How Mako Helped Pave Way for Asian American Actors in 1965 With L.A. Theater Group

Makoto Iwamatsu The Sand Pebbles
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

The historic Golden Globe best actress win for Asian American actor Awkwafina reminds us of the pioneering work of creative trailblazers of Asian descent who preceded her. That list dates back to 1936 with Indian-Maori-European actor Merle Oberon’s Oscar nomination for 1935’s “The Dark Angel,” and includes such distinguished artists as Ken Watanabe, in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 war drama “Letters From Iwo Jima” and Sessue Hayakawa in David Lean’s 1957 World War II film masterpiece, “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

Haing S. Ngor’s best supporting actor Oscar win for Roland Joffe’s 1984 depiction of Pol Pot’s  “Year Zero” ethnic cleansing campaign, “The Killing Fields,” is one name on a short list of Asian actors who’ve scored Oscar gold. Also in that small winner’s circle is Miyoshi Umeki, whose role in the 1957 Marlon Brando-starrer, “Saynonara,” brought her the best supporting actress honor in 1958.

One other included among past nominees is Makoto Iwamatsu, who acted under the singular moniker Mako. He not only contributed an Oscar-nominated performance to the best picture-contending 1966 film “The Sand Pebbles,” but he also co-founded the groundbreaking Asian American theater group the East-West Players in Los Angeles a year earlier. 

Variety said of his acting work in the 1965 Norman Gerard-directed stage production of “Rashomon”: “Mako, as the motley bandit, is particularly strong in the excellent cast. He has the physical agility of a dancer and projects both the moody insecurity and the burly bravado apparent in a man who lives as an animal.”