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Acting pioneer Mako dies at 72

A popular screen presence over several decades was considered the ‘godfather of Asian American theater.’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mako Iwamatsu, the Japanese-American acting pioneer who opened the doors for Asian Americans to Hollywood, died of esophageal cancer at his home in southern California on Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday. He was 72.

Born as Makoto Iwamatsu in Kobe, Japan, in 1933, he moved to the United States to join his parents, who had emigrated there earlier, when he was 15. After his service in the U.S. military, he embarked upon a career in film and theater.

In the 1966 film "The Sand Pebbles," which starred Steve McQueen, he played the Chinese character Po-han, earning an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

That and other roles in movies and theater put him in the spotlight as a serious Asian-American actor in Hollywood. In the early days of his acting career, most roles offered to Asian American actors were caricatures or stereotypes, the paper said.

Mako, who remains one of the very few Japanese actors who have been nominated for an Oscar, also co-founded the first Asian-American theater company, East West Players, where he trained many aspiring actors and playwrights.

Mako also appeared as a wizard in the 1982 film "Conan the Barbarian" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and as a Singaporean in the 1997 film "Seven Years in Tibet." Other titles he had a part include the 2001 film "Pearl Harbor" and the 1999 Japanese film "Owls' Castle," directed by Masahiro Shinoda.

"What many people say is, 'If it wasn't for Mako there wouldn't have been Asian American theater,'" Tim Dang, artistic director of East West Players, was quoted as saying. "He is revered as sort of the godfather of Asian American theater."