INTO THE NEXT STAGE: What’s in an Asian Surname? Not Much, Evidently

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Got an email from a pal of mine that included a link to news of the casting of actor Kenneth Choi in NBC’s reboot of the 1960s cop drama “Ironside.”

The original starred Raymond Burr (previously known to most as the titular star of “Perry Mason” and to fanboys as the American entry point in the U.S. release of “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!”) in what would become his second major starring role in a TV series.

This new pilot replicates the premise of the original, in which Burr played Robert Ironside, a San Francisco police chief of detectives confined to a wheelchair after getting shot by a sniper and becoming paralyzed, presaging the real-life paraplegic pair of Alabama Gov. George Wallace and pornographer Larry Flynt.

“Ironside” ran until the mid-’70s and it was a solid performer for its time. My own memories of the show from when I was a kid mainly consist of its fright-inducing intro, with jarring “Psycho”-like music composed by Quincy Jones, and a semi-animated high-contrast sequence in which the silhouetted Ironside is felled by a gunshot. What a great hook.

Kenneth Choi

Not only that, it may have been the first show in which a wheelchair-bound character was the lead. It’s possible “Ironside’s” unintended effects led to civically enlightened changes like legislatively mandated wheelchair ramps in public places and handicapped parking spots — even if, by my observation, most of them sit unused.

Luckily for the show’s producers, there are a couple of subsequent younger generations with no memories of the original “Ironside” who may be curious to watch it, yet there is enough name recognition to potentially draw codgers (and codgers-in-training like me) who actually remember the first show. Everything old eventually comes back, it seems.

This version, incidentally, has Blair Underwood in the wheelchair, which means Ironside, like other previously white fictional characters Nick Fury from comic books, Theo Kojak from the TV show and Ralph Kramden from “The Honeymooners,” is now black. Chalk another one up to colorblind casting.

Speaking of which and getting back to Choi, I thought it was great that what appears to be a significant role is going to an Asian American man. If the story takes place in San Francisco like the original “Ironside,” it makes even more sense, given that city’s very large Asian American population — about 30 percent — most of which is Chinese, with a significant Japanese American presence. Whites, meanwhile, make up about 49 percent and blacks are less than 7 percent. Men slightly outnumber women. Given that city’s reputation as a homosexual haven, maybe the new Ironside should be gay, too. Raymond Burr would approve. But I digress …

Raymond Burr

Choi, incidentally, is of Korean ancestry, and he played the character of Jim Morita, a fictional member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in a small but memorable role in 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

I can dig the character of Ironside being African American in this reboot. But I had to wonder why Choi’s character was named Capt. Ed Rollins. Mentally, it stopped me, even though it’s not implausible. Maybe the Rollins character is an adoptee. Maybe he was born to Asian parents but his Asian mother remarried a non-Asian with the name Rollins and he took that name. I’ve known two full-blooded Asian Americans who fit those descriptions. Maybe the character is Hapa. Maybe he legally changed it.

Like I said, an Asian American male character named Ed Rollins is not implausible. But it seems unusual. The likely scenario is that the script was already written and the producers simply decided to let the Rollins role be played by Choi. If so, great! But why not take the extra step and give him an Asian surname?

Lately, it seems like we’ve finally gotten to the point where Asian Americans are getting cast in movies and TV shows as parts of ensembles. That’s certainly better than getting left out. But these fictional characters played by Asians often don’t have Asian surnames. To wit: Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson in “Elementary” and played Nola Lyons in 2009’s “Dirty Sexy Money” and Mia Mason in 2008’s “Cashmere Mafia.” John Cho plays Andy Dunn in the upcoming “Sleepy Hollow” and Roger Whitacre in “That Burning Feeling” and played a character named McClane in the “Total Recall” remake. Masi Oka plays Dr. Max Bergman in the new “Hawaii Five-0.” (Cho playing a character named Dunn is at least plausible, if Chinese American actor Dennis Dun can be an example.)

Blair Underwood

In the case of women, marriage can usually explain a female Asian American character having a non-Asian last name. In the case of Asian American men (full-blooded), however, it becomes contrived. Although possible, it’s just not that common. So why do it? Does it send the message that to succeed one must get rid of an Asian surname? Is it insulting or denigrating to make the character have a non-Asian surname? Is it just laziness?

Maybe it’s not the big deal it seemed when I read the news report. After all, what matters more, getting a part played by an Asian American, even if the character’s last name is European — or making sure the character’s last name is Asian?

If the “Ironside” pilot airs or makes it to series, I may just have to catch a few episodes to find out the back story to this Rollins character. Wow. Outsmarted by Hollywood once again.

“Emperor” Dept.: Got some feedback from my recent column on the movie “Emperor” from reader Jean Hirata. With her permission, here’s her take on the movie: “I agree that the movie offered a mixed bag of questionable events, but to me what was impressive and truthful was how [Douglas] MacArthur used his staff of generals to accurately study the actual perceptions of the Japanese mind — about how they feel about war, honor, loyalty and worship of their emperor. The decision to leave the emperor in power without punishment, even with strong opposition, was critically important to restore the pride and dignity of the Japanese people and move the U.S. military occupation forward.

“I thought the back flashes of the romance between the general and the Japanese teacher worked well in the film because it brought emotion and lightness in stark contrast to the gruesome and depressing scenes of atomic-bombed Japan.

“I liked the movie very much and agree with you that it may be a springboard to bring even better stories to the screen.”

Thanks, Jean. Always happy to hear from readers. FYI, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, “Emperor” has grossed $2.9 million in the four weeks it has been in release.

Marker Fundraiser Dept.: Also got an email from Sharon Kumagai about a Thursday, April 25 event to raise funds to build the Venice Japanese American Memorial Marker at the corner of Venice and Lincoln boulevards in West Los Angeles, which was a gathering point for local Japanese Americans who were to be sent to concentration camps in 1942.

Hama Sushi at 213 Windward Ave. is selling bento lunches for $20 that day that will include chicken teriyaki, cucumber and potato salads, spicy tuna and California rolls, shrimp and vegetable tempura, plus a bottle of water or a soft drink. Preorders must be received before April 23 at Hama Sushi. The owner, Esther Chaing, will donate 100% of the bento box lunch profits to VJAMM, as well as 10% of the dinner proceeds that evening (7-11 p.m.)

Contact Phyllis Hayashibara at (310) 390-1576 or phyllishayashibara@earthlink.net for bento preorders. Local businesses may contact Chaing at (310) 308-6347 or hchaing@yahoo.com for company orders. For dinner reservations, call Hama Sushi at (310) 396-8783.

There is also a short program beginning at 11 a.m. that day. Preordered bento box lunches may be eaten in or taken out from noon to 2 p.m.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2013 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

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  1. John "Toshio" Smith on

    I’d say an Asian American character named Ed Rollins is about as plausible as one named George Johnson. How many people call you “Toshio” ? You guys don’t like when the Asians on TV are all FOB types with heavy accidents. You want more Asian American types with American first names and Asian second names. But there are some Asians that are even more Americanized–like all those Korean babies that were adopted by white families in the 80s and 90s and continue to get looks because people don’t believe that a yellow guy or gal could be named John Smith or Mary Jones. They’re just as unhappy with the Kenneth Chois are you guys are with the Kwan Fu Lis. Ever think of that? Toshio?

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