The Flashback Interview: Aki Aleong
My newest interview subject, Aki Aleong, was introduced to me by Joe Williamson, who previously set up my interviews with Mel Novak, Laurene Landon and Donald F. Glut. Aki Aleong has worked alongside all three of them in this decade, but his career goes back to the 1950s, whether performing onstage in Teahouse Of The August Moon or on the big screen in No Down Payment, an interesting movie that deconstructed the white picket fence image of the 1950s IN the 1950s. Throughout the decades, Aki Aleong has not only been an actor, but a singer, a record label executive, a director, a writer and an activist. As he’s getting ready to wind things down, he agreed to an interview with me, and we spoke on Monday, December 10th. I hope you all enjoy getting to know him.
Say hello to Aki Aleong!
Johnny: Hello, Mr. Aleong. It’s Johnny Caps.
Aki: Yes. How are you, sir?
Johnny: I’m doing good. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me.
Aki: Not a problem. It’s my honor and pleasure, sir.
Johnny: Alright. I have my questions ready to go, starting with this: One of your earliest stage credits came in Teahouse Of The August Moon.
Aki: That was a Broadway play. It was starring Burgess Meredith and a bunch of great actors, and I traveled across the United States doing 800 performances. I had a small part, and it was a great experience. That’s where I learned everything I ever knew about acting. I had never acted before, and it was wonderful. I used to go up on stage and go behind the curtains and watch Burgess Meredith act. I had never acted, and sometimes I would ask him, “Mr. Meredith, why do you say the line this way?”, and he would say, “Get away from me! Go to acting school!” (laughing). Are you familiar with Burgess Meredith?
Johnny: Yes I am, from things like the first couple of Rocky movies.
Aki: Yeah, you got that right. He was one of the great actors, especially on stage. I came from the ghetto, as I used to live and go to school in Brooklyn, New York. I worked in a hardware store from 14 to 16, making 75 cents an hour. I don’t know if your audience would realize back then that the wage was 75 cents an hour, and then when I became 16, I made a big $30. 40 hours times 75 cents is 30 dollars, so I made 30 dollars a week. I thought if I ever made double that, to $60, I might be able to have a family or a little place. That was my dream when I was living in the ghetto, you know? I accidentally got into Teahouse Of The August Moon, and that was the beginning of being blessed. I have to say that I have been blessed for the last 65 years in the business of acting, and being on television and in movies and so forth. That’s all about Teahouse Of The August Moon.
Johnny: Actually, the question I was going to ask was: As an actor of Asian descent, what were your feelings on the play?
Aki: It was a great play. I had never seen a play before, and to be in one and to see it was just a fantastic, exciting moment in my life. It was the basic foundation of my acting because I learned everything I ever knew traveling two years and 800 performances with the play.
Johnny: Alright. To my next question: In 1957, you played Iko in the movie No Down Payment, one of the earliest deconstructions of life in the 1950s. Did you have to deal with the problems that Iko had, or did your status as a performer keep some of those problems at bay?
Aki: Well, to go back just a little bit, in 1955 and 1956 I did a Broadway play, and then in New York, I got two or three television shows, one with Bette Davis and another directed by William Wyler. I was making $200 for the show, and then I got a call from Fox, who offered me $500 to come out to Hollywood. I never knew there was so much money to be made, but that was my first film. I came out to Los Angeles, and in 1956, I experienced the same problem within the movie. The movie was about an Asian American who wanted to move into the San Fernando Valley, and couldn’t buy the house because of discrimination and the racial laws that were on the books. I came out and did the movie, so does life imitate art or does art imitate life? I couldn’t buy a house and I had a family. I eventually bought a house in a transitional neighborhood because it was bought through the city and the government. When I moved in, I eventually moved up to Hollywood after about five years, so that was very interesting. By the way, the law was that you could not sell to any person of color, or any minority, unless there were two or more on the block or where you were buying the house. The question was: How could you sell to anybody if one never got in? That was on the books, but it was finally removed.
Johnny: I’m very glad it was.
Johnny: To go to my next question: You worked with Frank Sinatra in the war drama Never So Few, and you would later record the hit “Trade Winds” for his Reprise label. As even his close friends could run hot and cold on Sinatra, what was your opinion of him?
Aki: Sinatra was a fantastic, wonderful human being. I was in the movie, and the Asian kids were all sitting around. We were waiting for the scene and I was beating on a log and singing a calypso song. Sinatra came by and said, “You can sing! I like that. I said, “Frank, I can’t sing” (laughing), but he said, “Look, go tell Mo Ostin to give you some money and cut a demo, okay, kid?”. I went to Mo Ostin and I didn’t even have to say anything. Mo Ostin said, “Sinatra said to give you some money, so here’s $1000. Go cut a demo”. Mo Ostin turned out to be the head of all of Warner Brothers Records, and eventually, after Sinatra closed Essex Productions, I cut a demo and the rest was history. The record went into the Top 100, and that was “Trade Winds”. Now Sinatra did not like rock and roll, but my record was more island-based (laughing), so I was deeply grateful to him. I never really went out with a lot of people in the business, but I happened to be at a place he was at. We sat and talked, and he was very nice and cordial. He was a gentleman, advising me on things which I don’t want to repeat at this time about women (laughing).
Johnny: Well, I have heard “Trade Winds” on YouTube. It is a very enjoyable song. It’s very cinematic in its’ lyrics.
Aki: Well, thank you. I wrote it with another fellow, and it was a wonderful experience. Again, I was blessed because I had never sang before, like I had never acted before, and the good Lord opened up the opportunity for me.
Johnny: Fantastic. Going into the 60s, you had an uncredited role as a Chinese Non-Com in The Three Stooges Go Around The World In A Daze.
Aki: (Laughing) Yes, The Three Stooges. Oh, that was fun. Remember the TV show This Is Your Life?
Johnny: Oh, yeah. I do. I’ve heard of that.
Aki: I eventually worked on that also, so I had a second chance to work with one of The Three Stooges. It was a lot of fun. Again, I was fortunate to be working with some icons, you know? It was just great. Oh, by the way, to go back to Never So Few: Sammy Davis Jr. was supposed to work in that movie, but unfortunately, there were some problems, and Steve McQueen got the break to play the part that was written for Sammy. Peter Lawford was in it, too, and a whole bunch of great actors.
Johnny: My next question is this: You played Dr. Sui-Lin in “The Hundred Days Of The Dragon”, one of the most memorable episodes of the first season of The Outer Limits. What’s your favorite memory of that episode?
Aki: Well, I did two Outer Limits, and I loved both roles. In “The Hundred Days Of The Dragon”, I created a character who, through the process of molecular recreation, turned an Asian man into a Caucasian. That was wonderful, and in my next episode, “Expanding Human”, I had a wonderful scene opposite James Doohan, Scotty from Star Trek. It was just wonderful. I mean, it was a wonderful way of working. Those days are gone as far as actors are concerned. With live television, the actor controlled everything. There was no taping, so they cast stage actors instead of Hollywood actors, and so I had the opportunity to be on stage to work, and it was fun.
Johnny: Cool. You spent some time as a music industry executive in the 60s and 70s, working for labels ranging from Polygram to Capitol. What was your proudest accomplishment as an executive, whether it was an artist you signed or a milestone you achieved?
Aki: Well, there was a lot of racism in the record business, and I ended up being the chairman of the Fraternity Of Recording Executives. That was an organization that helped minorities, especially blacks, to move into better positions other than being just promotion guys. We had no access to moving into the business other than just being in promotion. There was no one in sales, no one involved in the creative aspects, so I made several changes. I tried my best to make a difference, and I’ve always done that. I also ended up being on the national board of the Screen Actors’ Guild, and being chairman of the EEOC, again for minorities, as well for women over the age of 40 who were not working. I fought for the disabled, for teenagers and for young people. I’ve always had a desire to make a difference in this world because “there’s no armored truck following a hearse”. You can’t take the money with you. Why not leave this world a better place? My motto is taken from Jewish law, and that is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Stand on one foot and the rest doesn’t mean anything. That’s how I live: Do unto others…I’ve always done that, not only in the Screen Actors Guild and the Fraternity Of Recording Executives, but also I worked with Media Action Network For Asian-Americans for parity with the networks, and we eventually got them to hire EEOC officers. We made a difference in terms of television, so I’m very proud to say I have helped in getting these Americans seen. The credo of the Screen Actors’ Guild, and the acting business, is one of opportunity, and I’m still doing it today. I’ve never taken any money to help anyone, and any time they want to ask me, I devote my time. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to live and give back, and that’s all that matters to me. The Egyptians thought they could take all their wealth and hold on to it, but we’re still waiting after 2000 years for them to come back (laughing). I just say that in jest.
Johnny: That’s very noble of you. You truly are a very humanitarian spirit.
Aki: Thank you, sir.
Johnny: Oh, no problem.
Aki: The Bible says, “What you sow, you shall reap”. If you sow bad seeds, you get bad karma, so it’s a done deal for us to treat our fellow brother as a human being with dignity and respect for them, so thank you for the compliment.
Johnny: No problem. Going back to my questions: You had a recurring role as Mr. Chiang on the series V. What was your favorite part of working on that show?
Aki: It was great because he was a wonderful character, and it was a great series. He was no stereotype, and it was the beginning of change in Hollywood. It’s too bad the second series did not click.
Johnny: You’re actually the third person who appeared on that series that I’ve interviewed, the first two actors J.J Cohen and Sherri Stoner, who did guest roles on the episodes as opposed to your recurring role. It was definitely a very interesting program.
Aki: Yes. It was kind of a breakthrough for different series. I had a lot of fun working on it. As I said, it’s too bad the new version they made did not click.
Johnny: If there really were aliens like those in V in real life, how would you react when coming across them?
Aki: Well, I did a couple of episodes of Babylon 5 which had some weird-looking people (laughing). Did you ever interview anyone from Babylon 5?
Johnny: Not yet. I’m hoping to be able to interview Tracy Scoggins someday.
Aki: Okay. Well, anyway, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know, because it’s never been in my life growing up, facing demons and things of that nature, so I would have no idea how I would react. Honestly, I would be scared to Hell and I’d run (laughing).
Johnny: Yeah. Sherri Stoner said the same thing when I interviewed her.
Aki: Acting and movies are all make-believe. I mean, we don’t go around killing people or shooting them up. We act in things that have a truthful background, but if you go back and look at all the horror movies, Halloween and all of those things, there’s reincarnation and war and murder, and documentaries of real things like killing and stuff like that. It happens in life, so we do a reflection of life and we try not to glamorize it, but tell it factually. It’s a very interesting thing. My concern is that I was looking at television from the 50s through today, and there was a time, I think it was in the 80s, when political wives including Tipper Gore, the wife of future Vice-President Al Gore, were worried about the lyrics, and they went before congress and eventually got a ruling that stated the lyrics are not suitable for young kids. That was interesting. They don’t do that anymore, unfortunately, because I think that we have a problem with this new media and the way things are going. In the old days, if you had a girlfriend and you were 14 or 15, and you didn’t like her, you would go and say to her, “I don’t think we’re getting along”. My 7-year-old granddaughter can pick up her cell phone and say, “Don’t call me anymore”. We’ve lost that intimacy of talking one-on-one because of the new media way, and I think that the images that are portrayed now on television and in movies are creating a whole new concept of losing the personal connection between people, and that’s sad.
Johnny: It’s definitely something to ponder. To go back to the 80s, you appeared in several Cannon Films releases in the decade, including Over The Brooklyn Bridge and Braddock: Missing In Action 3. Previous interview subjects of mine have expressed mixed feelings about Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, so what did you think of them?
Aki: Well, Golan and Globus were a great asset to the film industry. They never really were on the set. Before that, there was AIP, which was a low-budget company that was formed in Los Angeles, and they made low-budget films. It created this independent kind of push because the four big studios controlled everything. They made movies for drive-ins, and that gave an opportunity for lesser stars to come in because they were dealing with what was economically and culturally feasible. Golan and Globus did the same thing. There was the opportunity to get into the market, and they made wonderful films. I mean, I starred in two of them, so I got an opportunity to have a lead role. I’m not saying anything negative. They made excellent films for their target audiences, and they will go down in history as having made a difference.
Johnny: Yeah. I think that they made great popcorn movies, very entertaining stuff.
Aki: Yes. They were targeting an audience that wanted action, an audience that needed to have expression. For example, Van-Damme had some opportunities there, and I worked with him three years ago in a movie called Pound Of Flesh. Again, it created work for people like myself and gave a lot of technical people jobs. It created jobs, but then unfortunately, they went to South Africa and made some movies, but it’s all positive as far as I’m concerned.
Johnny: Alright. To go to a different studio and director, you played Col. Mitamura in 1989’s Farewell To The King. With the film’s Asian setting, and also knowing that you write and direct yourself, did you help John Milius out behind the scenes to give the finished movie a little more veracity?
Aki: You know I’ve always spoken up, but you don’t have a big voice unless you have a big name, and unless your IMDB ranking is up there. Back in the day, society was divided. I mean, people who controlled the business were 98% white. Economically, they made the deals and did not have a lot of interaction with people of color. They got their information second-hand, and it’s like being told a joke. You tell it to someone and then it changes, and by the time 5 people have gotten the joke, it’s changed. It’s all second-hand, and our society was divided. I’ve been in this business now 65 years and there’s a lot of changes. It’s been slow, it’s been consistent, and now what we have is the fact that we have integration. We have people of color having great roles, and it’s all economic in a way. Even when I was on the board of the Screen Actors’ Guild, fighting to get people of color in commercials, I remember how difficult that was back in the day. It’s always been difficult but, thank god, today the kids know each other. We’re making a big difference in terms of ending discrimination. We hope now, on the political level, that you’ll see more women directing. Women of color are directing. Men of color are acting with great roles. We’ve been a melting pot in this country, and the strength of the United States is that we have taken from all these different cultures the best, and it has improved life. Now, unfortunately, we’re in a situation with our government right now that they’re trying to go back, but you can never go back. You have to move forward, so I am hoping we will see a change in government, and then we’ll be more considerate of our fellow human beings and we’ll make this world a better place. We can’t take the money with us. There’s no armored truck following a hearse, right?
Aki: You never see someone going to a cemetery with all a man’s money. What we need to do is live and let live, and make this world a better place than we found it. That’s all we can, ashes to ashes.
Johnny: That’s definitely a good message, and I do hope that we will reach a more peaceful and honest and open and tolerant time. To go to a lighter subject: Jumping into the 90s, you appeared in 1996’s The Cable Guy as a Karaoke Party Guest. Was it hard to keep from laughing when Jim Carrey was performing, or was it easy?
Aki: Oh, Jim Carrey, what a character, and I look forward to his next project because he’s a great talent. Like anything else, talent always finds a way out, and so I think he has something he’s working on now. It’s not only Jim. People crack jokes on the set, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. He’s a star and he’s a wonderful. I was very happy working because he was a very different person than I’d worked with before. It’s always interesting when you work with different stars. You learn something different, and you always take away those moments, and I’m deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to work with him.
Johnny: Cool. In 2000, you played Mr. Ko in the comedy The Independent, about an independent film director dealing with a lot of issues. What did working on that fictional movie teach you that would apply to your own directorial efforts starting later in the decade?
Aki: I’m trying to remember the film, to be honest with you. Who was the star of it?
Johnny: Jerry Stiller.
Aki: Oh, that was another funny man (laughing). I don’t remember the film that much, to be honest with you, so I don’t want to comment on it, but I remember that it was funny and he was a funny man.
Johnny: Okay, so with that, we’ll go directly into your directing. Your directorial debut came with 2008’s Chinaman’s Chance: America’s Other Slaves, which you not only directed and co-starred in, but wrote as well. What was the inspiration behind that movie, and how important was it for you to tell the story?
Aki: It was filmed in 2008, but was never released because the timing was incorrect back then. I wrote, directed and put up my money because I wanted to make a difference. The film, which will be released some time this coming year, is now called Railroad To Hell: A Chinaman’s Chance. The Chinese were brought over to the United States in the 1850s to work the goldmines and to work on the railroad. Coming out of the record business, and as we talked about before, when working with FORE I was head of national promotion for Polygram, Capitol Records, and a lot of different people, and the most important thing I learned was timing. It’s the most important thing, being in the right place at the right time and knowing what to do. Making A Chinaman’s Chance was an expression of all the pain that I had gone through. I wondered, “What can I do to make a difference?”, so I took my money and I made this film. The film talks about the Chinese building the railroads. Do you know what a Chinaman’s chance is?
Johnny: I’ve heard the expression, but forgotten its’ meaning.
Aki: Let me tell you quickly how it came. There was no road, and the railroad was being built from New York to the West Coast. They were supposed to meet up, but unfortunately, the big mountains were in the way. They had to build a railroad over the mountain, so the Chinese were hired because they were small, and they were let down on ropes. They had a pickax and dynamite, and what they would do on these cliffs is they would lower the Chinese man down with a bucket, a pickax and dynamite. He would start where the railroad was to come, so they’d pick a hole in the mountain, dynamite it and ask to be pulled up, and they were pulled up. They took off the top of that mountain and made a flat road which is still here in California. You can drive up on the freeway going all the way up to Seattle and you can see the railroad. Anyway, if they did not pull you up in time, they’d say “You don’t have a Chinaman’s chance in Hell”. There were many times when they did not pull up the Chinese person and they got blown up, so that’s why it’s called “A Chinaman’s chance in Hell”. Getting back to the era of that particular time, the law of the land in the United States was Negroes and Native Americans were considered 3/5th human, so they were not considered human beings. In the 1850s, the same rule was done to the Chinese. I open up with a saying popular in the Wild West: “Steal a cow, you get jail. Steal a horse, you get hung”, because horse thieves stole a way to a man’s work and life, but killing a Chinese man was no crime. I had some of the greatest actors who wanted to be in the movie. Ernest Borgnine, for example. Theresa Russell. Do you know who she is?
Johnny: Oh yeah, I’m very familiar with her. I loved her work in Black Widow and Impulse.
Aki: That’s right. I also cast Olivia Hussey and Lorenzo Lamas and even Coolio. I have 17 stars. The Dred Scott Decisions, that Negroes could be bought and sold as articles of merchandise for profit, as well as the yellow slaves, as well as the brown-skinned Mexicans and the copper-toned Indians, meant that they had no rights, so it fit right in to what I wanted to do, and so I wrote it. The timing was wrong. I’ve won 17 awards, but back then, no one really knew about the Chinese. It was a great secret, what they contributed, and when the railroad that the Chinese built went over the mountain, they joined at Promontory Point where the golden spike was added. Americans coming from the East got together, and there was not one Chinese man in the official picture of that gold spike joining the railroad, not one. It’s quite interesting back then, and that’s an era I don’t want to revisit. I don’t want our country to go backward, but to go forward. Anyway, the movie has been reedited, and the timing is good now because life has changed. More people know now about different things, but they still don’t know about the contributions the Chinese made to this country. They built 17 railroads, and they also worked in Canada. Now is the right time because my film not only deals with the political element, it deals with love and integration, but primarily it also talks about discrimination. It talks about the Mexican workers and the whole of that, and it’s interesting in that it exemplifies right now what is happening in the country with workers and people of color and Latinos. I’m releasing it next year, and I’m in the process of reediting it. It will now be called Railroad To Hell: A Chinaman’s Chance. It’s Ernest Borgnine’s last film. He plays a fantastic role, and I’m looking forward to getting it out there. Thank you for asking.
Johnny: Oh, no problem. I hope it’s a big success, and speaking of directing, I’ve looked on your IMDB page and you have several directorial efforts lined up, including a drama called From Chile With Love and an action movie called My Grandpa The Assassin. As these roles require action, what do you do to keep in shape?
Aki: (Laughing) Um, well, I’ll be 84 on December 19th. I’m in great shape. I’m 130 pounds and 5′ 7”. I’m healthy. I have a little dementia like everybody else. I do everything in moderation. I have great respect for law and order. I have great respect for human life. I’m a good Christian. I am now a great-great-grandfather four times over, and I’m going to be flying up to Spokane, Washington to see my great-great-grandchildren. My last film, if I may speak about it, is My Grandpa The Assassin. I’ll be starring in it, and this will be the last film I want to do. I have offers for some other small films, which I don’t mind doing, but again, Railroad To Hell is something that I’m not the star of the movie, but I am the controller of it. I want to act, I want to direct, and I want to finally show what I can do. With My Grandpa The Assassin, I will be playing The Assassin, so it’s going to be a role that I wrote for myself. I’m finally going to be able to do what I’d like to do, and put my God-given talents to it. In My Grandpa The Assassin, I play a retired ex-CIA agent that was working in China, and then he’s been a target. Finally, after 50 years, they want to kill him, the Mafia and the Chinese. He comes back to the United States, but unfortunately he gets involved again, and is blackmailed to go back to work which he gave up and retired from. It’s kind of interesting, so that’s what I want to do as my life’s last big thing. Also, I’m going to do a documentary on my life which I’ve started shooting. It’s all about this guy who grew up making 75 cents an hour in Brooklyn, eating three-day-stale bread, wearing Salvation Army clothes, struggling, and eventually ending up a man who made a difference in the film industry and the music industry.
Johnny: That’s a fantastic story, and it’s all true. That brings me to the end of my questions, and again, I thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me. You’ve done some incredible work not only as an actor, but as a humanitarian, and it was an honor to speak to you.
Aki: It’s my pleasure. I would appreciate it if your audience could go to IMDB and punch in Aki Aleong. They will have the chance to see the fact that I have done almost 130 films. If I can, if there’s any of the audience out there who has the episodes of General Hospital or As The World Turns that I was in, could they please get in touch with me? I desperately need to get to talk to them because right now I have 130 episodes and films on IMDB, but I need another 95 that I haven’t gotten credit for yet. If they have them and can contact me, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you so much, okay?
Aki: Thank you very much. God Bless you, God Bless the audience, and again, As The World Turns or General Hospital? Please get in touch. Thank you. Bye bye.
Johnny: See you later.
Aki: See you later, alligator (laughing). God Bless you and your audience. Thank you.
I would like to thank Aki Aleong for taking the time to speak to me, and I would like to thank Joe Williamson for setting the interview up for me. Aki Aleong was the last person I interviewed in 2018, but I’ve already lined up some interviews for 2019. Keep your eyes peeled for a new interview with Rocky DeMarco, whom I previously interviewed in 2015, and my second interview with a Friday The 13th: Part V cast member when I interview that film’s final girl Melanie Kinnaman. Stay tuned, and happy new year, everybody.