Saturday, April 14, 2012

Week of Hong Blogathon: “How do I spell classic television? H-O-N-G…”

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Week of Hong Blogathon, which was sponsored by Lost Video Archive this past week from April 9-14.  For a list of the blogs that participated in this tribute to one of entertainment’s most enduring character actors, mosey on over here.

It’s safe to say that with nearly 400 film and television credits—everything from physical acting to voice artistry—you’ve probably seen character thesp James Hong in something at one time or another.  He’s Faye Dunaway’s butler in Chinatown.  Bing Wong, owner of Wong Airlines in the comedy classic The In-Laws.  The eye manufacturer, Dr. Chew, in the sci-fi cult favorite Blade Runner.  The immortal supervillain known as Lo Pan in John Carpenter’s WTF Big Trouble in Little China (“Now this really pisses me off!” a friend of mine would always say, in a dead-on Hong impersonation.)  And of course, who can forget the owner of the titular establishment in the classic Seinfeld outing “The Chinese Restaurant?”

When I first heard about Lost Video Archive’s blogathon from my BBFF Stacia…I thought about participating, but I was completely stumped as to what I could write about.  And then I started to think—I’ve got an inordinately large number of classic TV episodes in my DVD collection…surely there must be some Hong in there somewhere!

And there is, my friends…there certainly is.

Peter Gunn: “Lady Windbelle’s Fan” (05/11/59) – Private eye fans are all too familiar with this classic series created by writer-director Blake Edwards, and this offbeat entry is the earliest James Hong credit I located in the dusty TDOY archives.  Jimmy plays Johnny Chang, the proprietor of a nightclub entitled The Green Dragon, who asks the titular gumshoe (played by Craig Stevens) in on a matter involving the titular item.  The fan is used by his fiancée Lillian Quon (Frances Fong), who dances as Windbelle in her nightly act at the Green Dragon…and though the title of this episode would seem to suggest that it’s all about the fan it’s really more about how Johnny’s father (Richard Hale) won’t approve the marriage because of his staid, traditional ways.  (Besides, you know who committed the murder in this one since it’s revealed in the pre-credits sequence.)

Non-Asian Richard Hale appears to be going for the Lo Pan look.
Actress Frances Fong and our man Jimbo are inexorably linked—beginning with the Peter Gunn outing “Lady Windbell’s Fan.”
That filthy beggar squatting to the right of Hong is Vic Perrin—OTR veteran (who, oddly, plays a deaf-mute in “Fan”) and “The Control Voice” on The Outer Limits…and speaking of which…
As would be vice presidential impersonator Wen Li, Hong bravely muddles through one of the silliest episodes of The Outer Limits, "The Hundred Days of the Dragon” (09/23/63).  But hey—a man’s gotta eat.
Bat Masterson: “To the Manner Born” (10/01/59) – Hong is still in the club bidness in this episode of the Gene Barry western, only he’s Ching Sun, a mere “houseman” for a gambling house in San Francisco.  Barry’s William Bartley Masterson has been asked by Mrs. Dwight Chancellor (Ernestine Barrier) to look after her niece Abby (Audrey Dalton), who has been spending much time at the den of iniquity run by Colonel Marc James (Myron Healey).  James murders Abby’s cousin Stuart (Jack Hogan) when Stuart demands the return of some I.O.U.’s he’s given to the Colonel, and our man Bat investigates.  (I recently received a full set of this series from my Facebook pal Rodney Bowcock…but when I watched the episode on the disc it had been labeled wrong, and I had to resort to watching it on Hulu.)

Our man Jimmy did not always have the best of luck when it came to Westerns. Hong has a brief “comedy” bit playing “Number One Cousin” of the Cartwright’s cook Hop Sing in the September 24, 1960 Bonanza episode “Badge Without Honor.”  Seated to the right of patriarch Ben (Lorne Greene) is guest star Dan Duryea, who plays a cultured hit man posing as a lawman who plans to dispose of a friend of the family.
Servant Su Chin (Hong) shows Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker) the way to his sleeping quarters in the Cheyenne episode “Legacy of the Lost” (12/04/61).  Hong only has two brief scenes but at least his character isn’t forced to speak the Pidgin English that characterized the above Bonanza appearance. 

Have Gun – Will Travel: “Coming of the Tiger” (04/14/62) – Hong has a really nice showcase in this HGWT episode: Minoru (Teru Shimada), a Japanese friend of Paladin’s, asks for his help in stopping two men—a priest (Hong) and a Samurai (Fuji)—from crossing the border into the United States, as they have been sent by forces in Japan to foment unrest among the Japanese-American community.  Minoru’s son Takura (Marc Marno) accompanies our hero on this mission, and the four men eventually find themselves at the mercy of the desert elements as Paladin and Takura take the two insurgents back to a small town to be deported.  The denouement of this one doesn’t quite work because it’s like they rushed it to wrap it up in its short running time (25 minutes); this would probably have been better served as a two-parter.

Checkmate: “In a Foreign Quarter” (04/18/62) – I’ve talked about the series Checkmate here on the blog in the past; you’ll remember that its unusual premise features a team of investigators—Don Corey (Anthony George), Jed Sills (Doug McClure) and Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot)—who are hired to prevent crimes as opposed to solving them.  The episode features Hong as Louis Quong, a curio shop owner who—according to a colleague of Hyatt’s. Dr. Joseph Low (Tod Andrews)—has been marked for murder by Low’s wife Helen (Nobu McCarthy).  Helen and Louis engaged in a indiscretion, according to Low, and the fear that her husband might find out has frayed her nerves to the point where she could very well act on an irresistible impulse and send Quong to that little knick-knack boutique in the sky.  Carl and Don want to force Helen to confess to the affair in order to save her sanity…but Jed argues that in doing so, she might bring disgrace upon her family, particularly her father (played by the aforementioned Teru Shimada).

Of course, there’s always more than meets the eye when it comes to Checkmate, and though I freely admit I often overpraise the show because I’m a fan of both the series’ top-flight casting and ingenuous plots, “Quarter” is a nice little outing and provides Hong with a meaty bad guy role.  The only sour note in this one is Tod Andrews, who’s as convincing playing an Asian as I would be playing…well, Richard Hale.

The Fugitive: “End of the Line” (12/21/65) – Hong even makes a guest appearance in the popular 60’s “road show” in a nice little role (only on the periphery of the action, however).  The ever-fleeing Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) finds himself in a small town in Florida, having had to lift train passenger R.T. Unger’s (Craham Denton) wallet (he left his behind with a truck driver from whom was hitch-hiking, said driver stopping at the gates of the Florida State Penitentiary) and because he wants to repay Unger what he owes he gets a temporary job as a dishwasher at Hee’s Rice Bowl, a Chinese restaurant.  The proprietor, Edward Hee, is played by James (natch), who takes on Kimble as his employee but advises him:  “You better clean up…my customers are suspicious enough of my food.”  It’s a good part for Hong, who shares several scenes with star Janssen…and in a way sort of sets things in motion by asking Kimble to take back some milk bottles at a dairy owned by Unger, who is then murdered by the man (Andrew Prine) responsible for knocking up his daughter (Barbara Dana).  (As you’ve probably guessed, Kimble is wrongly fingered for the deed.)

I Spy (several episodes) – During the 1960s, when spies and secret agents ruled the airwaves, our man Hong was in high demand on many adventure shows when enemies of Asian extraction were needed.  He appeared briefly in the inaugural episode of the Robert Culp-Bill Cosby series I Spy, “So Long, Patrick Henry” (09/15/65), as an air traffic controller who helps Culp’s Kelly Robinson try to stop an airplane carrying an African princess (Cicely Tyson) who's infected with typhus, and played a fortune teller in I Spy’s pilot, “Affair in T’Sien Cha”…which was actually delayed until later in the first season (it aired December 29, 1965).

Hong also turns up in one of my favorite I Spy outings, “An American Empress” (12/25/67), which stars the then Mrs. Robert Culp (France Nuyen) as an Asian princess named Mei Lin.  Though claiming to be a San Francisco native, Mei Lin has never been to Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower or any other landmark, so Kelly and Scotty (Cosby) get a little suspicious about her origins.  She’s given Kelly a precious ruby in exchange for his buying her a pair of sunglasses, so the two men take the ruby to a curator (Hong) to rustle up some additional information.  There’s a humorous bit where Hong’s curator places a call in Chinese to someone he calls “Tu Po”—and the Chinese-speaking Scotty alerts partner Kelly that the curator is actually calling the police.  (Kelly then muses as the two of them depart that he would have been arrested so many times in the past if Scotty didn’t speak so many languages.)  “Empress” also features Benson Fong, who figures in a Family Affair episode I’m going to talk about in a bit.

Hong’s most flamboyant role is a first-season episode entitled “Dragon’s Teeth” (10/13/65), in which an old flame of Kelly’s (played by Joanna Linville) is engaged to a man (Mike Faulkner) who Kelly and Scotty suspect is involved in drugs-for-munitions smuggling.  The fiance is slipped a mickey, which has been accompanied by a card with a blue dragon adorned (and the Roman numeral “III”) so our heroes start in with the shoe leather to find out the meaning of the dragon, and wind up at an establishment run by herbalist Dr, Wing Yuen Hok (Hong).

WING: Now…how may I serve you gentlemen?  Consultation, treatment or…uh…purchase?
KELLY: Consultation
WING (closing the blinds on the doors of his establishment): Consultation…heh…twenty-four Hong Kong dollars …
(Kelly looks at Scotty, then removes his billfold and peels off a wad of bills, handing them to Wing, who has finished adjusting the blinds.  He then motions for the two men to follow him to a table, where the three of them sit) Please…be seated…now…what is your subject of consultation?
KELLY: Something called chen yoi fune
WING (shaking his head): You are…police officers?
KELLY: No, we’re not…
WING (counting on an abacus): Uh…two hundred Hong Kong dollars… (Kelly reaches again for his billfold, and counts out more money) Be specific, please…
SCOTTY: Chen yoi fune…where can we get some?
WING: In your country…you have the legend of the hoop snake…here we have the legend of chen yoi fune…odorless, tasteless, instantaneous poison…I do not believe it exists…and even if it did, I could not supply you with it because I would be arrested for…malpractice
SCOTTY: Did you ever hear of the Blue Dragon Society?
WING: That is not a medical matter…
SCOTTY: Well, I mean…for two hundred dollars anything ought to be a medical matter…
WING (chuckling): I will credit you with twenty-four minutes more of…medical consultation…my prognosis, gentlemen…you will fall ill…especially if you pursue your present course…good day, gentlemen…

“Dragon’s Teeth” has got a pretty wild ending but I will warn you—it’s one that will probably have you saying “You have got to be kidding me…”

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: “The Alexander the Greater Affair (Parts 1 & 2)” (09/17-24/65) Two days after the premiere of I Spy, Hong plays a very small part in the other NBC spy series’ second season opener as Prince Phanong, a potentate whose wife becomes known in the biblical sense by the megalomaniacal Alexander (Rip Torn), an industrialist who is plotting world conquest and who hopes to do so by breaking every one of the “moral commandments,” including “thou shalt not kill” (he plans to assassinate a foreign president, who’s played by the ubiquitous Teru Shimada).  Hong appears only in two short scenes comprising both episodes, but in one of them he gets to rock this turban:

Most of this classic two-part episode, however, focuses on Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kurakin’s (David McCallum) efforts to stop Alexander, with the help of Alexander’s estranged (and ditzy) wife Tracey (Dorothy Provine). “The Alexander the Greater Affair” was later released (with some bonus footage of Yvonne “Batgirl” Craig added, playing a sexy spy named “Maude”) theatrically as One Spy Too Many (1966)

I Dream of Jeannie: “Jeannie and the Kidnap Caper” (02/12/66) – If there was a call out for funny Asian spies, you can bet James Hong checked his messages.  Captain Tony Nelson (since this is a first season episode, he hasn’t been promoted yet) has extracted a promise from Jeannie that she will no longer use her powers to “help him”…and since she has taken a solemn genie oath (I mean, like super-serious—she’ll turn to dust if she breaks it) she must helplessly stand by when he’s kidnapped by foreign agents, led by lovely “Princess” Linda Ho.  Our man Hong and veteran character thesp Richard Loo plays her henchmen, Chan and Wong (respectively), and at one point in the narrative Jimmy shows Tony the equipment he’s going to use for Nelson’s water torture.

Donkey Hong.
Hong’s Chan also suffers the indignity of being transformed into a donkey, which Jeannie is able to do after transferring her “genie allegiance” to Tony’s best bud Captain Roger Healey (also pre-promotion).  This outing from the sitcom’s first season is pretty funny, an example of how fresh the program was in its early years before it relied time and time again on formula.

Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.: “You Bet Your Won Ton” (01/25/67) – Just like the “Chinese Restaurant” episode of Seinfeld, Jimmy often found himself in the restaurant business in guest star roles on sitcoms.  This one has idiot Marine Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) looking for a joint that can accommodate a banquet he’s planning for a fellow Marine who’s been accepted to OCS (Officer Candidate School). After stopping to ask a Chinese pedestrian (a hilarious bit by veteran “Number Two Son” Victor Sen Yung, who tells Gom Chinese cuisine doesn’t agree with him but he knows a great delicatessen) for advice he spots a large number of customers going into Wong’s Far East Pagoda, so he decides to check the place out.

Wong’s is really a front for a gambling joint run by Mr. and Mrs. Wong (Hong and Frances Fong!), but the clueless Gomer sits down and orders lunch, much to Mrs. Wong’s surprise.

GOMER: I want a bowl of chow mein…a pot of tea…and a fortune cookie…
WONG: Chow mein?
GOMER: Uh-huh…you know, those vegetables…with little slices of chicken…
WONG: Yes, yes…I know chow mein…listen, Marine—you want good advice?  Go across street…eat at Lum Que’s…
GOMER: Lum Que’s?
WONG: They got real good chow mein…much better than here…
GOMER (indignant): Shame on you for telling me to eat over there!  What if the proprietor heard you say that?
WONG: I’m proprietor!
GOMER: You?  You’re Mr. Wong?  Well, why in the world would you tell me to go to the restaurant across the street?
WONG: You like it better!
GOMER; Well, how do you know?
WONG: You want eat?  Good food?  Hot?  Tasty?
WONG: Go across street…

Well, it could have started here: James Hong and Frances Fong in one of the early teamings in an episode of Bachelor Father, “A Man of Importance” (05/19/60).

Realizing they must keep up the illusion that they’re running a restaurant, the couple whips something up in the kitchen for him—actually, they were in the restaurant business two years ago but the place tanked, and the gambling den has proven to be much more lucrative.  (WONG: “Lotus…if it wasn’t for the gamblers, I’d be living with my in-laws in San Francisco.”  MRS. WONG: “Well, you just keep it up, Wong…and you’ll end up living with inmates in San Quentin!”)

Gomer is so impressed with the food that he’s going to hold the banquet there—over Wong’s protests, the doofus Marine tells him that if they won’t accommodate him and his friends they’re going to march up and down outside until they do.  So the Wongs swing into restaurant mode (they need the tables usually reserved for card playing for the food preparation, which drives off their regular clientele) and that night Gomer, Sergeant Carter and company enjoy a wonderful meal.  But as Carter is getting ready to give a speech (his refusal to attend the banquet at first gives away when Gomer appeals to his vanity), a pair of plainclothes detectives (Harry Hickok, Larry J. Blake) raid the restaurant…and when they attempt to prove to Gomer what’s really going on back in the kitchen, they find…the Wongs running a kitchen.  (The couple has decided to walk the straight-and-narrow, particularly after Gomer tells them the word of mouth about the restaurant will fill the place with new customers.)  “You Bet Your Won Ton” is a funny episode, though I will admit that one’s tolerance for Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. will depend on how willing you’re able to suspend your disbelief in Pyle’s world: where sharpies lie in wait around every corner just waiting for a patsy like Gomer to come along:

Family Affair (two episodes): In the Monogram Charlie Chan films, actor Benson Fong was “Number Three Son” Tommy Chan—but he gets a promotion in this Family Affair episode, “Number One Boy” (12/04/69), in which he plays Eng Ho, a servant who was in Bill Davis’ (Brian Keith) employ during a recent business trip to Hong Kong.  Told by “Uncle” Bill to stop and see him sometime when he’s in New York, Ho takes him up on the offer—thinking that Davis requires his “Number One Boy” services.  The only problem, naturally, is that Bill’s already got a number one boy in “gentleman’s gentleman” Giles French (Sebastian Cabot)…whose style is invariably cramped when Davis asks him to allow Ho to do his thing around the household until he can get him a job.  Bill explains to nieces Cissy (Kathy Garver) and Buffy (Anissa Davis) and nephew Jody (Johnny Whitaker) the importance of Ho “not losing face”—prompting Jody to inquire of French: “If you lose face…what will happen to your beard?”

Hong’s participation in this one is minimal—he plays a character named “Phil Lee” who is asked by Bill at his office (it’s never specified whether he’s a colleague or an underling) if he knows of a suitable position for Ho, and Phil recommends Ho to a woman (Frances Fong again!) who wants to hire Ho as a headwaiter for her family’s restaurant.  Ho is reluctant to leave, but he overhears Bill and the family talking with Mr. French, asking French to stay and not resign because he is loved…so it’s off to the restaurant with Ho.  The Ho character returned in a fifth season episode, “Eastward Ho!”—in which Ho has entered into an arranged marriage with a girl who falls for her escort instead.

James Hong also appeared in an earlier Affair episode entitled “The Baby Sitters” (04/01/68), an amusing outing in which Buffy and Jody are looked after by multiple “sitters”—including a dentist Bill is desperately trying to locate (he’s broken a bridge).  Hong plays one of two Hong Kong engineers attending a briefing with Davis, and “brief” perfectly describes his participation in this outing (he has a few lines, mostly recommending a Hong Kong dentist to Bill in the event he can’t contact his regular guy).  Watching the Family Affair episodes was the most painful part of this blogathon, by the way, because it has been well-documented throughout the Internets that I was forced to watch this saccharine sitcom as a kid (it was my sister Kat’s favorite) and have despised it ever since.  (Then how come you have all of the episodes on DVD?) Hey—do not judge me.

Here’s Lucy: “Lucy the Laundress” (01-12-70) – I’m going to wrap this up with one of James Hong’s funniest classic TV showcases.  Here’s Lucy was “the queen of television’s” third successful sitcom, and while it had an appealing premise—Lucy played a working mother employed by her brother-in-law, Harrison Carter (Gale Gordon), at his employment agency, who was raising two teenagers at home, Kim (Lucie Arnaz) and Craig (Desi Arnaz, Jr.)—it often fell back on the same “Guest Star of the Week” gambit as its predecessor, The Lucy Show.  Having Lucy’s real kids play her TV offspring was kind of an inspired touch, and bringing Gordon along (he had co-starred with Ball on the earlier Lucy Show) was a plus because he was Lucy’s ideal foil.  (I also liked how they made him her brother-in-law in order to explain how she still managed to keep her job; I could never really figure out why Gordon’s Theodore J. Mooney on the previous sitcom never kicked her to the curb.) 

Many of my favorite Here’s Lucy escapades are the ones that don’t rely so heavily on big-time celebrity wattage. In this episode, Lucy has just finished lecturing son Craig for getting a parking ticket, boasting that she is “a perfect driver” (she’s also been chiding Kim about a dress she’s purchased for a party, scolding that the hemline is too short).  She then proceeds to back into a laundry truck, owned by guest star Hong. 

LUCY (on telephone): Yeah…well, gee, Mary Jane—I just hope the kids don’t find out about the accident…of course, maybe I shouldn’t be too worried… (Lee Wong has just entered the employment agency office) This truck I backed into belongs to a Chinese laundry, and you know how the Orientals are…calm, philosophical—not a bit interested in material things…why that laundry man probably wouldn’t accept money if I offered it to him…
WONG: Try me!
LUCY (flustered, she concludes her phone conversation): Uh…oh…uh…forget everything I said, Mary Jane…goodbye…
WONG: Permit me to introduce myself…I’m Lee Wong…owner of the Chinese laundry truck with radiator that squirt up in the air like fountain…?
LUCY (laughing): Squirt up like fount….ha ha ha…oh, that’s funny…ha ha ha…
WONG: Sense of humor come in handy when pay for damage to my truck… (He reaches into his suit jacket and pulls out a piece of paper) Here is estimate of damage…will accept personal check with driver’s license…assuming you have one…
LUCY: Of course I have one!  It would be illegal to back into your truck if I didn’t have a driver’s license… (She looks at the invoice) Ninety-seven dollars and fifty cents…gee, look, Mr. Wong…if I said I was sorry, would you be willing to forget the whole thing?
WONG (laughing and smiling): Wong happy to forget…
LUCY (relieved): Oh…
WONG: But radiator has good memory

Lee Wong introduces his two daughters to a crazy redhead.  The one in red is Rosalind Chao, who later played Soon-Lee (Klinger) on M*A*S*H and After MASH, to name a few of her many credits.
Hong (his character is named Lee Wong) ends up having to hire Lucy to work in that establishment because her insurance company won’t pay for the damages (her policy expired three minutes before impact) and he wants his money.  After ruining a fat man’s funny underwear (she smashes an ketchup-soaked hamburger on them with a steam iron…oh, that Lucy) the next customer is daughter Kim, who has a peach stain on her dress thanks to Br’er Craig.  Lucy doesn’t want Kim to know she’s working there, so she dawns this getup:

Oh, Rucy...
Yes, it’s as embarrassing as it looks—complete with substituting “r’s” with “l’s” and vice versa.  Then Harry turns up looking for Kim (he needs a contract that Lucy’s working on) and soon Craig makes four…finally, Lucy’s ruse is uncovered and as she bawls in typical Lucy fashion, her kids forgive her for the fact that she acts certifiably insane at times.

Because it’s a product of its time (the episode was aired in 1970), a lot of the humor in this show will simply not pass muster with an audience today, owing to its broad Asian stereotypes.  What I found interesting about this is that Hong does a brief introduction on the episode at the beginning on the Season 2 DVD acknowledging that, sure, it will come off as offensive but his interpretation of it was that Lucy’s stereotype was a sort of sly parody of how society viewed Asians as a cliché at that time (he reminisces that Ball had difficulty keeping a straight face when shooting the sequences).  I’m not entirely certain I buy it---hell, I’m not even sure Hong buys it—but I did enjoy his performance.

I decided to set 1970 as a cutoff point for this essay—I know I could go on forever, and I regret that there’s one or two shows on that IMDb resume that I could have looked at but the deadline was definitely pressing.  I suppose I don’t have to tell you that I am a major James Hong devotee, and I’m positively giddy about getting the opportunity to participate in a blogathon dedicated to an actor who’s most assuredly earned it.  “Seinfeld…four?”


Jeff Flugel said...

What a great post! You've really done Mr. Hong proud with your detailed overview of his vintage TV appearances. I've seen all of those I SPY episodes you referred to, and Hong is a delight in all of them.

Dawn said...

I did not realize until after reading your awesome post.. that I have seen so many Hong performances.. and that I'm a huge fan..

Stacia said...

Great post, Ivan!

I read this last night and keep thinking about that Lucy episode, and I don't know what to think about the claim that it was all parody. On the one hand, Lucy's stereotypes at the beginning turn out to be completely incorrect, making her look foolish. But my memory is that the part where she gets into disguise it becomes embarrassing and offensive.

Reruns of her show were outdated even when I was very young in the mid to late 1970s. Lots of us kids would watch the show after school and the next day at recess play "Lucy" (speaking of embarrassing) but none of us liked it when the disguises came out. We were 7 years old, laughing at how Lucy's male disguises always had her still wearing that blue eyeshadow and false lashes while everyone on the show pretended they didn't recognize her.

Which again makes me wonder if the show really was engaging in parody or pastiche? Or was Lucy's ego so out of control she thought her storylines and get-ups were believable?