Mako Iwamatsu (岩松 マコ Iwamatsu Mako?) (December 10, 1933 – July 21, 2006) was a Japanese-born American actor and voice artist who has been nominated for numerous awards. Many of his acting roles credited him simply as Mako where he omitted his surname. He is best known for his roles as Po-Han in The Sand Pebbles (for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), Akiro the Wizard in Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, and for his voice roles as Aku in Samurai Jack and Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7095 Hollywood Blvd.
Mako was born in Kobe, Japan, the son of noted children's book authors and illustrators Taro Yashima and Mitsu Yashima. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, his parents, who were political dissidents, moved to the United States, leaving Mako in the care of his grandmother. After the war, his parents were able to arrange for him to join them, in 1949. He enlisted in the military in the 1950s and became a naturalized American citizen in 1956. When Mako first joined his parents in the USA, he studied architecture. During his military service, he discovered his theatrical talent, and trained at the Pasadena Community Playhouse.
Film and theatre
Mako's first film role was in the 1959 film Never So Few. In 1965, frustrated by the limited roles available to himself and other Asian American actors, Mako and six others formed the East West Players theatre company, first performing out of a church basement. The company is one of the earliest Asian American theatre organizations, and not only provided a venue for Asian American actors to train and perform, but nurtured many Asian American playwrights. During the company's 1981 season, to coincide with the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians' hearings on redress, Mako exclusively showed plays about the Japanese American incarceration. He remained artistic director of the company until 1989.
He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Po-Han in the 1966 film The Sand Pebbles. Other roles include the Chinese contract laborer Mun Ki in the 1970 epic movie The Hawaiians starring Charlton Heston and Tina Chen; Yuen Chung in the 1975 film The Killer Elite directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring James Caan, Robert Duvall and the famous martial artist Takayuki Kubota; the sorcerer Nakano in Highlander III: The Sorcerer; the Wizard Akiro opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the two Conan movies Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer; the Japanese spy in the comedy Under the Rainbow; Yoshida-san in Rising Sun; Mr. Lee in Sidekicks; Kanemitsu in RoboCop 3 in 1993; Kungo Tsarong in Seven Years in Tibet; and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in the 2001 film Pearl Harbor. He also had a role in Bulletproof Monk. In 2005, Mako had a cameo role in Memoirs of a Geisha. Mako's last leading role was in the 2005 film Cages, written and directed by Graham Streeter. He also appeared in some Japanese TV dramas and films, such as Masahiro Shinoda's Owls' Castle and Takashi Miike's The Bird People in China.
He appeared on the TV show McHale's Navy several times, playing Imperial Japanese officers, soldiers and sailors. He later appeared on the TV show M*A*S*H, playing multiple roles such as a Chinese doctor, North Korean soldier, and South Korean major. In 1974 he appeared on Ironside episode "Terror on Grant Avenue". He appeared as a Japanese chef in the 1978 Columbo episode "Murder Under Glass". He was the blind philosopher Li Sung in two episodes of the TV show The Incredible Hulk. He also appeared on an episode of Magnum P.I called "The Arrow That Is Not Aimed" in 1983. Mako also appeared in an episode of the TV show F Troop. He appeared as Lo Sing, fighting Bruce Lee's Kato character in The Green Hornet episode "The Preying Mantis". He played the character Lin Duk Coo in an episode of The A-Team. He guest starred in an episode of season one of Frasier as well as in an episode of Tour of Duty as a Vietnamese scout. He played Jackie Chan's uncle/sifu in Chan's first American movie The Big Brawl. Mako voiced Commander Shima in the 2004 video game Medal of Honor: Rising Sun. He also played the role of the goblin Grubjub in the video game Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader. He voiced the narrator in the game Wrath Unleashed. He also was a guest star in the Monk episode "Mr. Monk vs. The Cobra". He guest starred in the Walker, Texas Ranger 2000 episode "Black Dragons", and appeared in the TV show Charmed in 2003, creating magic for Chris (played by Drew Fuller). His last "made-for-TV" movie appears to be Rise: Blood Hunter in 2007.
Mako's Broadway career included creating the role of "The Reciter" in the original production of Pacific Overtures in 1976 (for which he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical) and starring in the limited run of the play Shimada in 1992.
He was the voice actor of Aku, the main antagonist in the animated series Samurai Jack, both Achoo (a parody of Aku) and the annoying alarm clock known as Happy Cat in Duck Dodgers, the introductory voice for the ending theme of Dexter's Laboratory and Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender. He had a guest appearance in the Nickelodeon movie Rugrats in Paris: The Movie as the boss of Coco. He guest-starred in The West Wing episode "A Good Day" as an economics professor and former rival of President Bartlet.
Mako has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7095 Hollywood Blvd. He was among the actors, producers and directors interviewed in the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen, directed by Jeff Adachi, about the representation of Asian and Asian American men in Hollywood.
Mako was married to actress Shizuko Hoshi with whom he had two daughters (Mimosa and Sala - both are actresses) and three grandchildren.
Mako died in Somis, California on July 21, 2006, aged 72, from esophageal cancer.
One day before his death, Mako had been confirmed to star in the film TMNT as the voice of Splinter. Kevin Munroe, director of the film, confirmed that Mako had completed his recording. The finished film was dedicated to Mako.
During the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "The Tales of Ba Sing Se", the segment titled "The Tale of Iroh" features a dedication to Mako, the voice actor for Iroh for seasons one and two. In the sequel series The Legend of Korra, a lead male character was named after him (voiced by David Faustino).
He was also featured in the memoriam montage in the 79th Academy Awards.