Who was Mako Iwamatsu?
Mako Iwamatsu was a Japanese-born American actor and voice-artiste known for his extensive career in the film, television, and theater industries. For the majority of his career, he had chosen to be credited simply as “Mako”. The child of political dissidents, he served in the American military in the 1950s before pursuing acting in a professional capacity. Mako made his screen debut in the 1959 film ‘Never So Few’. Three years later, he debuted on the small screen with an appearance on an episode of the anthology series ‘The Lloyd Bridges Show’. His first important role came about in 1966 when he was cast in ‘The Sand Pebbles’ as Po-han, for which he received both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. He was active through the next three decades, portraying significant characters in classic films, such as 1982’s ‘Conan the Barbarian’ and its sequel ‘Conan the Destroyer’, 1986’s ‘Behind Enemy Lines’, and ‘Seven Years in Tibet’. The veteran actor garnered a whole new generation of fans by lending his voice to some of the most memorable characters in the history of western animation, including Aku in ‘Samurai Jack’ and Uncle Iroh in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’. In 1994, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Childhood & Early Life
Mako was born Makoto Iwamatsu on December 10, 1933 in Kobe, Japan to Atsushi Iwamatsu and Tomoe Sasako. His father, an artist and illustrator, and his mother, a children book author, had to leave their native country for the United States right before the World War II broke out. Mako was raised by his grandmother in his early years before he too moved to the US to join his parents in 1949 after the war ended. He had two siblings, a sister, actress Momo Yashima, and a brother, writer Chihiro Isa.
After graduating high school, he briefly studied architecture but eventually decided to enlist in the US Army in the early 1950s. It was during his military service that he began acting in plays for military personnel, developing a deep love for the performing arts. When he got out of the military, he enrolled at the famous Pasadena Community Playhouse in California.
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Mako made his debut in the film ‘Never so Few’ (1959) where he appeared in an uncredited role, and landed his first credited appearance in CBS’ drama ‘The Lloyd Bridges Show’. Following this, his next considerable appearance was in NBC’s military comedy ‘Ensign O'Toole’, where he played multiple small roles.
He played multiple characters, Imperial Japanese officers, soldiers and sailors, in the situational comedy ‘McHale's Navy’ (1962-65). He would later portray a Japanese submarine captain the 1965 film based on the show.
In Robert Wise’s adventure drama ‘The Sand Pebbles’ (1966), he starred alongside the likes of Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, and Candice Bergen and held his own among these juggernauts of the industry.
He played the Chinese contract labourer Mun Ki in the Charlton Heston starrer ‘The Hawaiians’ (1970), an Inuit guide named Oomiak in Disney’s ‘The Island at the Top of the World’(1974), and Japanese secret agent Nakomuri in the comedy ‘Under the Rainbow’ (1981).
Mako worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger both in the fantasy adventure ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982) and its sequel ‘Conan the Destroyer’ (1984), portraying Akiro the wizard. In ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ (1986), he appeared as Vietnamese commander Vinh; in ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ (1997), as diplomat and military figure Kungo Tsarong; and in ‘Pearl Harbor’, as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. His final live-action film, ‘Rise: Blood Hunter’ (2007) was released posthumously.
Throughout his career, he had played cameo roles in numerous television shows, including ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ (1965), ‘The Green Hornet’ (1966), ‘M*A*S*H’ (1974-1980), ‘Hawaii Five-O’ (1976), ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (1978-79), ‘Wonder Woman’ (1979), ‘Magnum, P.I.’ (1983), ‘Frasier’ (1994), and ‘Platypus Man’ (1995). Mako guest-starred as a sorcerer in ‘Charmed’ (2003), as Master Zi in ‘Monk’ 2005), and as economics professor Dr. Yosh Takahashi in ‘The West Wing’ (2005).
In 1965, there were only limited roles available for actors of Asian origin in the American theater scene. Deciding to change that, Mako and six others established the East West Players theater company, which not only served as a venue for Asian American actors to get better at the craft but also provided a safe environment for Asian American playwrights to thrive in. He was the company’s artistic director until 1989.
Voice Over Works
Mako’s first voice over work was as the narrator of ‘Dexter's Laboratory’ (1996-2003). In 2001, he was cast as the voice of Aku, the primary antagonist in the animated action-adventure series ‘Samurai Jack’ (2001-04). He went on to voice The Ancient One in an episode of ‘What's New, Scooby-Doo?’ (2003) and Happy Cat in ‘Duck Dodgers’ (2003-05).
Mako debuted as a video game voice actor with the character goblin Grubjub in ‘Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader’ (2003). He also provided the voice for General Han Yu Kim in ‘True Crime: Streets of LA’ (2003), Masataka Shima in ‘Medal of Honor: Rising Sun’ (2003), various characters in ‘Secret Weapons Over Normandy’ (2003), the narrator in ‘Wrath Unleashed’ (2004), and ‘Aku in Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku’ (2004).
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Mako provided the voice for Uncle Iroh, former general, firebending master, and the wise guardian of his beloved nephew, Prince Zuko’ in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ (2005-08). Combining anime-influenced animation with fluid western storytelling, the series earned universal acclaim for its theme, art direction, characterization, humour, and cultural references from both audiences and critics alike, winning numerous awards.
Mako died during the making of the second season and Greg Baldwin, who also lent his voice for Aku in Samurai Jack’s concluding fifth season, which aired in 2017, took over. The creators of the show dedicated the season two episode ‘Tales from Ba Sing Se’ to him, and later in the spin-off series ‘The Legend of Korra’ (2012-14), named one character Mako after the actor himself.
Awards & Achievements
In 1967, Mako was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for ‘The Sand Pebbles’ but lost the former to Walter Matthau (‘The Fortune Cookie’) and latter to Richard Attenborough, who co-starred with him in ‘The Sand Pebbles’.
He was granted a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor (Musical) for the Broadway play ‘Pacific Overtures’, ultimately losing to George Rose (‘My Fair Lady’).
He received his motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on January 2, 1994. It is located at 7095 Hollywood Boulevard.
He was conferred with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2002 Bearfest - Big Bear Lake International Film Festival.
Mako Iwamatsu married dancer, choreographer, actress Shizuko Hoshi with whom he had two daughters, Sala and Mimosa Iwamatsu, and three grandchildren.
At the age of 72, Mako passed away from esophageal cancer on July 21, 2006. A day before his death, it was announced that he had voiced the character Master Splinter in the yet-to-be released animated film ‘TMNT.’ The filmmakers decided to pay tribute to him by dedicating the finished movie to him.
Mako became a naturalised US citizen in 1956.