Academy Trailblazers: John Lone

Throughout its history, Academy alumni have been at the forefront of the performing arts, often as trailblazers who have made a remarkable impact on the world of entertainment and beyond. In order to honor these achievements, The Academy presents this series to highlight alumni who have made important contributions to the evolution of acting as a craft.

John Lone (Class of 1978), was born Ng Kwok-leung in British Hong Kong in 1952. Having spent much of his early youth in and out of an orphanage, it was at the age of seven he was sent to train in the Peking Opera Style (also known as the Beijing Opera) at Hong Kong’s Chin Ciu Academy. Training there was brutal and grueling at times; a hard experience for such a young man, but he persevered. He was fully trained in singing, classical Chinese theatre techniques, and the art of dance and movement. Because of the rigorous training, he often isolated himself from academic and social activities to fully immerse himself in his craft. Acting became a new focus for him.

He began to study American movies closely and was inspired to take this further. John turned down an offer to join a dance company in Brussels and a ten-year contract to make Kung Fu movies and instead took a sponsorship to continue his education in the United States. Once in the States, John continued honing his craft and choreographing in New York and Los Angeles. He spent three years at Santa Ana Community College taking night school English classes until he could speak fluently to be more effective in his acting studies. He continued his acting education at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, graduating in 1978.
John Lone, Academy Class of 1978
It was very clear to John and his fellow Asian actors how little work there was for them in the mainstream entertainment market. The roles available were often stereotypical and lacked the depth that his rich culture possessed. Historically, it was common for white actors to portray Asian characters in cinema. Asian actors were relegated to play the stereotypical Asian foil, or as John called it, “living atmosphere,” while the main characters were played by white actors, regardless if the role was written as an Asian character. This “whitewashing" of Asians made it difficult for many Asian actors to play the meaty roles they longed for. This social disparity continued well into the 1970s with the series Kung Fu (1972), in which the leading role was played by a white man, David Carradine, and even into recent films like Cloud Atlas, where every main male character in the Korean storyline was portrayed by a non-Asian actor who was made up in yellowface makeup.
In this milieu substantial Asian roles were hard to come by, leaving Lone to play small roles in television shows such as Eight is Enough (1979) where he plays a junior member of the Chinese Trade Mission that must be entertained and shown around town by one of the Bradford daughters. The classic language barrier storyline plays out through his character Chang’s inability to speak English, causing some misunderstandings that are later resolved. These were the types of roles that many Asian, and American-born Asians were commonly offered.
As he searched for something more challenging, he was soon to run into some good luck. Japanese-American actor and director, Makoto Iwamatsu, also known as “Mako” was directing a brand new David Henry Hwang play. The play F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat) offered him the chance to play a part he was made for; an Asian emigrant from afar trying to assimilate to his new surroundings. It was from this performance that he would receive an Obie Award in 1981 and began to draw attention to his talent. From there he joined Mako as a member of the Asian American theatre troupe, East West Players where he choreographed, performed, and directed several works. Hollywood soon followed, and over the next few decades, he would appear in television roles such as Shanghai 1920 and Hill Street Blues, as well as numerous high-profile screen roles in films like King Kong (1976), Iceman (1984), M. Butterfly (1993), The Shadow (1994), Rush Hour 2 (2001), and War (2007).
John Lone as Pu Yi in The Last Emperor (1987) Photo Credit: IMDb

He was nominated twice for the Best Actor Golden Globe, for his role as Asian Triad leader, Joey Tai in The Year of the Dragon (1985), and for his role as Emperor Henry Pu Yi in The Last Emperor (1987). The latter film also took home the Best Drama Golden Globe and the Academy Award for best picture - one of nine Oscar victories - that same year. The character of Pu Yi, expelled from his ancestral home, was a role the film’s Director, Bernardo Bertolucci, felt Lone was born to play due to his training and heritage. Besides winning numerous awards, the film made history by being the first Western feature film that was authorized by the People’s Republic of China to film in the Forbidden City, in Beijing. It was roles in stories like Iceman that gave him the opportunity to dig into the roots of his training in movement and expression without words and the The Last Emperor where he paid homage to his rich heritage and history.


John’s later work has focused on the Asian film and television market, with roles in various Chinese programs from 1998 through 2007. Today, spends his time traveling between Los Angeles, New York, China, and Canada performing and creating. A true cultural and artistic trailblazer, John Lone has forged a legacy for himself that encompasses classically-trained proficiency paired with a contemporary sharpness and wit.