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Pil Lip Ahn
March 29, 1905
|Died||February 28, 1978 72) (aged|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles|
|Alma mater||University of Southern California|
|Revised Romanization||An Pil-lip|
Philip Ahn (born Pil Lip Ahn (안필립), March 29, 1905 – February 28, 1978) was an American actor and activist of Korean descent. With over 180 film and television credits between 1935 and 1978, he was one of the most recognizable and prolific Asian-American character actors of his time. He is widely-regarded as the first Korean American film actor in Hollywood.
The son of Korean independence activist Dosan Ahn Chang-ho, Ahn was a longtime advocate for his father’s legacy and the Korean-American community, helping to establish memorials to his father in his native Seoul and later arranging for his remains to be buried there.
Ahn was born in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California on March 29, 1905. His given name Philip was an Anglicized version of the Korean name Pil Lip (필립). His parents, Dosan Ahn Chang-ho (도산 안창호) and Hye Ryeon Lee (이혜련), were both Korean emigrants who had moved to the United States in 1902, making him the first American citizen born of both Korean parents in the United States. His father Dosan was a well-known educator and an activist for Korean independence while Korea was under Japanese rule; he moved to the U.S. to seek better educational opportunities. He became an informal ambassador to the Korean-American immigrant community in California and became one of its first leaders, founding the Mutual Assistance Society (Kongrip Hyophoe/공립협회), the first Korean political organization in America.
When he was in high school, Ahn visited the set of the film The Thief of Bagdad where he met Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks offered him a screen test, followed by a part in the movie. However, his mother told him, "No son of mine is going to get mixed up with those awful people."
Ahn graduated from high school in 1923 and went to work in the rice fields around Colusa, California. The land was owned by the Hung Sa Dan, or Young Korean Academy, a Korean independence movement that trained Koreans to become leaders of their country once it was free from Japanese rule. Since Koreans could not own land in California, the Academy put the property in Ahn's name. Unfortunately, the rice crops failed because of heavy rains, and Ahn found himself deeply in debt. He went to work as an elevator operator in Los Angeles to pay back the debt and help support his family.
It was not until 1934 that he could afford to attend the University of Southern California. His father told him if he really wanted to be an actor, he had to be the best actor he could and convinced him to take acting and cinematography courses. While still a student, he appeared in a stage production of Merrily We Roll Along , which toured the western United States.
Ahn served as president of the USC Cosmopolitan Club, was chairman of the All University Committee on International Relations and was assistant to the dean of male students as advisor for foreign student affairs. He organized visits by foreign dignitaries, including Princess Der Ling of China, Indian journalist Chaman Lal and archeologist-explorer Robert B. Stacey-Judd. After completing his second year, however, Ahn dropped out to act full-time.
Ahn's first film was A Scream in the Night in 1935. He appeared in the Bing Crosby film Anything Goes , though the director Lewis Milestone had initially rejected him because his English was too good for the part. His first credited roles came in 1936 in The General Died at Dawn and Stowaway , opposite Shirley Temple. He starred opposite Anna May Wong in Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and King of Chinatown (1939), becoming the first self-represented on-screen Asian American romantic couple of sound-era Hollywood cinema.
During World War II, Ahn often played Japanese villains in war films. Mistakenly thought to be Japanese, he received several death threats. He was frequently cast in these roles opposite Chinese-American actor Richard Loo. He enlisted in the United States Army, having served in the Special Services as an entertainer. He was discharged early because of an injured ankle and returned to making films.
Ahn’s role as a conflicted Ilbongye Hangugin (Korean of Japanese descent) doctor in the 1945 Pearl Buck adaptation China Sky is notable as one of the first depictions of a Korean character in a major Hollywood film.
Ahn appeared in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing , Around the World in Eighty Days , Thoroughly Modern Millie and Paradise, Hawaiian Style , with Elvis Presley. He played Korean characters in Korean War movies such as Battle Circus (1953) and Battle Hymn (1956).
After traveling to South Korea in the 1950s, Ahn considered emigrating there and acting in Korean films, but decided against it due to his unusual idiolect. Having learned Korean mostly from his mother, who was from the Northern part of the peninsula and had left Korea in the early 1900s, Ahn and his siblings spoke with a prominent North Korean accent and antiquated diction and grammar.
In 1952, Ahn made his television debut on the Schlitz Playhouse, a series he would make three additional appearances on. Ahn would also be cast in four episodes of ABC's Adventures in Paradise , four episodes of the ABC/Warner Brothers crime drama Hawaiian Eye , and the CBS crime drama Hawaii Five-O . He made three appearances each on Crossroads , Bonanza , and M*A*S*H . He would also appear in two television movies.
Ahn's most notable television role was as "Master Kan" on the television series Kung Fu . A Presbyterian, Ahn felt that the Taoist homilies his character quoted did not contradict his own religious faith.[ citation needed ]
Ahn was actively involved in the Korean community of Los Angeles. He worked to make Los Angeles a sister city of Pusan, Korea. He also helped to bring the Korean Bell of Friendship to San Pedro, California. The Bell of Friendship has been seen in many subsequent movies. He served for twenty years as honorary mayor of Panorama City, California.
He worked to have his father and mother buried together in Seoul. His father had been buried far from the city because the Japanese hoped to play down his independence work. His mother had died in California. They had not seen each other from the time Dosan returned to Korea in 1926, before the birth of his youngest son. Working with the Korean government, Ahn helped to establish a park to honor his father and was able to have his parents buried there.
Ahn's younger brother, Philson, had a minor acting career. He was best known as "Prince Tallen" in the twelve-episode serial Buck Rogers , featuring Buster Crabbe.
Ahn's sister, Susan, was the first female gunnery officer in the United States Navy, eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant and working for both Naval Intelligence and the fledgling National Security Agency.
In the 1950s, Ahn opened a Chinese restaurant with his sister, Soorah. "Phil Ahn's Moongate Restaurant" was one of the first Chinese restaurants in Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley, and lasted for more than thirty years from 1954 and closed in 1990.
In 1968, Ahn made a USO tour of Vietnam, visiting both American and Korean troops in South Vietnam.
Ahn died on February 28, 1978, due to complications from surgery. He is buried in the Courts of Remembrance, Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles.
Ahn remains a seminal figure in Asian-American and Korean-American representation in Hollywood. In the 1940s and 1950s, Korea was a relatively obscure region to most Americans, recognized politically as a colony of Japan and little else. Not only was Ahn one of the first Korean-American actors to work in the American film industry, but he was also one of the first actors to portray Korean characters in American films.
Hye Seung Chung, an associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State University, writes of Ahn that he “remains a true pioneer, one of the few performers of Asian descent to survive the racist casting politics of studio-era filmmaking and make a transition to the Television Age. Although Ahn played Korean characters in only a handful of Korean War films and television episodes, he was an important figure in Korean American history.”
In 1984, Ahn was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a motion pictures star for his contributions to the film industry. His star is located at 6211 Hollywood Boulevard.He was the first Korean American film actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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