Longtime character actor, “beat generation” artist, TV reporter and Second City founding member Victor Keung Wong died in his sleep Sept. 12 at his farmhouse near Locke, Calif., where his father ran a school for Chinese children in the 1930s. He was 74.
His gentle demeanor, wispy white beard and equally wispy mustache made him a popular casting choice as a grandfather or wise man in films such as “The Joy Luck Club,” “The Last Emperor” and “The Golden Child.”
Wong was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown as a fourth-generation Chinese American. He attended UC Berkeley, where he majored in political science and journalism and planned to become a foreign-service officer. But he switched to theology at the U. of Chicago and became a founding member of Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe. He later obtained a master’s degree from the Art Institute of San Francisco.
A sometime artist, amateur actor and store window-display manager, Wong was a member of San Francisco’s “beat” scene in the 1950s and early ’60s. Beat poet and City Lights Bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti hosted Wong’s first art exhibit, and Wong became friends with both Ferlinghetti and writer Jack Kerouac, who mentioned Wong in his book “Big Sun.”
One of TV’s first Chinese-American reporters, Wong worked on the daily “Newsroom” program on San Francisco’s public television station, KQED, from 1968 to 1974.
He then returned to acting, working with the Asian American Theater Group in San Francisco before moving to New York City, where he appeared in the David Henry Hwang plays “Family Devotions” and “Sound and Beauty.” He also did a stint on the daytime drama “Search for Tomorrow.”
In 1984, at age 57, he landed his first film role, in Wayne Wang’s “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart” which led to roles in 28 films, including “Shanghai Surprise,” starring Madonna; “Big Trouble in Little China,” with Kurt Russell; and Disney’s “3 Ninjas” series.
Victor Wong liked to say that Hollywood casting directors liked him because of his “lopsided” face, which was caused by Bell’s palsy, a facial nerve disorder that struck him in middle age. “I never auditioned,” he once said. “My pictures were auditions.” He retired in 1998 after two strokes.
He is survived by wife Dawn Rose, two daughters, a brother, three sisters and five grandchildren.