Childhood & Early Life
Masi Oka was born Masayori Oka on December 27, 1974 in Tokyo, Japan. As his parents divorced within a month of his birth, he was raised by his mother, Setsuko Oka, in a single parent family. He has never met his father.
He spent the first five years of life in Japan, where at the age of five, he underwent an IQ test, scoring 189 points. Realizing that the Japanese education system would stifle her gifted son, Setsuko decided to move to the USA, where she believed his intelligence would be better nourished.
When Masayori was six years old, the mother and son moved to the USA, where they settled down in Van Nuys, a cheap neighborhood in the central San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, California. Here, he found himself in a new environment, but soon learnt to accept it.
In Los Angeles, he began his elementary education at the Mirman School, an institution meant for gifted children. Here, he was teased by other children for being different, eating raw fish and rice for lunch instead of peanut sandwiches. They also gave him many nicknames, one of them being ‘Masi’.
As a child, he had a messy handwriting. Moreover, everybody in school, including his teachers, found ‘Masayori’ hard to pronounce. Therefore, when one day one of his classmates in the first grade began calling him ‘Messy Mossy’, the name stuck. Later, he modified the spelling, writing ‘M-A-S-I’ instead of ‘M-O-S-S-Y’.
In school, he showed keen interest in mathematics and also loved playing with computers. In an interview, he had later said, “I just loved solving problems, and there's something about trying to figure things out and making things work that was always a big thing with me”.
At the age of eight, he appeared on the CBS-TV game show ‘Child's Play’. Four years later, he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, titled ‘Those Asian-American Whiz Kids’.
In 1988, at around thirteen, he competed in the California state MATHCOUNTS competition and came out fourth. Later, he, along with three other students, represented the state of California in the national competition.
For his secondary education, he entered Harvard-Westlake School, an independent, co-educational university preparatory day school, graduating from there in 1992. Thereafter, he worked as an English, Spanish, and Japanese translator at the 1992 Summer Olympics before entering the Brown University in Rhode Island to get his degree in computer science and mathematics.
In 1993, while studying at Brown University, Masi joined ‘The Bear Necessities’, an all-male cappella group in the University and began spending his free time with them, becoming the group’s music director in his senior years. He later described his time with the group as a formative experience.
While in the group, he arranged nearly thirty songs including ‘Invisible Touch’, Faithfully’, ‘Flashdance...What a Feeling’, ‘All I Want, ‘The Promise’ and ‘With or Without You’. Many of his songs were included in two of the group’s albums, ‘TBNJ: The Bear Necessities Jam’ and ‘Circus People’. He also produced ‘TBNJ’.
Continue Reading Below
Digital Effect Artist
In 1997, Masi Oka graduated from Brown University, earning his B.Sc. degree in computer science and mathematics. Thereafter, he joined Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) as a digital effect artist.
His job was to create a system that would allow the special-effects artists to create visual scenes. His first major project was to co-develop a computer program to generate water effects, which was used in ‘A Perfect Storm’, bringing waves crashing down on the commercial fishing boat, Andrea Gail.
He also worked on the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, cracking asteroids into a million pieces. His other important projects were ‘Mighty Young Joe’ , ‘Mission to Mars’, ‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines’, ‘Hulk’, ‘War of the Worlds’and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest’.
Oka enjoyed his job very much, dreaming of winning Oscar someday for his technical work in a motion picture. His seniors also took interest in him. Sometime during this period, he featured in the San Francisco Chronicle in a pre-dot-com article, talking about merging technology and acting.
Concurrently, while working for ILM, he started taking acting lessons, concentrating on comedy, eventually deciding to try his luck in acting before it was too late. In 2000, he earned a Screen Actors Guild card by appearing in industry films.
In 2000, he returned to Los Angeles, looking for roles. Simultaneously, he maintained his job, signing a contract with ILM that allowed him to work at its Los Angeles branch provided he got a recurring role in the same season. Otherwise, he would have to return to their Marin County office.
In 2000, he did get a recurring role; but the show was never picked up. Nonetheless, it fulfilled the stipulations in his contract and therefore, he was allowed to remain in Los Angeles. However, he was soon disappointed because no good role came his way. But he never gave up.
He continued to appear in guest roles in several television series like 'Dharma & Greg', 'Citizen Baines', 'Gilmore Girls', 'Yes, Dear', 'Sabrina, the Teenage Witch', ‘She Spies’. Finally in 2002, he got his first recurring role, appearing as Franklyn in five episodes of the medical comedy ‘Scrubs’.
In 2002-2003, he appeared in four episodes of reality television series, ‘The Jamie Kennedy Experiment’. Concurrently, he continued to make guest appearances. In 2003, he appeared as a Japanese tourist in ‘On the Spot’, an Asian Man in ‘Uh-Oh’ and in an uncredited role in ‘Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde’.
Continue Reading Below
With time, he started getting minor roles, appearing as Deng Wu in television series ‘Louis’ (2003), as Wonsuk in romantic comedy film ‘Along Came Polly’ (2004). However, he still continued to make guest appearances in several television series throughout 2004 and 2005.
While working in ‘Along Came Polly’, he learned a valuable lesson from his costar, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Till then, he used to worry about his own look and performances. But Hoffman taught him that generous actors make their partners look good and that acting is about connecting and sharing.
In 2005, apart from making guest appearances, he also appeared in voice only role in ‘The Proud Family Movie’ and ‘God Wears My Underwear’. In the same year, he appeared as Stanley Tong in the television film, ‘House of the Dead 2’.
By 2006, Oka realized that very few roles were written for actors like him. Nonetheless, in the same year, he appeared as KJ in a short film titled ‘One Sung Hero’ and as Clerk in the television series, ‘The Sarah Silverman Program’. Concurrently, he continued to make guest appearances.
While he was thinking of quitting his acting career, his agent received a pilot, which drastically changed everything. They required someone fluent in Japanese, who should also have a comedic background and American television experience for a role in science fiction television drama series, ‘Heroes’. It fitted Oka perfectly.
Although the agent was excited, Oka, having six years of experience, was initially skeptical about it. But when he read the script, he was thrilled. It was not only well-written, but the character of Hiro Nakamura in ‘Heroes’ had lot of common with him. He accepted the role immediately.
Hiro was not only from Japan, but like Oka, he also felt rather isolated in the society because of the racial differences, also having a childlike curiosity for everything around him. The difference was that, unlike Oka, Hiro did not enjoy his cubicle job very much.
For enacting the role of Japanese speaking Hiro, Oka had to translate his dialogues into Japanese from the English script. Such an arrangement was made because it was thought that a professional translator would have made the dialogues more rigid. On the show his dialogues were accompanied by English subtitles.
Overnight Oka became very popular, appearing in sixty-six episodes of the series, earning several awards and nominations for his role. Concurrently, he continued to work in other productions, making guest appearances in many of them.
Continue Reading Below
In 2007, he appeared in the sports comedy film ‘Balls of Fury’, television film ‘Jane Doe: Ties That Bind’ and three television series; ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’, ‘Reno911’ and ‘Robot chicken’. Concurrently, he continued working for ILM for three days week as a Research and Development Technical Director.
From 2008 to 2011, he appeared in six films; ‘Get Smart’, ‘Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd: Out of Control’, ‘The Promotion’, ‘Fired Up’, ‘Searching for Sonny’ and ‘Friends with Benefits’. Also in 2010, he got his second biggest chance when he was cast as Dr. Max Bergman in 'Hawaii Five-0'.
'Hawaii Five-0', an action police procedural television series, had started in September 2010. In the first season, he was cast as Dr. Max Bergman, an eccentric, but well-respected medical examiner. Oka was upgraded to a series regular from season two.
From October 2010 to May 2017, Oka appeared in 135 episodes of 'Hawaii Five-0'. Concurrently, he also appeared in other projects; enacting the role of Ken Tanaka in the biographical drama film, ‘Jobs’ in 2013. In 2015, he appeared as Hiro Nakamura in three episodes of ‘Heroes Reborn’.
In 2017, Oka ventured into a new line, producing ‘Death Note’, a neo-noir supernatural thriller film loosely based on the Japanese manga of the same name. In the film, he also enacted the role of Detective Sasaki
In 2018, he was seen in the science-fiction‘The Meg’. He is also producing the film adaptation of ‘Mega Man’, a science-fiction video game.
Family & Personal Life
Masi Oka is a bachelor. Nothing much is known about his personal life, which he likes to keep private. However, it is known that his hobbies include Japanese martial art Kendo, in which he carries the rank of Shodan, literally meaning beginning degree.
He is also fond of playing video games. He is also an avid collector of Japanese comics known as manga. In addition, he loves playing the piano, beatboxing, and singing.