Remembering LOTSW's Burt Kwouk

Tea Time Tidbit for the week of May 30, 2016

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As Entwistle (center) in Last of the Summer Wine

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been taking a look at what the surviving members of Last of the Summer Wine have been up to since the series concluded. Sadly, that list was recently reduced by one, when Burt Kwouk, who played Entwistle, died “peacefully” at his home, at the age of 85.

Before becoming a regular in LOTSW, Kwouk was famous the world over for his role in the Pink Panther films, where he played Cato, the high-kicking manservant to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. When he was first offered the role of Cato though, Kwouk reportedly turned the part down. He felt the character “didn’t have a lot of screen time, didn’t say very much and kept getting knocked down.” Kwouk was eventually accepted the role, but only because he needed the money.

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With Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther

The role of Cato would become so popular that the character was written into all but one of the follow up Pink Panther films. Kwouk credited Peter Sellers for his universal success.

“Peter Sellers made me”, said Kwouk. “He raised me to a higher level and was a very generous actor, he kept finding ways for Cato to get a bigger laugh.”

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Kwouk in Tenko

Kwouk took on a completely different role in the early 1980s, when he played Major Yamauchi, the sadistic Japanese commandant of a women’s prisoner of war camp in Singapore in the Masterpiece Theatre series Tenko. The series, which also starred Stephanie Cole, ran for three years and was Kwouk’s first major British television role. For the previous two decades, since 1962 when he returned to the U.K. from America, Kwouk had minor roles in various television comedy shows, or had been cast as the villain in shows such as The Avengers or The Saint.

The Lancashire born Kwouk had first moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong, where he’d been living with his mother and sister after their British passports enabled them to leave Singapore, following the Chinese revolution in 1949. Kwouk’s father, who remained in China, was a wealthy textile tycoon and the son of a descendant of a Tang dynasty general. He had brought his family to Singapore when Kwouk was a boy and from the ages of 12 to 16, Kwouk studied at a Jesuit high school, which he once described as being “the Far East equivalent of Eton."

Kwouk graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1953 and the following year returned to the U.K., where he took a job as a dish-washer at a popular restaurant chain. “At least there you got to eat”, Kwouk once told a reporter. Other jobs included being a mortuary attendant and a “butter-wrapper” at a factory in Clapham.

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Kwouk with his OBE

It was a girlfriend who encouraged Kwouk to become an actor and after being spotted by a talent scout, Kwouk was cast in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and moved back to the U.S. Kwouk remained here for the next four years and was rarely out of work. This he said made him “very unpopular with a lot of the [Asian]/American actors. They had all been in the business for years and I just arrived from England and walked straight into non-stop work.”

Kwouk’s recurring role as the Chinese washing machine repair man Entwistle in Last of the Summer Wine, would endear him to a whole new generation of television viewers. In 2011, Kwouk was invited to Buckingham Palace where he was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his services to drama.

Kwouk is survived by his wife of 55 years, Caroline, and their son Christopher who was born in 1974.

To contact Heather:
E-mail: heather@mpt.org
Address: Afternoon Tea
Maryland Public Television
11767 Owings Mills Blvd.
Owings Mills, MD 21117

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