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Remembering Haing Ngor, The First Asian To Win Best Supporting Actor — For 'The Killing Fields' In 1985

Two men with light brown skin smile, wearing tuxedoes.
5th March 1985: Dr. Haing S. Ngor, left, the star of "The Killing Fields," at the annual BAFTA awards at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. He stands alongside Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist who he portrayed on screen.
(John Gooch
Hulton Archive/Keystone/Getty Images)
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Ke Huy Quan has won Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards for his role in Everything Everywhere All At Once. The emotional win for the actor who was born in Vietnam is part of increased Asian representation seen at the Oscars in recent years.

Quan is now the second Asian actor to win the prize.

The first was Haing S. Ngor, nominated for his role in 1984’s The Killing Fields. The film told the true story of the Khmer Rouge regime and its brutal dictatorial rule of Cambodia, through the perspective of journalist Dith Pran, played by Ngor.

Ngor, who was not an actor, took the role to bring attention to what happened in his home country — a message he continued to spread until he was shot shot and killed outside his downtown L.A. Chinatown home 11 years later.

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Casting for The Killing Felds

Ngor had an unusual path to the big screen and the highest honor in Hollywood. He had never acted before.

Ngor was a Cambodian OB-GYN, who came to the U.S. after surviving torture and imprisonment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. When he first arrived, Ngor worked as a security guard here in Los Angeles. At the time he was cast, Ngor was working as a caseworker for refugees in L.A.’s Chinatown Service Center.

“He was helping refugees and immigrants settle into America. And he loved that work because he went through that process as well,” said Arthur Dong. Dong, a documentarian, wrote and directed The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, working closely with Ngor’s family and combing through Ngor’s extensive personal archives.

Pat Golden, casting director for The Killing Fields, found Ngor at a Cambodian wedding where she was scouting for the film.

“She just beelined to him, and he said ‘No, no, no,’” Dong said.

After months of back and forth and Ngor missing appointments due to the project not being a priority for him, Golden finally nailed him down and got him to tape an audition.

“Luckily that videotape still exists, and it’s just beautiful,” Dong said. “The performance was just wrenching. … It’s proof that Pat Golden knew her work, her job. She recognized talent, and the rawness of his ability to transfer that onto the screen.”

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The film

Ngor drew on his personal experience — including the war, his incarceration in the Khmer Rouge prison camps, and his separation from his wife and family. In The Killing Fields, Ngor played Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist.

“It paralleled the experience he had being caught up in the Khmer Rouge invasion — and then having to escape, through very treacherous terrain along the border of Thailand. All of that happened to Dr. Ngor, as it happened to Dith Pran,” Dong said.

His ability to tap into that made for a memorable performance.

“It takes a certain kind of talent for a person to be able to do that. Not just anybody can draw on their memories and their experience, and project it in front of a camera for 20 takes,” Dong said.

The Academy Awards

A man with light brown skin holds a golden Oscars trophy. A white woman stands to the right. A large golden Oscar statue is behind them.
File: Oscar-winning Cambodian actor Haing Ngor (L), seen March 25, 1985, receiving his Oscar for best supporting actor for his first screen appearance in "The Killing Fields," from Linda Hunt (R).
(Rob Boren
AFP via Getty Images)

His performance led to an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But questions were raised at the time whether his nomination was an example of tokenism, according to Monica R. Sandler, a UCLA doctoral candidate who studies the Academy Awards. It was in a year when the nominees were more diverse than usual — Ngor was competing in his category against fellow Asian actor Pat Morita for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, as well as the multiracial Adolph Caesar.

As Ngor started to win other awards season prizes, including the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and two BAFTA Awards, he continued to work as a counselor. Sandler notes that he had to ask his supervisor for time off to attend the Oscars.

His ultimate win was also driven by his compelling life story, according to Sandler. It’s similar to the momentum behind Ke Huy Quan’s nomination following decades since his previous best known work, a child star seen in beloved '80s movies The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

“[Ngor’s] honesty was something that hadn’t been seen, and that built the narrative that led to his victory,” Sandler said.

Ngor wrote in his autobiography that he’d thought John Malkovich should win. Malkovich was in The Killing Fields with Ngor, but was nominated against him that year for a different film.

“It says something about the narrative building that happens around award season in general, and it also says something about Hollywood’s behavior with less experienced or amateur actors,” Sandler said.

Ngor's acceptance speech

In his acceptance speech, Ngor’s thanks included calling out casting director Pat Golden for discovering him. He also thanked the studio behind the film for, in Ngor’s words, “helping me tell my story to the world — let the world know what happened in my country.”

Ngor was also just the second non-professional actor to win — following Harold Russell in 1946’s The Best Years Of Our Lives, a war hero who lost both of his hands. Russell played a man returning from World War II on screen as well.

Ngor’s murder

Three Asian men in blue and white prison outfits sit in a courtroom.
File: Defendants in the murder of Oscar-winning actor Haing Ngor of Cambodia, from L: Indra Lim, Jason Chan, and Tak Sun Tan appear in a Los Angeles court during a preliminary hearing in which prosecutors decided to continue the case after a witness recanted his testimony that he saw the suspects flee the murder scene.
(Vince Bucci
AFP via Getty Images)

On Feb. 25, 1996, Ngor was shot and killed outside his downtown L.A. Chinatown home. While there was initial speculation that Ngor had been killed on the orders of the Khmer Rouge, three alleged L.A. gang members were put on trial for his death.

Was it really a robbery? Or were these three gang members hired to commit this murder by another entity?
— Arthur Dong, documentarian

But many in the Cambodian American community still wondered about the motive. Dong noted that there was still money on his body following the alleged robbery.

“Even today, people in the Cambodian American community talk about it. Although there was a trial and conviction, there still were lingering questions,” Dong said. “Was it really a robbery? Or were these three gang members hired to commit this murder by another entity?”

While on trial for war crimes in 2009, Kang Kek Iew — also known as “Comrade Duch” — said that Ngor’s death was an assassination.

“Haing Ngor was killed because he appeared in the film The Killing Fields,” Iew said, according to multiple outlets.

“He publicly said, on record, that yeah, it was a hit job,” Dong said. “That Pol Pot was angry, and he commanded his people to murder him. Because Dr. Ngor was in The Killing Fields, exposing the story to this wider audience that they didn’t want to have seeing the story.”

That’s contributed to those questions about Ngor’s death. But the statement has been largely discounted, according to Dong, including by American officials. Ngor’s niece Sophia, who was in court every day for the trial of the gang members, told Dong that she believed in the original trial’s conviction.

Ngor’s legacy

An Asian man is shown hugging someone. They are surrounded by other people, several men wearing suits. A banner hangs in the background reading "Dr. Haing S. Ngor Lives On In Our Hearts."
Photojournalist Dith Pran (R), embraces Wathana Sarun, nephew of slain academy award-winning actor Dr. Haing S. Ngor, following a funeral service for in Los Angeles.
(Kim Kulish
AFP via Getty Images)

Following his awards win, Ngor had continued to act, working to keep spreading his message about Cambodia.

“I found so many letters, and correspondences — and he kept receipts, invoices, his contracts — and so much of it was about, ‘I’ll take this job because I can use the money to further my speaking about what happened in Cambodia,’” Dong said.

After his win, Ngor would end up viewing his Oscar trophy as something of a curiosity, according to Sandler. Photos from Ngor’s archives show that he would bring the Oscar trophy with him to speaking engagements, even letting members of the crowd hold it.

“He knew his Oscar was a weapon, a magnet to get people’s attention so that they would listen to him tell the story of what was going on in Cambodia, and what still was going on in his time in Cambodia,” Dong said.

Ngor would work as his own agent at times, according to Dong, often negotiating and agreeing to take roles for small amounts of money.

“He goes, ‘That’s OK, I can use it to further my work in getting this story to be told,’ supporting his foundation, and making sure that people don’t forget what happened during the Pol Pot years,” Dong said. “I never got a sense that he was just out there to further his acting career.”

While it gave him a platform, the win didn’t lead to many other high-profile roles for Ngor, Sandler notes.

“That’s really the standard. When you have these moments, what does it lead to? Or is it just Hollywood grandstanding, and then nothing comes out of it?” Sandler said. “He was still living in a small apartment. He did not receive this insane amount of wealth coming from the experience of it, and I think that’s true a lot of the time.”

The story of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge has not continued to receive the kind of attention that Ngor wanted.

“It’s not in our history books the way Dr. Ngor wanted it to be,” Dong said. “Some history books use the word ‘genocide,’ some don’t. … But what we don’t get in the history books are the intricacies of how America was a part of this. The complicity of America and the international community as well — China, Vietnam — and how all of that was part of this tragedy that was Cambodia in the '70s.”

Sandler notes that Ngor said The Killing Fields movie didn’t go remotely far enough in depicting what actually happened.

One reason the awards are continuing to broaden out in who is nominated and wins in recent years is due to the Academy’s decision to expand its international voting body. That broader representation in the voters has helped cause a shift in the awards, particularly when it comes to Asian nominees.

“It doesn’t really say much about Hollywood. I’m not going to attempt to think Hollywood has changed, but rather that the range of nominees that get attention now are representatives of a global environment,” Sandler said. “Which is progress, but not necessarily a change in Hollywood. True change would be that it’s the launching pad that awards are, in theory, supposed to be for future career prospects.”

The 2023 Academy Awards made new history — both with Quan's win and Michelle Yeoh becoming the first Asian actress to win for a leading role.

In the years to come, we’ll find out what else it means for the careers of two veteran actors — both of whom describe their wins as a dream after a long road in the entertainment industry.

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Updated March 12, 2023 at 5:56 PM PDT
This story was updated with Ke Huy Quan's win for his role in Everything Everywhere All At Once
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