July 24, 2006Mako died on Saturday, July 21, 2006 after a long battle with cancer. He was 73.
In my head there is a list of character actors I've always wanted to work with. Mako was always at the top of the list. Strangely, with a couple of exceptions, I've almost never seen Mako in a good movie. Before I knew who he was, I remembered him as the Wizard in Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. The first time he truly came to my attention as Mako was in 1993, in Sidekicks, when he played Mr. Lee, the Mr. Miyagi-like karate teacher to the late Jonathan Brandis. As the head of the Nakamoto corporation, he had very little to do in the movie adaptation of Michael Crichton's Rising Sun besides look stoic and play golf with Sean Connery. In 1994, Mako played the sorcerer Nakano, chewing the scenery and teaching Connor MacLeod “the power of illusion” in Highlander: The Final Dimension. Although he was in Bulletproof Monk, I don't remember him in it or anything else about that movie. I don't recall seeing Mako again until he appeared as Admiral Yamamoto in that piece of garbage Pearl Harbor. He got to utter the key line: “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” The exception to the Mako-in-bad-movies rule was his brief cameo appearance in Memoirs of a Geisha. Mako would have been the voice of Splinter in the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie next year. Good movie or bad, Mako always stood out to me; he was always fascinating to watch, a twinkle in his eye, his performances filled with nuance. It was always a pleasant surprise when I'd watch a movie and Mako appeared (he is rarely billed in promotional materials.) A glance at Mako's IMDB page shows a career spanning over 40 years in film, television and animation. You've seen Mako's work too and probably never realized it.
He was a pioneer for Asian-American actors in the United States. Mako has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Sand Pebbles in 1966.
It's as Mr. Lee in Sidekicks that'll always remember him best. Sidekicks is one of my favorite bad movies and I loved Mako as the cantankerous but wise and caring karate teacher who called Jonathan Brandis "Mr. Dumpling." I still watch Sidekicks like a mental patient if I see it on cable just to watch Mako. Mako was usually called upon to play wise but mischievous characters, something he did exceptionally well. He had tremendous natural comic timing and he had a gift for being able to convey that he knew a lot more than he was letting on. One of the reasons I love Mako was that he reminds me of an older, Japanese version of my dad. Mako always seemed like a nice man and a great guy.
I wish I got to work with him or at the very least meet him and tell him how much of a fan of his I am. I'm probably always going to regret that now.
I'll miss you, Mako.