Mako, Japanese-American Acting Icon, Dead at 72

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24 Jul 2006

From Top: Mako at the East West Players' 2006 Visionary Awards Dinner; Mako in East West Players' 1988 production of <I>Mishima</I>.
From Top: Mako at the East West Players' 2006 Visionary Awards Dinner; Mako in East West Players' 1988 production of Mishima.
Photo by Phil Nee (2006 Visionary Awards Dinner)
Mako, the Japanese actor who was Tony Award nominated for playing the Reciter in the original Broadway production of Pacific Overtures, died July 21 at his home in Somis, in Ventura County, California, according to friends and colleagues.

He was known by his first name only, and used his mother's surname Iwamatsu. In addition to his 1976 Best Actor (Musical) Tony nomination, the native of Kobe, Japan, was also Academy Award nominated for "The Sand Pebbles."

He also starred in the title role in the 1992 Broadway play Shimada.

The cause death, according to wire reports, was esophageal cancer. Mako was 72 and is survived by his wife, Suzie, two daughters, Mimosa and Sala, and a sister Momo Yashima. Per his wishes, there will be no funeral or memorial service.

Mako moved to the United States to join his parents, who had emigrated there earlier, when he was 15. After his service in the U.S. military, he embarked upon a career in film and theatre, and studied at the Pasadena Community Playhouse in California.



Mako founded the Asian-American theatre company East West Players, in Los Angeles. Over the years, he directed, designed and acted in East West productions. Mako directed several plays at EWP in the past several years, and was to have made his stage return as an actor in Motty-chon by Perry Miyake on the occasion of EWP's 40th Anniversary in May 2006. The production was cancelled in the third week of rehearsal as Mako had to start treatment immediately for his health condition.

As a teacher and acting icon, he was an inspiration to Asian-American actors.

"Personally, Mako helped open my eyes as a young artist just graduating from USC," East West Players' producing artistic director Tim Dang told Playbill.com. "He made me aware of the lack of opportunities in the industry and the valiant work that was ahead. He wanted to make sure that I was tough enough to survive in an industry where 80 percent of artists are unemployed and that percentage is even worse if you are an artist of color."

Mako's last public appearance for East West Players was on the occasion of its 40th Anniversary Gala on April 10, 2006 where he presented the Rae Creevey Award to Emily Kuroda and Alberto Isaac.

Dang added, "It's a very sad time for East West Players but also for Asian American artists. We've lost many of our pioneers in the last few years. And Mako's passing will affect us for a long time but I know that Mako would want us to keep the movement moving forward.

"With Mako's passing, there is a great feeling of loss in the Asian Pacific artist community. We have lost a pioneer who helped pave the way for all of us trying to make a career in the arts and the entertainment industry. East West Players is deeply grateful for the passion, the artistry and the activism that Mako displayed over the many decades as artistic director, director and performer. If it wasn't for Mako, none of us would be here."

Mako's film credits include "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Conan the Barbarian," "Seven Years in Tibet," "Pearl Harbor," "The Green Hornet," "Rising Sun," "The Ugly Dachshund" and more.

In "The Sand Pebbles," for which he was Oscar nominated in the category of Best Supporting Actor, he played a submissive engineer, Po-Han. It was his first film (the Disney picture, "The Ugly Dachshund" was released the same year, 1966). Mako was also featured as a guest on many television shows, including "F Troop," "Hawaii Five-0," "Kung Fu" and "The West Wing."

His sonorous performance in Pacific Overtures was captured on the original cast recording.

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Established in 1965, East West Players blends Eastern and Western movement, costumes, language and music. EWP has premiered over 100 plays and musicals about the Asian Pacific American experience and has held over 1,000 readings and workshops.