MEMOIRS OF THE HUMAN VAPOR! James Hong on Dubbing Toho’s Sci-Fi Classics!

James Hong on the set of the TV series Pair of Kings in March 2011. Photo © Brett Homenick.

James Hong is an accomplished actor who has appeared in a number of critically acclaimed and highly successfully films in the last several decades. Among his better-known credits are: The Sand Pebbles (1966), Chinatown (1974), Blade Runner (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Balls of Fury (2007), and Kung Fu Panda (2008). Mr. Hong made kaiju eiga history when he provided the voices of Ogata and Serizawa for the American version of Godzilla King of the Monsters in 1956. Following that, Mr. Hong went on to dub Yoshio Tsuchiya’s landmark performance in The Human Vapor (1960). Mr. Hong spoke with Brett Homenick by telephone in 2007 about his memories of dubbing two of Toho’s most popular special-effects films.

Brett Homenick: My first question is, how did you get involved with Godzilla King of the Monsters, dubbing that film?

James Hong: I was attending USC, finishing my last year. I had gone to (the) University of Minnesota for three and a half years or so because I went into the Army for the Korean War. When I came out, I continued my education. I came out here to Hollywood one summer. I did voices, did impersonations. I got on the Groucho Marx quiz show that summer. It got a great audience reaction. I had received the second biggest fan mail (response) as a contestant for the show. “Who was that kid who did impersonations of Groucho, Peter Lorre, James Cagney, etc.?”  So I decided to stay in California and switched from University of Minnesota to University of Southern California and graduated as a civil engineer from USC.

I got out into the field and did civil service work for L.A. County. I designed curbs and gutters, and got bored with it. I started getting calls to act in movies. The first movie was with Clark Gable called Soldier of Fortune, 1953 or ’54, and the second one was Blood Alley with John Wayne, and the third one was with Bill Holden and Jennifer Jones in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. They came pretty fast, so I said, “Oh, the heck with engineering!” (laughs) I quit! (laughs) All that studying, practically five years of it, just sort of went down the tube. (laughs) I never regretted it because I just keep on making about ten films a year, including TV, of course, and never stopped. So what year was Godzilla?

BH: That came out in 1956, in America.

JH: Wow, that was only three years after I quit engineering. So I guess it had to be three years after I started in the industry. I and my comedy partner, Sammy Tong (a.k.a. Sammee Tong), were just taking any jobs out there. One producer said to us, “We’re looking for guys to do some voices for a Japanese monster film.” He went on to say that he picked up this film in Japan. “It’s a monster film, and I have the rights now, and I want to do the dubbed version for (the) United States.” He said he was going to patch in some scenes with Raymond Burr and some other colleagues. So they built this set. It’s the set that you see in the movie, that window with Raymond Burr looking out, and narrating all that stuff about the Godzilla. (laughs) Previously, I had worked with Raymond Burr twice, I think, on Perry Mason and something else.

Getting back to how the interview took place, the producer said, “Come on over to Japan Town, and audition if you want to, for these voices. The pay is minimum.” I think he paid $100. So Sammy and I showed up over at Japan Town. It was a Caucasian guy that got the rights, some producer who was just at that time a nobody. So we went up to the second story — it was a big empty room, and he had a desk in the center. He said, “Okay, I have the microphone here. Just give me a sample of what you do with a Japanese accent.”

Sammy later became one of the regulars on the TV series called Bachelor Father with John Forsythe. At that time, he was not in that series yet because we were both looking for work. We had a little comedy team going called Hong and Tong. His name was Sammy Tong; mine was James Hong. So we did little funny things and impersonations.

We said, “Okay, where’s the script?” He says, “There’s no script.” (laughs) He said, “Use The Hollywood Reporter.” (laughs) He said, “Okay, just read The Hollywood Reporter right here on this second column here, with a Japanese accent.” Sammy and I looked at each other: “Oh, no script, and he wants Japanese accents.” I looked at The Hollywood Reporter, and I said, “So let’s see now. Ah, so!” (Mr. Hong proceeds to read in a Japanese accent) I read — I don’t know — maybe another paragraph. He said, “That’s great! That’s great!” (laughs) “You got the job!” Sammy Tong did the same thing. He had a broader accent than I do. (laughs) He was going, “Let’s see.” (Mr. Hong proceeds to imitate Sammy Tong‘s Japanese accent) So Sammy Tong did his accent, and neither one of us was Japanese.

So there were some Japanese guys following us, but he thought our accents were much better. (laughs) “Okay, you guys show up” — forgot exactly when — “I’ll have the script, and you are going to dub this film. You get $100.”  We showed up that day. I think it was the same room; I’m not sure. I said, “Well, this is not a studio. It has nothing. It’s just the same table and everything.”

So he had one lonely desk microphone on the table. He put the script there in front of us. Now we weren’t totally inexperienced, so we said, “Well, where’s the film so we can look at it and lip-sync the darn thing?” He said, “There’s no film for you to look at. You don’t lip-sync. You just read the script.” So he said, “Okay, when I say ‘Roll it’ and ‘Action,’ you start. Roll it. Action.” So I just practically cold-read that script, one character. Then he said: “Okay, here’s the second character.  Read this.” That continued for about 10 characters. (laughs) I read 10 of those guys, young-guy roles, and then he started with Sammy Tong. Sammy didn’t do quite as many. He did about six or eight characters of the older characters because he was older. Then he said, “Okay, that’s it.” But during the reading, he would say, “A little faster. A little slower. Okay. Oh, here, hesitate a little. For this character, you’re more sympathetic than this other guy.” As it turned out, that was the scene where the two male leads were arguing with each other. Remember that scene?

BH: Yes, I do.

JH: Okay. Well, both of those voices were mine! (laughs) I’m arguing with myself! So all those voices that I did were just thrown in there for all those characters, the young characters, and all the old men, the scientist that was pointing to the blackboard, all those were Sammy Tong’s voice. Together, Sammy and I did probably 80% of all the voices.

BH: You don’t remember anybody else who dubbed the film, any of the female characters, for instance?

JH: Now Dale Ishimoto, that’s the guy’s name that, I think, got to (do) some of the scenes, the real scenes, the on-camera scenes, Dale Ishimoto. He did the scenes with Raymond Burr. Raymond Burr read all his lines from cue cards.                

BH: Did he read his lines on that film? Did Raymond Burr read all of his lines?

JH: Yeah, he did that all during the (Perry Mason) TV series. I watched him. I was totally amazed at how this guy could look at a piece of cardboard and act like he did. It was marvelous.

BH: Do you remember working with the director, Terry Morse, on Godzilla King of the Monsters?

JH:  Was he that white guy that paid us the $100?  I don’t remember his name.

BH: The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the movie The Human Vapor that you also dubbed. It was another Japanese film.

JH: Now that one, I saw the movie and did the lines, and the film doctor pieced it together. It came out very satisfactorily. I thought the emotions were very good. I put the best I could do in (it). It was pretty good, didn’t you think?

BH: I like it.

JH: Very, very sympathetic. The voice I put into it was very hollow and haunting. The Human Vapor became what he was. Years after that, many years, let’s say 1990, all of a sudden, this guy stopped me — I’ve forgotten where — on the studio, on the street. He said, “Got a message for you. You’re James Hong.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Mr. (Tsuchiya), he wants to thank you for doing an excellent English voice for him.” So that leading Japanese actor was very happy that I did a good job dubbing his voice into English, very gratifying. Most of (the) time, it’s very difficult to satisfy the original actor with a dubbed voice.

We did that one, I think, down here on Santa Monica Boulevard. That studio now is all knocked down, revamped into a huge dubbing facility. I remember the sound guy who was in the booth for The Human Vapor. He was a film doctor. His job was to doctor up films. So, anyway, that’s the end of the story. I’ve dubbed some other Japanese films, too. I don’t remember which ones.

BH: Do you have any other memories of The Human Vapor, like how you got hired on it, or who you worked with, anything like that?

JH: No, no. I did audition for it, and he thought I was very good, and so with that one we took a lot more care, like a real movie — not at all like Godzilla. But, of course, Human Vapor is only one one-thousandth as successful as Godzilla.

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