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Kam Fong

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Actor
Born:
1918
Death:
2002
Biography
Kam Fong was an actor who was best known to millions of television viewers for his portrayal of Sgt. Chin Ho Kelly on the first 10 seasons of the series Hawaii Five-O. He came from a place far away from acting, however, though very much a part of the series' later setting. Born Kam Tong Chun in Honolulu in 1918, he grew up in dire poverty, owing to a split in his family -- over his father's extramarital affair -- that led to his father's exile from the family business. His mother supported the family, in part, by making bootleg whiskey, and he spent a part of his childhood hiding her product from the police. He graduated from President William McKinley High School in 1938 and later found work as a boilermaker at the Pearl Harbor shipyard, where he witnessed the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base on December 7, 1941. He continued as a civilian defense worker through the war. In January 1944, he lost his first wife, Esther, and children Marilyn and Donald in a freak accident when two B-24 bombers collided over Honolulu and incinerated their home. He tried to drink himself to death and, failing that, came within seconds of shooting himself, until his mother interceded. In 1946, he joined the Honolulu Police Department, and later admitted that initially he hoped to be killed in the line of duty. He got his life back together over the next few years, and remarried in 1949, and had four children. He served on the police force for 16 years before retiring, and after that sold real estate, worked as a disc jockey, and started to dabble in local theater work. His name change, from Kam Tong Chun to Kam Fong Chun, initially came about when he was a young boy when a teacher misunderstood his real name.

In 1966, when pre-production began on the pilot episode for Hawaii Five-O, the call went out for anyone in the island state with acting experience. At the time, Hawaii had no film facilities or movie industry, and barely any acting community, and Fong's community theater work was relevant, although he wasn't inclined to do anything about the opportunity. It was his real estate partner who signed him up for an audition without his knowledge and persuaded him to go. As soon as producer Leonard Freeman and the rest of the production crew saw him read, and then discovered he was a 16-year veteran of the Honolulu Police Department, the role of Chin Ho was his. The only request that the CBS network made was that he shorten his name, which was how he became Kam Fong.

Over his 10 seasons on the series, Fong was one of the most popular members of the cast, with the public as well as his fellow actors. Audiences responded to the personal qualities that he brought to the role, particularly his serious yet gentle demeanor; and also to the verisimilitude his presence gave the series. Accounts say his technical expertise behind the scenes, and the tweaking of the scripts he helped provide, was almost as valuable as his acting. Fong was a mainstay of the cast across 10 years. By 1978, however, the now nearly 60-year-old Fong had decided to give up the grind of weekly series work. He also felt he and the writers had gone as far as they could with the Chin Ho Kelly character, who was killed off in the final episode of the season. He subsequently returned to acting in two episodes of Magnum P.I., another series shot in Hawaii, and made a run for governor of Hawaii at the end of the 1980s. In 1997, when Stephen J. Cannell tried to revive Hawaii Five-O, he got several ex-cast members back to reprise their roles, including Fong (the producer was apparently unaware that Fong's Chin Ho Kelly had been killed off in season 10, a fact that was only recalled after shooting was concluded, far too late to rewrite or re-edit his part, and the character was left in). Fong, a long-time smoker (who reportedly wanted to be buried with a cigar and three packs of cigarettes), died of lung cancer in 2002. His son Danny Chun is also an actor. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

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