Japanese-American Actor a Legend of Asian Cinema
Makoto Iwamatsu 1933-2006
Authors: Loren Portillo and Kari Wyatt
Mako, who passed away July 21, 2006, was one of the most gifted Japanese born film actors to grace the American silver screen. Blessed with incredible screen presence and strength in every role, Mako was always a scene stealer and would often upstage his fellow leading actors. From Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan to Chuck Norris, I have often said, “Mako has worked with everyone”.
Born December 10th 1933 in Kobe Japan, Mako immigrated to the United States following his parents who worked for the U.S Government during World War II. During his growing up years, Mako often would dream of being an architect, but he soon found himself serving in the military during the 1950’s.
After leaving the service, Mako enrolled in Pasadena College. It was here that he would catch the acting bug. He appeared in many stage productions and would often have small roles in films. It was around this time that his star would rise. Playing opposite Steve McQueen in THE SAND PEBBLES, he would play the “coolie’’ Po-han, in which he received an Academy Award Nomination. During this time, he also appeared with Bruce Lee in the GREEN HORNET television series. In one episode called “The Preying Mantis”, Bruce and Mako faced off and fought in a martial arts display that was rarely seen in American television.
Mako kept busy playing many parts, more in particular Japanese martial Masters, until later in life where he appeared in theater. He was also Artistic Director of Emeritus of the Asian American Theater in Los Angeles.
One of Mako’s last film roles was in MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, where he plays the father of the young Suzaka Ohgo. He also received a star on the Hollywood walk of fame at 7095 Hollywood Blvd., which is well deserved. Mako, a Japanese actor in America, brought class and grace to the many roles he played in spite of what American film companies asked Asian actors to portray.
I had a great opportunity to meet Mako last year and you would never meet a more humble gentleman. I was shocked and taken back once I heard the sad news of his passing. Mako leaves us with an incredible body of film and television work that will live on for ages. He leaves a wife and two daughters.