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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : B.D. Wong declares his 'All-American Girl' as a stereotype-free zone

October 16, 1994|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

B.D. Wong has more than a few words for those who criticize the sitcom "All-American Girl" as stereotyping Asian-Americans.

"I don't know what they're talking about," says Wong, who plays Margaret Cho's brother, Stuart, on the ABC sitcom that airs Wednesday nights. "I think that I am an expert on what a stereotype is, and I don't see any kind of negative portrayal of any group, which is what a stereotype is."

Wong speaks on the subject with the same fervency he used a few years ago to protest the casting of a non-Asian (Jonathan Pryce) in an Asian role in Broadway's "Miss Saigon." Wong has a particular interest in Broadway. He won a Tony in 1988 for his role as Song LiLing in "M. Butterfly."

Roles for Asian and Asian-American actors, he says from his New York apartment (he also has a home in Los Angeles), are few and far between. Wong jumped on the opportunity to be involved in the sitcom starring Korean-American stand-up Margaret Cho. The young man he plays is a cardiologist with a wry sense of humor.

Some television critics have called the show stereotypical, exaggerated and given to heavy accents; others, though not all, said it was just not funny.

Wong cites stereotypical portrayals of Asians as the kind done by Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rooney and "countless others" for laughs.

The "most ignorant" comments about "All-American Girl," Wong says, are the ones regarding the heavy accent of Cho's TV mother (Jodi Long). "I'm very in tune with stereotyping and most of my career has been devoted to the advocacy against it. A heavy accent does not a stereotype make. People have accents and that's what makes the show beautiful and the world beautiful. The accent is required for the role. This is what's going on in this country. And now, in this very rare opportunity, we can show this on television."

The San Francisco (Sunset district) native is several generations Chinese-American and has always been acutely aware of the obstacles facing minority actors--especially minority actors perceived as not "looking" American.

"Many white Americans feel they have a stronger sense of American identity," he says.

In fact, concerns about the lack of roles for Asians almost prevented Wong from pursuing his dream of acting.

"I knew there wasn't a whole lot of boy-next-door roles for me," he says. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that "one had to be Asian and change things. I really did try to bring a certain dignity to roles and to do something different. I was encouraged to speak out about what I disagreed with, to open the floor to discussion about what I felt was unsuitable and undesirable, whether it was a piece of dialogue or costume."

Ironically, he may be most recognizable for his roles that were not Asian specific--in 1991's "Father of the Bride" as the assistant wedding coordinator and in 1994's "The Ref" as a psychologist. But Wong's clever takes on the roles caught critics' attention.

"The tide is absolutely changing" he says of Asians and Asian-Americans being given roles not designated by a script as such. "This show ("Girl") is entirely groundbreaking. I've always wanted to do a television series."

He says he might not be as tuned into pop culture as Cho is, but he's nonetheless greatly influenced by television. "By my deciding to be in show business, it couldn't be denied that I wanted to be in one (TV series) secretly, and I could never do one that I didn't believe in completely."

Wong notes that nearly 10 times more people saw the first two episodes of "All-American Girl" than saw him in a year of "M. Butterfly" performances. Movie audiences will get to see Wong again also--next month he begins shooting the sequel to "Father of the Bride," where he'll revise his Howard Weinstein character.

He also has hopes of writing and directing one day. "I realize I need to express and have a responsibility to do more than an actor, where you are only the messenger of someone else's point of view. The really gratifying and important work comes from those who write and direct and are able to employ their vision in something."

"All-American Girl" airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.

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