Had he not gone into acting, Clyde Kusatsu might today have been a military attaché. “There was something (alluring) about all those medals,” he said jokingly.
Instead, his extensive filmography includes numerous military roles on television and in the movies, even a recurring role as an admiral on Star Trek: Next Generation. He’s also played police detectives, coroners, judges and even a crazy ice cream man on Malcolm in the Middle.
He appeared this year in The Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman, and can now be seen in the movie Shopgirl, with Steve Martin and Claire Danes, as the boss of Dane’s character.
Japanee Bruddah Keet recently met Kusatsu over coffee at the Miyako Hotel in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo discussing his prolific – but often understated – career, his growing up in Hawai‘i and his approach to roles as an Asian American.
Although Kusatsu’s interest in acting started in high school theater at Iolani School in Honolulu, his showmanship started as a little kid.
“I asked my parents if I could take tap dancing after watching the Little Rascals,” he said. “They looked at me and thought ‘what a strange kid’, but I thought it was a way of getting noticed and also getting ahead in society.”
Even as a child, Kusatsu had developed an innate understanding of class and race and the challenges facing a boy from Hawai‘i looking for purpose in life. Snapshots of moments in his acting career showed his evolving approach to balancing his personal integrity in an entertainment industry that often cares little for those kinds of things.
In one of his first big television roles on the show Kung Fu, he sidestepped a stereotype pitfall. “The director said to me, ‘Clyde, can we have an accent – you’re sounding too American,’ but I didn’t want to do the Ls and Rs thing. So I gave them an accent, but not necessarily an Asian one and they liked it.”
Kusatsu’s voice was one of his talents that caught the attention of his high school drama teacher and something he’s used to create opportunities for himself.
“We were filming Magnum P.I. in Nuuanu Valley and in between takes, I would do my John Wayne impression with the other cast and crew,” he said. “Word got back to the producers that I could do John Wayne and they created a recurring role for me as a police detective that drove Tom Magnum nuts because my character would always talk with a John Wayne voice.”
Talking with Kusatsu makes one realize that for each of the high-profile incidents of Asian American stereotyping in Hollywood, there are dozens of times where actors like Kusatsu work to mainstream Asian American characters.
“I’m playing the part of Sally Struther’s husband Johnny on [the TV show] Still Standing and there’s one scene where the main characters come over to my house and Sally’s character tells them to take off their shoes. ‘It’s not an Asian thing,’ says her character. ‘It’s a neatness thing with Johnny, but I guess that’s an Asian thing.’ ”
“What’s funny is that the last time I worked with Sally was on All in the Family,” says Kusatsu. “I played a character named Rev. Chong in an episode where Archie wanted to baptize the baby and in one scene he calls me Mr. Ching. My character says that wasn’t my name. Then Archie calls me Mr. Chang and I say it’s Chong and Archie says ‘whatevers.’” Later in the episode my character calls Archie “Mr. Binker” and he says ‘It’s Bunker’ and I say ‘whatevers.’ ”
Fast forward twenty-six years from that show and Kusatsu’s talent and longevity has earned him a place in the business where his appearances are referred to as cameos – a label usually reserved for prominent actors.
Said Variety of his role in Shopgirl: “Judging from the virtually wordless cameos by familiar supporting players — including Frances Conroy as Mirabelle’s mom and Clyde Kusatsu as her boss — other significant changes were effected in the editing room during an unusually long post-production period.”
We guess that means you don’t a lot of him on screen. But that’s show business, he would say. “In my 32 years in this business,” said Kusatsu, “I’ve learned to accept the changes and that nothing is the same.”
Visit http://www.twojapaneebruddahs.com for links to Clyde Kusatsu’s filmography and a list of the movies and television shows he’s appeared in and available on DVD through Netflix. Keith Kamisugi and Kyle Tatsumoto are the Two Japanee Bruddahs. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.