"Yellowface" actors on Five-O


This is a listing of non-Asian actors playing "yellowface" roles on Classic Five-O. Don't ask me why the producers chose these actors. It seems in many cases there were Asian actors available who could have played the parts equally well or better.

I once talked to James MacArthur about this kind of casting when he was visiting Vancouver making a movie. (I have told this story numerous times.) His reaction was "Oh, not that fucking political correctness again!" His attitude was that someone playing this kind of part was just an issue of "acting," not making some kind of statement. I explained to him I wasn't bringing this up because it was P.C.-related. I guess he wasn't that annoyed, because he paid for my lunch.

More than one person has pointed out when I have posted this list in various places that I have left out one particular actor: Khigh Alx Dhiegh, who played archvillain Wo Fat. His real name was Kenneth Dickerson, he was born in Spring Lake, New Jersey and his ancestry was Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese.

While it is true that Dhiegh was not Asian, I think there is a subconscious reason why he was left off my list -- because, unlike all the other people on the list, he actually gave a convincing performance as an Asian, not only in Five-O, but in almost three dozen other films and TV shows, including The Manchurian Candidate, Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, Mission: Impossible, Seconds, The Hawaiians and The Mephisto Waltz.

My remarks below are cribbed from my reviews of the particular episodes:

Season 01. Samurai

Ricardo Montalban (seriously - Khaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!!), who played a Japanese kabuki actor named Nakamura in the 1957 film Sayonara, gives a bizarre performance as Leonard Tokura, a crime kingpin who typically claims that he is just a legitimate businessman. The actor's repartee with McGarrett is entertaining, but his "yellowface" makeup and peculiar accent both work against this. The makeup is silly and his mannerisms become annoying, including the way he smokes a cigarette like Arte Johnson's Laugh-In character. (According to Montalban's autobiography, he actually went to Japan in advance of acting in Sayonara and did some research as to how someone like his character in that film would comport themselves.)

Season 01. By the numbers

The very white Will Kuluva, born in Kansas City, plays racketeer Philip Lo in this episode. His makeup is hideous. His younger brother Johnny is played by Randall Kim, who was born in South Korea in 1943, so he was around 25 in 1968. Kuluva was born in 1917, making him 51.

Season 01. Face of the Dragon

David Opatoshu does an Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers playing the Asian patriarch Shen Yu-Lan (badly -- but not as bad as his performance in A Matter of Mutual Concern see below). Opatoshu wears a Chinese "costume" in the show and has a beard.

Season 02. To Hell with Babe Ruth

I have no idea why the producers chose Mark Lenard of Star Trek fame to portray escaped mental patient Yoshio Nagata. He doesn't fill any of the bill with his jerky movements, horrible orange makeup (in some shots he looks more like a burn victim) and terrible accent. However, he pales in comparison (no pun intended) beside Will Kuluva as Yuko Takuma, the Japanese clock shop owner. Kuluva already appeared in Asian guise as Philip Lo in By The Numbers, an equally wretched performance. (There are some interesting parallels between this show and the third episode of Hawaiian Eye (a precursor to Five-O by about 10 years -- in fact, the earlier episode was broadcast almost exactly 10 years before). It also involves an escaped mental patient who is played by the Japanese character actor Yuki Shimoda, who does a very good job.)

Season 02.Which way did they go?

Philip Pine plays Toshi Nomuru, boss of a currency exchange -- his Asian makeup is ghastly.

Season 03. The Late John Louisiana

Alfred Ryder plays the Fu Manchu-moustached Asian Harry Quon, who is into "gambling, prostitution, smack, [and] shakedowns" according to McGarrett, and is barely passable in this role as an Asian. Ryder's character does identify himself as "hapa-haole," meaning "half white."

Season 03. The Gunrunner

Local "businessman" Bajano, who is very sleazy, is played by Philip Pine, who had experience in Which Way Did They Go, playing another "Asian" (as in this episode, not particularly well).

Season 04. A Matter of Mutual Concern

David Opatoshu appears as gang boss Li Wing. Unlike in Face of the Dragon, where Opatoshu, pretending to be Chinese, was given some moderately passable makeup as well as Chinese dress, here he has no makeup at all, aside from his white hair. Trying to accept this guy as Asian really pushes "suspension of disbelief" into another galaxy! This episode is full of racist words, by the way, though they are all uttered by various "ethnic" characters.

Season 04. Is This Any Way to Run a Paradise

Richard Morrison, who plays the Asian Lai Han, appeared in the previous season's episode The Last Eden, also an ecologically-themed show. There he played a white professor. He plays the white warden of Oahu State Prison in the fourth season episode after this one.