James Leavey's Sharing An Ashtray With... Burt Kwouk

Burt Kwouk

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James Leavey's Corner
  By James Leavey

The Chinese actor who plays Cato, the Martial-Artmanservant and foil to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau…

JL:When did you start smoking"

BK: When Iwas about 16 years old in a funny little place called Shanghai,which, as every school person knows, is on the mainland of China. That’s the answer to the smoking question.

JL: Do you come from Shanghai"

BW:  I grew up in Shanghai…do you want the wholeschmeer"


JL: Yeah.


BK: I wasborn in Manchester, which is up north somewhere in England. I leftbefore I was one year old…well, to say I left is a bit strong…I wastaken away, at the age of one, back to Shanghai.  And I grew upthere. 

JL: Talking about China, and smoking, the Chinesehave been smoking all sorts of stuff for centuries, haven’t they"

BK: Cigarettes, as you must realize, did not get invented untilafter Sir Walter Raleigh returned to Britain from the Colonies.  But, yeah, peoplehave smoked stuff all over the world, of various kinds…

JL: Not necessarily tobacco"

BK: No.

JL: And the Chinese are big smokers, aren’t they"

BK: We arenow.

JL: What do you smoke these days"

BK: AnythingI can get my hands on.


JL: You’veappeared in loads and loads of movies.  What’s the mostsmoker-friendly film you’ve ever appeared in"


BK:  When Idid my first ever Pink Panther film – which was called ‘A Shot inthe Dark’ in 1964…it was first time Cato appeared with InspectorClouseau…at that time everybody smoked.  Ten years later, when I gotto ‘The Return of the Pink Panther’, nobody smoked, except me.  AndBlake Edwards, the writer, producer, director, who invented thewhole thing, had given up smoking, and was very anti-smoking.  So,from smoking on the set, I now had to creep around and find a quietlittle corner somewhere, and have a quick puff.

JL: So instead of Cato creeping around waiting toattack Clouseau, he was actually looking for somewhere to have aquiet smoke"

BK: Yeah.  I wasn’t looking for a place to hide,I was looking for a place to have a quick drag.

JL: Did Peter Sellers smoke in the old days"

BK: Peterused to.

JL: But then he had the heart problem"

BK: Yeah.You see, all of us of sort of grew up during the War (WW2) orshortly thereafter, we all smoked, because we thought it was manly.It made us ‘grown-up’.  It was one of those things we did so that wecould pretend to be adults.  We know better now.  I’m a veryanti-smoking smoker"

JL: What does that mean"

BK: This means I never offer cigarettes to anyone.  People thinkI am a cheapskate…No, I just don’t approve of people smoking.

JL: Does that mean you only smoke your owncigarettes"

BK: No, Ismoke, as I said earlier, whatever I can get hold of.

JL: That reminds of the Scotsman who said, ‘I’vereached the first stage towards not cigarettes…I’ve stopped buyingthem.’  Which also reminds me – that you supplied the voice-over forthat great TV series, ‘The Water Margin’

BK: Yeah. I’ve chucked my voice all over the place. Most of the time I can’tremember what I’ve done…

JL: Did you ever actually appear in a Chop-Sockymovie"

BK: No, I’venever starred in a Far Eastern martial arts movie….it’s very simple,I’m not good enough. I’ve recently done a picture with a guy calledJet Li, called ‘The Kiss of the Dragon’.  Fortunately, I was playingan older, wiser, ‘standstillandsaythewords’ gentleman, who didn’t doany jumping up and down and hitting people and being hit.  But Li isastonishing.  Those guys start doing it when they’re kids, so it’s awhole lifetime behind what you see.  I never had that background.

JL: And their background didn’t include smoking"

BK: That is true.

JL: Have you smoked in some of your recent films"

BK: No, I’m not allowed to smoke in films any more.  This meansthat actors of my generation don’t know what to do with their hands. Cos in the old days there was acigarette in one hand, and a drink in the other. You’re not allowedto do either.

JL: You can’t even have two drinks, then"

BK: No. Sowhat do you do"  Well, in a lot of my pictures, I’m supposed to hitpeople with my hands, so that gives me something to do.

JL: So have you become more aggressive lately, onscreen, because you can’t smoke"

BK: No, I’ve just gotten older. Now I just preferstanding still, and giving forth with words of wisdom.

JL: Are film sets around the world now no-goareas for smokers"

BK: You only smoke on set if the scene requires you to smoke.Smoking is such a bad thing to do…

JL: But isn’t smoking used in films as a kind ofvisual short-hand, i.e. the guy smoking a cigar is either a tycoonor a villain…

BK: Curiously, a cigar is OK, apipe is OK, but cigarettes – No!

JL: Why is a pipe still OK"

BK: Well, ifyou’re going to do Sherlock Holmes, the guy’s got to have a pipe,hasn’t he"  A pipe gives a character a professorial dimension.

JL: Have you smoked cigars in any of your roles"

BK: Notmany, but I have, in the past. My problem is that I have been aroundfor such a long time, I can barely remember…

JL: Back in the 1960s, how smoker-friendly werethe film sets you worked on"

BK:  Inthose days, everybody smoked. There was never any of that ‘Youmusn’t smoke cos it’s gonna kill you’.  They only asked you not tosmoke cos it was getting in the way of the cameras.

JL:  When was the last time you went to China"

BK: Mainland China"

JL:   Yeah.

BK: 1947.

JL: And Hong Kong"

BK: Morerecently.

JL: Do they still smoke in Hong Kong"

BK: InChina, you smoke.  In California, you don’t.

JL: But the Chinese know about the effects ofsmoking.  Why do they still continue to smoke"

BK: Becausethey like it. Perhaps, in California, people are more aware of howother people perceive them.  Whereas in Hong Kong, that is not quiteas significant. What was that line I said in the Water Margin"  ‘Donot despise the snake for having no horns, for who knows but that itmay become a dragon.’

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