When Dustin Nguyen starred in a prime-time TV series and gained a nationwide following of teen-age fans, he thought his acting career was securely launched.
But Nguyen, who has repeatedly refused stereotyped roles, today is out of work.
From 1986 to 1990, he played a hip, wise-cracking and sharply dressed undercover cop on Fox Television's "21 Jump Street." Though it was canceled last year, the show earned critical respect for its careful treatment of social issues affecting young adults.
Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee whose life is a riches-to-rags-to-riches story, auditioned for the part of Detective Harry Ioki because it wasn't a stereotype, he said. He left the show after a change of producers and directors and has had few good offers from Hollywood since.
"God, I don't want to turn work down," Nguyen (pronounced GWIN) said recently from his comfortable Anaheim Hills home. "I'm trying to pick things I feel good about doing without totally disappearing from working. But there aren't a whole lot of roles that portray Asians in a good light."
Producers of martial arts movies have been eyeing Nguyen's black belt in tae kwon do. But the 29-year-old actor has turned them all down and limited his recent career to an ABC Movie of the Week and a 20-minute supporting role as a Chinese student leader in an upcoming movie called "Rapid Fire," to be released in October.
"It's been very hard, since the first day I started acting, to disassociate myself from martial arts," Nguyen said. "A big part of me wants to do it for the money and the fun, but a lot of them have such skimpy stories. I don't want to reinforce stereotypes."
Guy Lee, a talent agent who is on the board of directors for the Assn. of Asian Pacific American Artists, said the odds are against Nguyen.
"He's a good positive image for the younger generation," Lee said. "Everyone speaks well of him. He's a gentleman, but that doesn't mean a thing. There's nothing else waiting for him."
At the age of 11, Nguyen and his family fled Vietnam for the United States just one day before Saigon's troops surrendered to the Viet Cong. His father was a prominent entertainer and in danger of being executed for writing pro-American propaganda for a Vietnamese radio station, Nguyen said.
The family eventually settled in St. Louis, and Nguyen changed his first name from Tri to Dustin. He quickly grasped the English language, graduating from high school with straight A's.
He moved to Orange County alone to major in communications at Orange Coast College, with the intention of eventually transferring to UCLA.
But he dropped out of school after two years, played small roles on "Magnum P.I." and "The A-Team" and became a regular for one year on "General Hospital."
After Nguyen landed a role on "21 Jump Street" as one of four youthful-looking cops posing undercover in high schools, producers decided to devote an entire episode to his true-life refugee experience.
Young viewers, he said, wrote that "they were thrilled to see an Asian character on such a hip show treated in an 'a-stereotypical' manner. \o7 Cool\f7 was a very frequent word used."