako to a new variety of film and television roles. He appeared in several episodes of the hit Korean war comedy-drama M*A*S*H in the 1970s, and in other successful series such as Love, American Style, Hawaii, Five-O , and The Incredible Hulk . His film roles included Walt Disney Studios' The Ugly Dachshund , and Fools (1970), in which he played a psychiatrist. Mako's biggest role in the 1970s, however, was in a field in which he had no training at all: the Broadway musical. In 1976 he was signed to play the Reciter in Stephen Sondheim's musical Pacific Overtures , which featured an all-Japanese cast.
The role was a difficult one, with Mako's Reciter character both commenting on and taking part in the action. He had to sing rapid rhymes reminiscent of the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, such as "The man has come with letters from Her Majesty Victoria, as well as little gifts from Britain's various emporia." At one point, struggling with the tough opening number, "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," Mako offered to turn the role over to another actor, but the offer was refused. Mako's performance became one of the musical's strongest drawing cards, and he won a Tony nomination for his performance.
Among general moviegoers, Mako was perhaps best known for his major role as Akiro the Wizard in Conan the Barbarian (1982), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and its sequel Conan the Destroyer (1984). But he worked consistently in films in the 1980s and 1990s, keeping up his theatrical activities on the side. Mako made one film, Chinmoku (Silence), in Japan in 1972 but never returned. He returned to Broadway in 1992 in the play Shimada , which took as its theme the then-front-burner issue of Japanese domination of world business. Between 1980 and 2000 he generally made one or more series television appearances each year. After the break from East West he returned to the company in 2001 to direct the Frank Chin play The Year of the Dragon .
In 1994 Mako received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but the depth of his contributions to American dramatic arts remained underappreciated, and toward the end of his life he felt that, despite the fact that Asian roles in films had progressed from subservient characters to gangsters and the like, stereotyping was still flourishing. Suffering from cancer of the esophagus, he continued to work. He had a small role in the epic Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). Mako provided a voice in several animated films, and at the time of his death he had completed a vocal track for the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles , slated for release in 2007. He died on July 21, 2006, in Somis, California, outside of Los Angeles. "Mako's life," wrote Hwang, "touched that of every Asian American theater artist, whether he or she knew him or not; when he passed away on July 21, we all lost a colleague, a friend, and an ardently supportive father."
Notable Asian Americans , Gale, 1995.
Independent (Los Angeles, California), July 25, 2006.
Los Angeles Times , April 3, 1986; April 19, 1992; September 27, 1992; July 23, 2006; July 29, 2006.
New York Times , July 25, 2006.
Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), July 23, 2006.
Times (London, England), July 25, 2006.
Variety , July 24, 2006; July 31, 2006.
"Mako," All Movie Guide , http://www.allmovie.com (December 21, 2006).