Burt Kwouk was one half of one of movie comedy's great duets
Whenever I went to Memphis with my parents, my time was divided between staying with my two grandmothers. How I thought about that time with them was defined, not surprisingly, by what sort of movie experiences I had with each. My dad’s mom was the one who had cable, and she liked to go to bed early, meaning I learned all sorts of things at night. My mom’s mom was the one who took me to the theater more often, and she’d take me to see pretty much anything as long as the rating was okay.
One afternoon, she told me to get in the car because there was something special playing. I was ten years old, and I only knew The Pink Panther as a cartoon character. That afternoon, though, I saw The Return Of The Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, and Revenge Of The Pink Panther back to back to back, and it is safe to say I lost my damn fool mind. Peter Sellers became one of my instant favorite people, but more importantly, I fell in love with the insane dynamic between Inspector Clouseau and his trusty manservant Cato, played so brilliantly by Burt Kwouk.
Kwouk was, of course, much more than that single role. He worked for decades in both film and television, and like any Asian actor of a certain age, he had to navigate a system that asked him to play a lot of stereotypes. I always enjoyed seeing Kwouk show up in things like Empire Of The Sun, Rollerball, Air America or Kiss Of The Dragon, and like any character actor you have an affection for, he just plain made me happy when he was cast in a role. Born in England, he spent much of his childhood and teenage years in Shanghai. His most well-known role aside from the Pink Panther films was in the final seasons of the hugely successful BBC sitcom Last Of The Summer Wine, and his dual cultural identity played into many of the roles he played over the years. He showed up in two different Bond films in two different roles, one of several actors to do that. He appeared on Doctor Who back in the ‘80s, one of those required stops for any British actor.
When I think of those Cato scenes, though, I think of laughing harder than I had ever laughed in a movie theater. I loved the insane backstory suggested by those scenes, the idea of Clouseau ordering his trusty manservant to attack him relentlessly, and I loved the way Blake Edwards shot those scenes. Watching them in a theater, in that insane super-wide Blake Edwards scope, they made me weep from laughter. There’s one particular gag where everything goes to super-duper slow-motion and Clouseau tries to do a flying kick at Cato…
… oh, hell, just watch it yourself. It starts at exactly 2:00 into this clip.
Honestly, the funniest part of that entire gag is Kwouk’s face as Clouseau sails by overhead. I loved the way he reacted to the almost awe-inspiring insanity of Sellers, and any comic actor will tell you that you can only score in a scene if everyone’s at their best. Kwouk stood toe to toe with one of comedy’s greats and, in a series of iconic scenes, gave as good as he got.
What more can any actor hope for?
Burt Kwouk was 85.