Beulah Quo, a film and TV character actress who co-founded one of the first Asian American theater groups in Los Angeles in the 1960s, died of heart failure Wednesday in a hospital in La Mesa, Calif. She was 79.
Quo, who was also a respected community leader, had roles in more than 20 feature films, including "Flower Drum Song," "Gypsy," "Girls! Girls! Girls!," "Chinatown," "Into the Night," "Bad Girls" and "MacArthur."
She also appeared in 16 movies for television and more than 100 TV shows. Most notably, she played Kublai Khan's empress in the NBC miniseries "Marco Polo," co-starred as a Vietnamese orphanage director in the CBS TV movie "The Children of An Lac" and played a stern Chinese university dean in the CBS TV movie "Forbidden Nights."
She received an Emmy nomination in 1978 for her performance as Tzu-hsi, dowager empress of China, in an episode of Steve Allen's "Meeting of Minds" series.
In 1985, Quo began a six-year-run in the recurring role of Olin, the hip-talking, wise housekeeper and confidant on ABC-TV's "General Hospital."
"As an actress, she blazed a trail in terms of the depiction of Asian American woman in the various roles she played, and she never accepted roles that might tarnish the Asian American image," said actor George Takei, a longtime friend who appeared with Quo on various TV shows and collaborated with her on other projects.
Quo hadn't planned on an acting career. Born in Stockton in 1923, she earned a bachelor's degree in social welfare from UC Berkeley and a master's degree in sociology at the University of Chicago. She taught in China after World War II. She and her husband, Edwin Kwoh, escaped on a U.S. destroyer with their month-old son just as the communists took over.
She was teaching sociology at a community college when she heard that director Henry King was looking for a dialect coach for Jennifer Jones, who played a Eurasian in the 1955 film "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing." The director instead hired Quo to play a small role in the film as Jones' aunt.
Quo then set aside her teaching career to study acting. "As I got into it, I got more interested because, you know, most teachers are hams," she told the Washington Post in 1998.
Along the way, she changed her married name, Kwoh, to Quo "because I got tired of being asked, 'Is [Kwoh] a radio station?' "
In the early 1970s, she became the first Asian American to produce TV public affairs programs on the Asian American community. "Expressions East West" aired on KNBC-TV Channel 4 and was moderated by Takei. She also produced "James Wong Howe: The Man and His Movies," a documentary for KNBC-TV that earned her a local Emmy.
In 1965, Quo co-founded East West Players, the nation's first Asian American repertory group, and served as board president for eight years.
Over the years, she worked frequently on the stage, receiving a DramaLogue Award for outstanding performance for her 1997 role in "Ikebana," an East West Players production.
In the late 1970s, she helped organize the Assn. of Asian/Pacific American Artists, formed to create opportunities for Asian/Pacific American artists in front of and behind the scenes, as well as to promote balanced images of Asian/Pacific Americans on camera and on stage.
"Frequently when Hollywood won't even consider an Asian actor for a leading role, we hear that the Asian is not 'bankable,' " Quo told The Times in 1985. "I would like to refute that statement." She said the work of Haing S. Ngor, in "The Killing Fields" and Pat Morita in "The Karate Kid" -- Ngor won a best supporting actor Oscar and Morita was nominated for one -- "made those films what they are, and those films are bringing in box-office dollars -- because those actors are 'bankable.' "
In 1990, the Assn. of Asian/Pacific American Artists presented Quo with its lifetime achievement award.
"Those organizations probably would not have been, except for Beulah," said Takei. "She was so alive. She was a doer and an inspirer and an achiever."
In recent years, Quo and Takei co-chaired a capital fund-raising campaign that raised $1.7 million to move the East West Players from a 99-seat theater on Santa Monica Boulevard into a new 240-seat theater -- the David Henry Hwang Theater -- in a historic building in downtown L.A.'s Little Tokyo.
Quo also was responsible for a number of theater productions that depicted the experiences of Asians in the U.S. Appointed to the Sesquicentennial Commission, commemorating the state's 150 years of statehood, she commissioned "Heading East," a musical celebrating the history of Asian Americans in California. She also was a driving force behind the 1999 production of "Carry the Tiger to the Mountain," playing the mother of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American who was beaten to death in 1982 by two autoworkers in Detroit.
Quo is survived by her husband, her son Stewart Kwoh, her daughter Mary Ellen Shu and five grandchildren.