Following the outcry over the lack of roles available to non-white actors, the recent death of a British-born, ethnically Chinese performer served as a reminder that Asian actors have been around for a long time and deserve their time in the spotlight.
Burt Kwouk, a British character actor indelibly remembered for his work in the Pink Panther films as Cato, the manservant who sprang comic traps on the bumbling detective Jacques Clouseau with karate chops and nunchaku skill, died on Tuesday. He was 85.
As Cato Fong, Kwouk was a highlight of the slapstick Pink Panther franchise. His boss Clouseau, originally played by Peter Sellers, tasked him with keeping the police inspector’s wits sharp through frequent, unexpected surprise attacks whenever Clouseau came home.
Their confrontations inevitably destroyed Clouseau’s flat, where Cato hid behind doors or atop Clouseau’s four-poster bed. With the exception of major stunts, such as an 24-metre leap into the River Seine in Paris, Sellers and Kwouk performed the fights themselves.
“Cato is a physically very agile human being,” Kwouk said in Mr Strangelove, a 2002 biography of Sellers by film scholar Ed Sikov. “In those days, so was Burt Kwouk.”
The gag spanned seven films and numerous beatings to Kwouk’s head and body, and the bouts always ended promptly when a knock came at Clouseau’s door or his telephone began to ring.
The Pink Panther films brought Kwouk greater visibility than many other British actors of Asian descent at the time, even as they trafficked in stereotypes. Clouseau referred to him as his “little yellow friend” with “little yellow skin”.
He appeared in sinister or henchmen roles in the James Bond films Goldfinger (1964) and You Only Live Twice (1967), as well as in a spoof of the Bond series, Casino Royale (1967), that starred his onscreen sparring partner Sellers as the ultra suave British secret agent.
On television, Kwouk had stints in the 1960s spy series Danger Man, The Avengers and The Saint, and a 1982 appearance in the long-running adventure series Doctor Who. In the 2000s, he played the electrician Entwistle on the British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine.
In what was perhaps his strangest role, he performed exaggerated, heavily-accented voiceovers for Banzai, a British spoof of Japanese gameshows that aired in the early 2000s. The show urged viewers to bet on stupid things such as whether someone was hiding under “the shame of a wig.”
Kwouk was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2011 for his role in paving the way “for other actors from the Chinese community”.
“When I started as an actor 50 years ago,” Kwouk said in an earlier interview with London’s Independent newspaper, “every Chinese character had to say ‘flied lice’. Now, thankfully, that’s finally changing and we are allowed to say ‘fried rice’ like in real life.”
Herbert Tun-Tse Kwouk was born in Warrington, England, on July 18, 1930. He moved to Shanghai a few months later, and his prosperous family sent him to study at Bowdoin College in Maine, US. After his graduation in 1953 with a degree in government, he settled in England and worked odd jobs until a girlfriend “nagged him into acting”.
He had a noteworthy supporting role in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), a melodrama featuring Ingrid Bergman as a missionary in China helping guide orphans to safety from Japanese invaders in the 1930s. He played a reformed prisoner who sacrifices his life to aid Bergman.
Mostly, Kwouk was cast in villainous and untrustworthy roles. He found ample work in Hammer studios horror films of the 1960s as the assistant to Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu. He debuted as Cato - then spelled Kato - in A Shot in the Dark (1964), the second Pink Panther instalment, and continued in the series after it sunk into the doldrums after Sellers died in 1980.
Other credits included The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), Rollerball (1975), and Steven Spielberg’s second world war drama Empire of the Sun (1987).
In an interview with film historian Barry Littlechild at the London Cinema Museum in 2010, Kwouk acknowledged that the Pink Panther films had brought him an unusual amount of fame - enough that people recognised him, but not enough that they knew who he was.
“I’m a very familiar face,” he said. “People don’t say, ‘Oh there’s Burt Kwouk.’ What they say is, ‘Isn’t he the bloke off the telly?’ ”