18 July 1930 – 24 May 2016
Burt Kwouk, who has died aged 85, was best known for his role as Cato Fong, the long-suffering manservant of Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) in the Pink Panther films.
As well as answering the telephone and dealing with the inspector’s daily needs, Cato’s chief role was to keep Clouseau vigilant by attacking him whenever he least expected it. Their encounters became a running joke throughout the Pink Panther series and the scenes involving their preposterous karate-style sparring – interspersed with loud screams – generally resulted in the destruction of Clouseau’s flat and Cato himself being knocked out, usually because of one of Clouseau’s underhand tricks.
“But Cato,” the inspector tells him before kicking him in the face in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), “your fly is undone… and so, my friend, are you.”
Pink Panther fans (including the Prince of Wales and Elvis Presley, who could quote chunks of dialogue verbatim) loved the gag – particularly the slow-motion martial arts yowls and Cato’s ingenious hiding places, such as the canopy of a four-poster bed and a freezer. (“You know, Cato, your freezer ambush ploy. I really congratulate you.”)
Although Kwouk appeared in three James Bond films (including the spoof Casino Royale in 1967) and had a successful subsequent career on British television, his fondest professional memories were of his time in the Pink Panther films, and his friendship with Sellers endured until the actor’s death in 1980. “I learnt a lot from Peter,” he later recalled. “Particularly how to be ‘second banana’ – by which I mean like a straight man to him.”
He was sanguine about Clouseau’s affectionate references to Cato as his “little yellow friend”. “They can call me anything they like,” he once said, “as long as I get paid and my name is spelt correctly.”
Herbert Tsangtse Kwouk was born on July 18 1930 at Warrington while his parents were touring Europe. His father, a textile tycoon, was a descendant of a Tang dynasty general and Kwouk was brought up in the wealthy, mannered world of pre-war Shanghai. Between the ages of 12 and 16 he attended the Jesuit Mission School in the city, which he described as “the Far East equivalent of Eton”. He was then sent to the US to complete his education. He left China in 1947.
In 1949 Kwouk’s parents and sister were caught up in the Chinese revolution. Kwouk’s British passport enabled his mother and sister to leave for Hong Kong, but his father stayed in China. “I think my father supported the revolution,” Kwouk recalled, “because, morally, a person could not fail to support it: the mass of Chinese people were starving on the streets.”
He remained in America and continued his education until 1954 when he decided to tour Europe. Arriving in Britain he found a room in Ladbroke Grove and began looking for work. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said, “but I went into catering because at least there you get to eat.” He worked as a dish-washer for Joe Lyons before moving on to a variety of jobs including mortuary attendant and later “butter-wrapper” at a factory in Clapham.
He spent his free time “hanging around the cheap end of Chelsea” with a group of friends. “We were the gestation period for the Swinging Sixties,” Kwouk explained. “We used to drink wine and talk about what we were going to do with our lives.”
After his girlfriend persuaded him that acting would make a suitable career and arranged for Kwouk to have some publicity photographs, he auditioned and got the part of a Malayan in Windom’s Way (1957), having persuaded the casting director that he spoke fluent Malay (he did not).
Kwouk was spotted by a talent scout who offered him a role in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). He then spent the next four years working consistently in a variety of film and television roles. “It made me very unpopular with a lot of the Oriental/American actors,” he said. “They had all been in the business for years and I just arrived from England and walked straight into non-stop work.”
After a part in the 1962 film 55 Days at Peking, Kwouk returned to Britain to appear in various television comedy shows, resisting advice from agents who suggested he change his name to Charlie Chan or Mr Woo. Through the early 1960s he was cast as a villain in series such as Danger Man, The Saint and The Avengers.
In 1964, having appeared as a baddie in Goldfinger, Kwouk was offered the part of Kato (later changed to Cato) in A Shot in the Dark. After reading the script Kwouk turned the part down. “I couldn’t see the point,” he recalled, “the character didn’t have a lot of screen time, didn’t say very much, and kept getting knocked down.” His agent eventually persuaded him that he needed the money and Kwouk accepted the role.
“Peter Sellers made me,” he said later, “there’s no doubt about it. He raised me to higher level and was a very generous actor, he kept finding ways for Cato get a bigger laugh.” Despite Sellers’s eccentricities Kwouk maintained that they had a good working relationship. “Peter was odd,” he admitted, “but few geniuses are not odd. I learned a lot about comedy acting just by watching his eyes before a take.” Cato proved so popular that he was written into all but one of the subsequent films. “1 loved playing the part,” Kwouk recalled, “but it was mayhem, half the time I was petrified I was actually going to get hurt by one of Peter’s wild lunges.”
Kwouk then alternated between playing villains in films such as The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) and You Only Live Twice (1967) and playing Cato, which he did through the 1970s in The Return of the Pink Panther (1974), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). After Sellers’s death Kwouk wanted to give up the part and possibly against his better judgment he accepted roles in both The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). Both films were made after Seller’s death and both flopped. He made a small appearance in the Meryl Streep vehicle Plenty (1985) before concentrating on his television career.
He took roles in television drama series such as Tenko (1981-83), in which he played a chilling, sadistic Japanese commandant. While admitting that many of the parts he played were seen by the Chinese community as “derogatory to their race” Kwouk rarely refused a role. “If I don’t do it someone else will,” he reflected.
Kwouk returned to filmmaking with appearances in Air America, opposite Mel Gibson, in 1990, and in Leon the Pig Farmer, a low-budget British production, in 1993. That year he revisited the role of Cato one final time in The Son of the Pink Panther. He became familiar to a new generation on television, with a recurring role as Entwistle in Last of the Summer Wine, and in The Harry Hill Show (as himself).
He was appointed OBE in 2011.
Burt Kwouk was an affable man who liked a glass and a smoke. He is survived by his wife Caroline, whom he married in 1961, and a son.
Burt Kwouk, born July 18 1930, died May 24 2016