Veteran actor Dana Lee was a series regular on the ABC sitcom DR. KEN playing the role of DK–the divorced father of Ken Jeong’s titular character. The show was recently cancelled following its second season and Dana writes about why working on the show was a unique and special experience:
I have seen APIA actors come and go. APIA actors have always had some moments in the sun. Sessue Hayakawa in BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, Dr. Haing S. Ngor in THE KILLING FIELDS, Golden Globe winner Nancy “Ka Shen” Kwan, Mako in THE SAND PEBBLES and Pat Morita in THE KARATE KID are most noteworthy. And let’s not forget the contribution Bruce Lee made to advance APIA actors.
However, proud and grateful I am of their performances, I can’t help but think that all of them fitted in a certain mold of what white people expected of APIA’s, except for Sessue Hayakawa. The popularity of Hayakawa rivaled that of Caucasian male movie stars in the decade of the 1910s, and he became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.
Today, one can say the industry has evolved to the point where the stereotypical mold of APIAs is considered broken. APIA guys with white or black girlfriends, and badass APIA girls kicking ass. APIA’s have leads on TV series, even a sitcom with an all Asian family (there were two). These are all good and positive things, to be sure, and I’m forever grateful for them. However, I still felt something was missing, until DR. KEN.
My acting philosophy has always been to keep quiet and let your work speak for you. I know, that is not necessarily a good philosophy for someone in the spotlight. You see, I grew up in segregated Houston, TX where my dad had a mom and pop grocery store in the black section of town, Fifth Ward, and we lived in the poor white section of town, Denver Harbor. Because my dad was a grocer, we always had enough to eat, though we were definitely lower middle class.
So, with few people who looked like me, I became more and more introverted. One day in high school, I decided to do something about my shyness. I approached the speech teacher about taking a speech class. Mr. Long, who was also the drama coach, decided that acting was more suited for me. So, desirous of overcoming my shyness I was willing to give it a try. Immediately, I was hooked. Not for the spotlight or fame or money but I found my “voice” in acting. Mr. Long also taught me another thing, “You’re an actor. You can play any part you want to play. Don’t you ever forget that.”
I haven’t forgotten it yet.
So, having a venue for my “voice” has always been the driving force in my career. It has never been about money, fame, or any of the many other superficial trappings of acting. Although, let’s be clear, I’m also not against it either. It’s just that my “voice”, my belief in myself, has played a big part in the roles I chose. It was also a big reason why I spent about 15 years at East West Players working not only as an actor but all the other important jobs that make a successful production. I continue to work in Equity 99-seat plan theatres. That “voice” also played a significant part when it came to all the uproars about casting and white washings.
“DR. KEN” WAS ABSOLUTELY THE BEST GIG I’VE EVER HAD.
To be sure, I’ve had some highlights in my 40 some odd years career in film, TV and stage. I got to slap Stallone, did two Frank Chin plays, played George to Nancy Kwan’s Martha in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF and being cast in THE WOMAN WARRIOR. Sure, Ken Jeong, a star in his own right, is no Sly Stallone, Mel Gibson or Danny Glover and the writing on DR. KEN may not be Shakespeare, but I don’t care.
The thing that DR. KEN had over everything I’ve done is the opportunity to have that “voice” heard. It was a show about human beings with human aspirations and shortcomings…without denying our “Asianness”.
It also dealt with LGBTQ issues and interracial dating without being preachy. It had the humor plus the heart. It tried to delve deeper into the psyche of each character rather than just gloss over the superficial characteristics with a clever retort.
That humanity is what I’ve craved for my whole career. For sure, especially the APIA actors, felt we were doing something bigger than ourselves. The insight and courage of Ken Jeong, John Fox, Jared Stern and producers Mike Sikowitz, Patrick Kienlen, Mike O’Connell and the rest of the team; created an extraordinary journey for us all.
I want to thank them for a wonderful experience and for allowing me to express my voice. And with its cancellation, I think our community and the world will be deprived of one of the most significant moments on TV. Time will tell if there is anybody or any other network will have the guts to bring DR. KEN back or create another series like it.