Acting Against Type

Ten Bizarre Ethnically-Challenged Casting Choices

Warner Oland

When Swede Warner Oland was hired to play Asian characters Charlie Chan and Dr. Fu Manchu in the 1930’s, it was because at the time Hollywood was reluctant to hire authentic Asians as leads. You’d think in the years since, casting agents would leap at the chance to prove how much progress we’ve made. You’d be wrong. Let’s look at a few examples where, for better or worse, you have to ask, “Why?”

Note: this post isn’t criticizing the acting performances (some, like Pacino’s and Montalban’s– inspired, others…not so much), it’s merely commenting on the casting choices themselves.


10. The Teahouse of the August Moon
Actor: Marlon Brando, from Nebraska, USA of mixed Dutch, Irish, German, Huguenot and English descent.
Character: Sakini, from Okinawa, Japan
Attempt at authenticity: Not as bad as you’d expect. But considering Brando was a student of famed ‘Stanislavski system‘ teacher Stella Adler (whose school was also responsible for actors such as Robert DeNiro, Warren Beatty, and Martin Sheen), I’d expect nothing less.


9. Scarface (1983)
Actor: Al Pacino, from New York, USA of Italian-American descent
Character: Tony Montana, a “Marielita”– a Cuban refugee
Attempt at authenticity: As representative of Cuban refugees as Super Mario is to Italian-Americans. However, Pacino’s performance is so incredibly over the top and scenery-chewing it actually overshadows the bad accent (“Say hello to my leetle friend”).


8. Touch of Evil
Actor: Charlton Heston, from Illinois, USA of English/Scottish descent
Character: Ramon Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas, a Mexican.
Attempt at authenticity: I honestly don’t think Heston read the part in the script where he was supposed to be Mexican, and wondered why the makeup girls kept putting shoe polish on his face. Ironically, one of the other Mexican characters in the following clip, Joe Grandi, does a far better job considering he’s played by Akim Tamiroff– who is an Armenian from Russia.



7. The Usual Suspects
Actor: Pete Postlethwaite, British. You don’t get more British than Pete.
Character: Kobayashi (an Indian? Pakistani? WTF?)
Attempt at authenticity: Not much of an attempt at all, but at least it’s not as bad as, say, Apu from The Simpsons. I’m willing to let this performance pass considering the entire character (spoilers) may or may not be a complete invention in the mind of Verbal Kint/Keyser Söze and named after a coffee mug.


6. Space Seed” and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
Actor: Ricardo Montalban, from Mexico City, Mexico
Character: Khan Noonien Singh, a Sikh from Northern India
Attempt at authenticity: Brown skin and a mild accent do not an Indian make. This is a case where an Apu accent would actually be a benefit. Not to slam Montalban’s formidible talent as an actor, but considering he originated the character in 1967 (in an episode of ‘Star Trek’ called “Space Seed”), pickings were probably slim for an English-speaking native Indian actor.

Star Trek:Khan the PimpClick here for more amazing videos
Fifteen years didn’t improve Montalban’s non-attempt at an Indian accent.


5. Highlander
Actor: Christopher Lambert, of French Heritage (though oddly enough, born in Great Neck, New York)
Character: Connor MacLeod, a scot from, uh, the Highlands
Actor: Sean Connery, born in Edinburgh, Scotland
Character: Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez, from Spain.
Attempt at authenticity: I honestly don’t know what’s worse, a Frenchman pretending to be a Scot or a Scot pretending to be a Spaniard (who’s really an Egyptian). And while the script makes a valiant attempt, all the “haggis“es or “pendejo“s in the world aren’t going to convince me Lambert and Connery are something they’re not.




3. Little Buddha
Actor: Keanu Reeves, a Canadian of English, Portuguese, Irish, Hawaiian and Chinese descent
Character: Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), The Enlightened One, from India
Attempt at authenticity: Come on, it’s Keanu. Whether he’s playing a pre-Christ era spiritual teacher from India or an 18th-century Englishman in Transylvania, it’s still Keanu! Time-traveling valley boys, surfing FBI agents, OK…but an Ancient Indian religious figurehead?! I’m really not sure what Bertolucci was smoking when he made this casting choice. Whoa.


2. The Conqueror
Actor: John Wayne, a American original (of Irish and English descent)
Character: Temudjin (aka Genghis Khan), a Mongol from Asia
Attempt at authenticity: Okay, same note as before. This is casting 101. John Wayne has one acting style. If you want a tough American cowboy or a tough American Green Beret, or a tough American boxer, Wayne’s your man. Ruthless Mongolian leader…not so much. I swear I keep expecting him to say “pilgrim” in this film. Film critic Bob Harris said, “One of the most jarring moments in the entire film arrives about halfway through, when two actual Chinese guys appear briefly as extras. After a full hour of trying to convince yourself that John Wayne and this weird menagerie of Europeans, Mexicans, and American Indians are all from Mongolia, actual Asians look positively otherworldly”


1. Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Actor: Mickey Rooney, from Brooklyn, of Irish descent
Character: Yunioshi, from Japan
Attempt at authenticity: Words fail me. Watch the clip. Seriously this performance is so car-wreckingly embarrassing, producer Richard Shepard has said, “If we could just change Mickey Rooney, I’d be thrilled with the movie.” If Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story is to be believed, this performance so enraged Bruce Lee, that it motivated him to pursue acting, if only to counter the stereotype. If there’s anything positive to be taken away from this, I guess we have Mickey Rooney to thank for Enter the Dragon.

I’m certainly not saying that talented actors can’t stretch out and play roles beyond their range. But sometimes it just goes to prove that to find the best person for the job you may not need to look farther than the character’s own heritage.


This post is dedicated to Brit Peter Sellers, who with brilliant comic aplomb played Frenchmen, Germans, Indians, Americans, and yes, even Dr. Fu Manchu. And to Canadian Mike Myers, who seems to be following hotly in his footsteps.

Are there any other outrageous examples we missed? Leave a comment in the thread below and we’ll add them to the list.

Update

Cineleet reader John Weeks was kind enough to point out this one:

Mary Poppins
Actor: Dick Van Dyke, from Danville, Illinois, of Dutch descent
Character: Bert, a Cockney chimney sweep (and screever and one-man-band)
Attempt at authenticity: John Weeks puts it best: “It’s as if Dick Van Dyke NEVER even heard a person from England before he made Mary Poppins! It’s like Walt Disney NEVER even heard a person from England before he made Mary Poppins! It’s like Julie Andrews NEVER heard Dick van Dyke during the filming of Mary Poppins!” Notice at the end of this clip, when he says, “I’m sorry, where was I?” there’s not the slightest trace of cockney whatsoever in his accent.

64 thoughts on “Ten Bizarre Ethnically-Challenged Casting Choices

  1. It’s as if Dick Van Dyke NEVER even heard a person from England before he made Mary Poppins!
    It’s like Walt Disney NEVER even heard a person from England before he made Mary Poppins!
    It’s like Julie Andrews NEVER heard Dick van Dyke during the filming of Mary Poppins!

    Oh, it makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

  2. It’s as if Dick Van Dyke NEVER even heard a person from England before he made Mary Poppins!
    It’s like Walt Disney NEVER even heard a person from England before he made Mary Poppins!
    It’s like Julie Andrews NEVER heard Dick van Dyke during the filming of Mary Poppins!

    Oh, it makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

  3. What about Yul Brynner? The King of Thailand, the cossack Tarus Bulba and how many others.

    Kirk Douglas as an Australian in the Man from Snowy River is at least as bad as Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Every American who tried to play an Australian, from Meryl Streep back, has been pretty pathetic.

    Less well known is Michael Pate, from Sydney, who made a steady living for years as a Hollywood and TV Red Indian.

  4. What about Yul Brynner? The King of Thailand, the cossack Tarus Bulba and how many others.

    Kirk Douglas as an Australian in the Man from Snowy River is at least as bad as Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Every American who tried to play an Australian, from Meryl Streep back, has been pretty pathetic.

    Less well known is Michael Pate, from Sydney, who made a steady living for years as a Hollywood and TV Red Indian.

  5. With all the stories we hear about Brando’s behavior later in life its easy to forget how truly gifted he was. Brando was incredible, just incredible. But given his background why not throw in the Don Corleone for The GodFather?

  6. With all the stories we hear about Brando’s behavior later in life its easy to forget how truly gifted he was. Brando was incredible, just incredible. But given his background why not throw in the Don Corleone for The GodFather?

  7. Even worse I was cruising the sattelites about 20 years ago, with one of those huge dishes my dad had bought us, and found the M1 Mexico feed. Lo and behold I was watching an enticing Mexican production which featured two actors portraying American border guards. Dressed in what barely passed as a uniform they spouted a string of four letter words in english that I think they didn’t understand themselves. Worst casting ever.

  8. Even worse I was cruising the sattelites about 20 years ago, with one of those huge dishes my dad had bought us, and found the M1 Mexico feed. Lo and behold I was watching an enticing Mexican production which featured two actors portraying American border guards. Dressed in what barely passed as a uniform they spouted a string of four letter words in english that I think they didn’t understand themselves. Worst casting ever.

  9. I forget the name of the movie, but it had Katherine Hepburn as a Chinese woman. It was based on a Pearl S. Buck novel.

  10. I forget the name of the movie, but it had Katherine Hepburn as a Chinese woman. It was based on a Pearl S. Buck novel.

  11. @Beirti
    Yeah, pretty much any time Connery attempts to play a non-Scot is a potential for awkwardness.

    @Lisa
    That’s ‘Dragon Seed’ (1944), based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, and I very nearly considered it for this post.

  12. @Beirti
    Yeah, pretty much any time Connery attempts to play a non-Scot is a potential for awkwardness.

    @Lisa
    That’s ‘Dragon Seed’ (1944), based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, and I very nearly considered it for this post.

  13. Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. According to IMDB.com: Rumor has it that Kevin Costner wanted to use an English accent, but director Kevin Reynolds didn’t want him to. Supposedly, Costner would affect the accent when he was arguing with Reynolds, but not when they were in agreement. Costner claims that he was initially asked to use an accent, but this was stopped when he did it poorly.

  14. Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. According to IMDB.com: Rumor has it that Kevin Costner wanted to use an English accent, but director Kevin Reynolds didn’t want him to. Supposedly, Costner would affect the accent when he was arguing with Reynolds, but not when they were in agreement. Costner claims that he was initially asked to use an accent, but this was stopped when he did it poorly.

  15. In Mike Myers defense, if we are to believe the trailer for The Love Guru, his character is actually NOT Indian but an American who has spent most of his life in India.

  16. In Mike Myers defense, if we are to believe the trailer for The Love Guru, his character is actually NOT Indian but an American who has spent most of his life in India.

  17. K-19 the Widowmaker has some bad accents. It’s perplexing since in Hollywood, any European that is not English or French can pull off the Russian accent well. They opted for star power though and it didn’t work out.

  18. K-19 the Widowmaker has some bad accents. It’s perplexing since in Hollywood, any European that is not English or French can pull off the Russian accent well. They opted for star power though and it didn’t work out.

  19. You forgot about “Kung Fu” where the director rejected none other than Bruce Lee and got some caucasian guy to play the main character. Double whammy for “Kung Fu: The Legend”

  20. You forgot about “Kung Fu” where the director rejected none other than Bruce Lee and got some caucasian guy to play the main character. Double whammy for “Kung Fu: The Legend”

  21. Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects was my first clue that the story being told was not what actually happened. No reason for an Englishman to have a very Japanese last name. I don’t think it deserves mention on this list because he’s obviously not even trying to portray anything other than the Brit he is.

  22. Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects was my first clue that the story being told was not what actually happened. No reason for an Englishman to have a very Japanese last name. I don’t think it deserves mention on this list because he’s obviously not even trying to portray anything other than the Brit he is.

  23. For pure insanity one must give a shout out to the casting of Horst Buchholz as the crazy mixed up kid in the Magnificent Seven.
    In a film that is actually notable for being among the first to cast Mexicans to play Mexicans, and is actually entertaining despite the meanest gunfighter in the film being named ‘Chris’, the stand-out-over-the-top performance of Horst is all the more offensive. So bad in fact that ‘Horst’ has become code in my family for anything bad (as in ‘Oh horst…”)

  24. For pure insanity one must give a shout out to the casting of Horst Buchholz as the crazy mixed up kid in the Magnificent Seven.
    In a film that is actually notable for being among the first to cast Mexicans to play Mexicans, and is actually entertaining despite the meanest gunfighter in the film being named ‘Chris’, the stand-out-over-the-top performance of Horst is all the more offensive. So bad in fact that ‘Horst’ has become code in my family for anything bad (as in ‘Oh horst…”)

  25. Sean Connery as the Berber Sheik Raisouli in the Wind and the Lion. The man didn’t even TRY not to be Scottish; it was amazing.

  26. Sean Connery as the Berber Sheik Raisouli in the Wind and the Lion. The man didn’t even TRY not to be Scottish; it was amazing.

  27. Jonathan Rhys-Davies (Welsh) as some sort of Middle East native in the Indiana Jones movies

    Also, the entire cast of “Last Temptation of Christ”, especially Harvey Keitel and Willem Defoe

  28. Jonathan Rhys-Davies (Welsh) as some sort of Middle East native in the Indiana Jones movies

    Also, the entire cast of “Last Temptation of Christ”, especially Harvey Keitel and Willem Defoe

  29. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi

    Possibly the greatest Indian who ever lived, played by an Englishman, who won an Oscar for it

    (I believe they do have actors in India…)

  30. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi

    Possibly the greatest Indian who ever lived, played by an Englishman, who won an Oscar for it

    (I believe they do have actors in India…)

  31. Star Wars: Episodes 1-3
    Actor: Natalie Portman, Plywood
    Character: Padme, Human

    How did that not make the list?

  32. lest we forget Short Circuit featuring Chicago Native Fisher Stevens as Indian Ben Jabituya (and Ben Jahrvi in short Circuit 2), between the excessive tanning make-up and his accent, it’s truly amazing they got away with this.

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