Ask someone to quote a line from the ’80s teen classic Sixteen Candles and there’s a good chance it was uttered by Gedde Watanabe. Thanks to “What’s happenin’, hot stuff?” “Ohhh, sexy girlfriend!” and other quotes, his character, Long Duk Dong, lives on in ringtones, comedic folklore, and a debate about whether he’s an offensive stereotype or just a caricature like nearly every other supporting role in the movie. In the years since the portrayal — Long Duk Dong and Sixteen Candles was released 30 years ago this month — Gedde Watanabe has appeared more than two dozen films, played Nurse Yosh on ER, and done voice work on the The Simpsons. To celebrate three decades of the movie, Vulture spoke with the actor about exercise bikes, growing up in Utah, and having his feet tickled by John Hughes.
Wow, Sixteen Candles is 30 years old! You’re now part of the adolescence of two generations.
Actually, it’s quite incredible. I’m still sideswiped by it all. I just did an autograph show in New Jersey and a screening in California with Debbie Pollack, who played Long Duk Dong’s girlfriend Marlene. Debbie and I keep in contact. She had to remind me it’s the 30th anniversary. It’s really been her work getting these celebrations going. Maybe because it’s been so many years since the movie and even several years since I’ve seen it, I expected, like, two people to show up. And when so many did, and brought their kids and talked about how much the movie meant to them, I don’t know — I’m humbled and I’m grateful. It also says so much about John Hughes, his movies, their resilience and his brilliance. Bless his heart, because we don’t have him anymore.
You grew up in Ogden, Utah, as one of the few Japanese families in town. How did the acting bug bite you?
My mother was an incredible seamstress. She worked at the Utah Tailoring Company sewing dresses, but also made costumes for the college in Ogden. Weber State University would do these wonderful shows and had a really great theater department that I didn’t know was well known. I ended up getting cast in The King and I at age six and I was hooked.
What was it like being a Japanese-American kid in Ogden at that time?
There were very few of us. Two or three Asian kids in elementary school, maybe four or five when I got to high school. I didn’t really have a sense about my nationality all that much. I know I was different, I knew I was teased, but I didn’t really take it upon myself to address it. I also had really good friends through theater and was able to blend in thanks to them. I just remember the other Asian kids being very smart in science and math and I wasn’t. I was a theater kid. That’s where I found my people and my closest friends. Which I guess made me the black sheep of the Asians in Ogden.
Do you remember auditioning for Sixteen Candles?
I was living in New York and had been in the original cast of [Stephen Sondheim’s] Pacific Overtures and done work with the Public Theater and Joe Papp. My agent at the time sent me the script. It said the character of Long Duk Dong was a foreign exchange student and from Asia, but that was about it. To set myself apart, I asked a friend of mine who had a thick Korean accent if I could hang out with him and learn. I then went to the audition in character using my friend’s accent. Which wasn’t a very smart idea because I was basically lying and would have to tell them at some point that I only spoke English and was from Ogden, Utah. The casting director, Jackie Burch, was talking to me like I was from another country. Finally I had to admit I was lying. She wanted me for the role and said, “Don’t tell John.” So we kept it a secret until the table read in Chicago when I took him aside and said, “John, I have to tell you something … ” He said, “Where’s your accent?” I was just so nervous telling him that I was afraid I’d get fired and aware of my own embarrassment that I’d told a huge lie. But John just had a big chuckle as if to say, “Boy, was I duped.”
What was it like to work with John Hughes?
John made a movie shoot a situation where you want to join in, jump in the hot tub, and try things: Oh, let’s try this. You want to try this? Sure, let’s try this. Like in the scene where I’m lying on the lawn the next morning. We did so many takes that my voice got hoarse and I couldn’t laugh anymore. The way we got that take is John found a feather and started tickling my feet. Then I couldn’t stop laughing — but the crew couldn’t either! I’ve worked with directors since where you hesitate. With John you wanted to make sure he got what he wanted but never felt censored as an actor and didn’t hesitate to try anything. I guess the right word for that is safe. You just don’t want a shooting experience like that to end. You wish they could all be like that. And because it was my first movie, I thought all the movies were going to be like that.
The scene with you and Debbie Pollack riding the exercise bike together was one of those “let’s try this” scenes.
Yes! I found an exercise bike upstairs where we were shooting that day and told about John about it. I figured the character had seen one before and knew what to do with it, but there was something funny in him riding it with his dream girl. So that scene improved its way into the script. I’m kind of hit or miss with improv, but that scene stayed.
Did others not?
Apparently there was a scene where Debbie and I were in bed and smoking that got deleted. Also a great rap song the Donger did at the gym that got everybody dancing that I hope Universal brings back on some future release. That scene was so much “Here’s everything this guy loved about America.”
You actually say in the DVD extras that one of the special things about Sixteen Candles is “the innocence of Molly wanting to find the right guy and me wanting to find the right America.”
My training and my teachers had taught me that getting a character is about going for the intention. The Donger loved everything about America: the fun, the girls, the cars. So I didn’t so much go for the jokes, but played to his excitement and enthusiasm.
You’ve heard a thousand times that Long Duk Dong is an offensive stereotype of a young Asian man who just arrived in this country, I’m sure.
Yes, and all I’ll say about that is that because there weren’t enough Asians onscreen, comedy was kind of looked down upon. I was not in the film business. I was studying theater in New York. It was my first movie and I had no idea what I was stepping into. I know that periphery is loosening. But because there were so few Asian actors onscreen at that time, people were looking for Kurosawa in a comedy and Sixteen Candles wasn’t that kind of movie.
And to single out your character to me misses the point. Sixteen Candles is filled with stereotypes — the blonde queen bees, the uptight grandparents, the bratty little brothers, the Greek in-laws — which serve to make Molly Ringwald’s very normal desire for a great 16th birthday and a handsome boyfriend seem that much funnier.
Yes, the movie isn’t mean to the character and doesn’t single him out. A lot of people complained when the grandmother kicked me: Why does the Asian kid need to get kicked?
But the Grandmother kicks Long Duk Dong because he’s been out partying and not being the nice studious Asian boy she thought she was getting.
Exactly. Maybe indirectly, John thought he was breaking a stereotype.
Sixteen Candles was shot in the summer of 1983 in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, which didn’t have a lot of Japanese-Americans running around. What was that experience like?
I gotta say, with John you felt so protected. He just encouraged us to play. Everyone on set was just so much fun. I actually felt sorry for Molly [Ringwald] and Anthony [Michael Hall], who were 15 at the time and had their parents on set with them. I was 28 so could drive, take trips to Chicago, go out on my own. It’s subtle, but if you watch the movie now you can tell that some of us like Debbie and Michael [Schoeffling, who played Jake Ryan] were older than the Cusacks and Molly and Andy. But I was so new to movies I didn’t think much about where I was. I was mostly worried about hitting my marks and stuff like that.
Have you ever gotten as wasted as Long Duk Dong did?
Of course I have, are you kidding? Especially when I was living in New York in the 1970s. At that time, I had acting teachers who encouraged me to indulge. And I did a lot of singing in piano bars that closed at 4 a.m.. So, flat on my back after falling out of a cab? Oh, please, yes.
Do you keep in touch with anyone from the cast apart from Debbie?
I keep in touch with Paul Dooley, who played Molly’s dad. He is a brilliant actor and a fellow theater buff. Zelda Rubenstein, who played the wedding organist, and I became friends years later. And I see Carole Cook who played the smoking grandmother. We run into each other and we laugh a lot.
You’ve worked pretty steadily since Sixteen Candles. How much does Long Duk Dong linger in the air when you are cast now or researching characters?
Not really much at all. Maybe if I do an accented role. The last time it really came up was with Andy Fickman, who directed me on Parental Guidance. He reminded me of John. He had that same spirit of fun and play and really knew the value of a great line of dialogue. And of course we had a script by the Ganz brothers, who had written Gung Ho and are hilarious.
If Long Duk Dong, Takahara from Gung Ho, and Nurse Yosh from ER all met, would they recognize that they all came from the same man?
No, not at all. I like to put on the mask. I do better with somebody other than myself. I love putting on the costume just like when I was a little kid. ER was less interesting as an actor as the character was closer to who I actually am as a person. When I get cast, I never feel like I fit the part. I need to find someone who does fit it so I can.
Have you had any contact with Long Duk Dong, the ’80s cover band from Lexington, Kentucky?
I’ve heard of the band. They sent me some of their songs about the Donger. It’d be kinda great to reunite with them for the 30th. That would actually be really funny!
What is 46-year-old Long Duk Dong doing now?
He’s lost some of his hair. He has eight or nine kids, I would imagine. They are all not in the arts. By choice! [Laughs.] Probably lots of grandchildren. It’s a mixed marriage. Probably married someone blonde so his kids are mixed race. Actually, he’s probably been married a few times. And for someone who fell so in love with America, he’s probably changed his name. Some of his kids are in the arts, one in a rock band probably, some are teachers, a few doctors. I think he owns restaurants. They’re kinda famous. And he’s kinda well known for it. And he’s about to make a bid for the L.A. Clippers.
I would see that movie.
I have a friend writing something about the Donger. You just might.