MY METEORIC rise in the Chinese cinema firmament began in 1962. The Peking Motion Picture Studio was making an opus titled "After the Armistice," and I was tapped to play the villainous role of Professor Duke, an American.
The story centered around what had been known as the "Executive Headquarters" period of 1946, when fighting flared between the Chinese Communist and Kuomintang armies. At the time, America was trying to build a "third force" of bourgeois intellectuals in China in the hope that these would form a government partial to the United States. As Professor Duke I would subtly strive to pull these worthies into the ranks of the "third force."
When offered the part I hesitated only momentarily. But I couldn't resist the temptation to immortalize my profile on celluloid, and graciously agreed. I was sure it would be a thrilling experience and very glamorous. It turned out to be anything but.
My first difficulty was with the make-up man. I relaxed and let him have his way with what he thought an American dean of a Chinese university should look like. I watched the mirror, intrigued, as he fitted me with a bald head, mustache and goatee. It finally dawned on me that he was turning me into the foreign intellectual whose image he knew best -- Lenin!
A hurried ocnsultation with the director resulted in the removal of the shrubbery. When, on the set, exposure to high-voltage lamps in the middle of August caused me to sweat so profusely under my rubber headpiece that all my makeup washed away, the bald pate was also discarded. We settled for parting my hair in the middle and a snappy bow tie.
When the film began its nationwide run, theatrical friends said I looked very authentic -- just like an American. They politely refrained from commenting on my acting. My Chinese wife, Phoenix, formerly a famous actress of stage and screen and now a writer and drama critic, with spouse-like candor pronounced it "vapid." I was reluctantly compelled to agree. I vowed I'd never set foot before a camera again. A dozen years passed before I broke my word.
July of 1975 found me in the northeast, at the behest of the Changchun Motion Picture Studio. I consented to playing an American villain again, this time an Air Force general in the Korean War. For the sake of our family reputation as thespians, Phoenix insisted on coaching me personally. I like to think this wrought some improvement in my performance. But Phoenix only shook her head. A "talking prop," yes, but an actor, never.
While innate modesty didn't prevent me from swelling at the kind compliments of friends and colleagues on my "acting," I was frequently taken aback by the smart salutes given to the "American general" by neighborhood moppets as I sailed by on my bicycle. No more villains for me, I swore; in fact, no more movie roles of any kind.
This steely determination was shaken late last year when I was approached with a new offer. A big-budget, wide-screen modern epic called "The Sian Incident" was about to go into production and they needed someone to play W. H. Donald, Australian adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. They said I looked like him and showed me pictures to prove it. Major parts on the communist side would include Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai. Also prominently featured would be the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, T. V. Soong and the Young Marshal Chiang Hsueh-liang -- the Manchurian warlord. The picture would reflect a vital turning point in Chinese history . . . And I, at last, could be a "good guy." After some dithering, I capitulated.
My role required me to fly up to Sian as Madame Chiang's emissary after the Generalissimo was arrested there by the Young Marshal and to urge Chiang to fight the invading Japanese to whom he had already abondoned Manchuria. What turned the tide was the sudden appearance in Sian of Chou En-lai, on behalf of the Communists, offering a united front against the enemy, with Chiang as supreme military commander. The deal was made, and when Japan launched a full-scale war the following year, China was in a better position to resist.
The first scenes in which I was involved were shot in Nanking, then China's capital. Madame Chiang was giving a party attended by foreign guests, including of course the Australian adviser.
Interesting problems arose from the start. Students from half a dozen countries studying at Nanking University joyously accepted invitation to be the "foreign guests." the costume department's shoes were much too small for the men's big feet, and special canal-boat sizes had to be manufactured in Shanghai.
Filmmakers expect that sort of thing, but I think out director was somewhat shaken when it came time for the extras to dance. This being the '30s, he wanted them to waltz -- and all they knew was disco. The impasse was solved by older Chinese actors and actresses teaching the foreign kids how to waltz. They quickly got the hang of it and had a whale of a good time.
As W. H. Donald, I had problems of my own. People who knew him said he was a soft-spoken, relaxed Australian who dressed informally. I found the costume department had fitted me out for the Nanking party in a banker's pin stripes. Fortunately, a Vinnese gentleman whose daughter was one of our student extras had come to China to visit her, and dropped in at the set. He was wearing a loud plaid sports jacket.
When I explained my predicament, he peeled it off with a laugh and handed it to me. Not only that, but he accepted another jacket from our costume department and joined the dancers. He was easily the best waltzer on the floor.
Our shooting is nearly finished. I've been shuttling between Peking and Sian, and I'm due to go again in about a week. My conversations with both the Young Marshal and Madame Chiang will be recorded in English. Chinese subtitles will be added for the benefit of domestic audiences. Donald wil emerge as the first native Australian in history with a Brooklyn accent.
As to the veracity of my performance, there seems to be no solid consensus. The director complimented me on a scene where I lunched, Western style, with Chiang Kai-shek. He said I was particularly deft with a knife and fork.
But a few days later, I was seated in an ancient Packard with the Young Marshal. We were parked on a country roadside, waiting for the sun to come out from behind the clouds so the camera could roll on an interior car shot. A crowd of farm folks surrounding our vehicle was fascinated by costumes and makeup.
"That man," one old lady said to her friend, pointing at me. "Do you think he looks like a foreigner?"
The other lady peered at me quizzically. "Not a bit," she said firmly.
All in all, I've pretty much decided that this is my farewell appearance as a Chinese movie personality.