Burt Kwouk, an English character actor indelibly remembered for his work in the “Pink Panther” films as Cato, the manservant who sprang comic traps on the bumbling detective Jacques Clouseau with karate chops and nunchaku skill, died Tuesday. He was 85.
His agent, Jean Diamond, announced the death but did not disclose the cause or place.
As Cato Fong, Kwouk (pronounced Kwawk) was a highlight of the slapstick “Pink Panther” franchise. His boss Clouseau, originally played by Peter Sellers, tasked him with keeping the police inspector’s wits sharp through frequent, unexpected surprise attacks whenever Clouseau came home.
Their confrontations inevitably destroyed Clouseau’s apartment, where Cato hid behind doors or atop Clouseau’s four-poster bed. With the exception of major stunts, such as an 80-foot leap into the Seine, Sellers and Kwouk performed the fights themselves.
“Cato is a physically very agile human being,” Kwouk said in “Mr. Strangelove,” a 2002 biography of Sellers by film scholar Ed Sikov. “In those days, so was Burt Kwouk.”
The gag spanned seven films and numerous beatings to Kwouk’s head and body, and the bouts always ended promptly when a knock came at Clouseau’s door or his telephone began to ring.
The “Pink Panther” films brought Kwouk greater visibility than many other British actors of Asian descent at the time, even as they trafficked in stereotypes. Clouseau referred to him as his “little yellow friend” with “little yellow skin.”
He appeared in sinister or henchmen roles in the James Bond films “Goldfinger” (1964) and “You Only Live Twice” (1967), as well as in a spoof of the Bond series, “Casino Royale” (1967), that starred his on-screen sparring partner Sellers as the ultra suave British secret agent.
On television, Kwouk had stints in the 1960s spy series “Danger Man” (“Secret Agent” in the United States), “The Avengers” and “The Saint,” and a 1982 appearance in the long-running British adventure series “Doctor Who.” In the 2000s, he played the electrician Entwistle on the British sitcom “Last of the Summer Wine.”
In what was perhaps his strangest role, he performed exaggerated, heavily-accented voice-overs for “Banzai,” a British spoof of Japanese gameshows that aired in the early 2000s.
Kwouk was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2011 for his role in paving the way “for other actors from the Chinese community.”
“When I started as an actor 50 years ago,” Kwouk said in an earlier interview with London’s Independent newspaper, “every Chinese character had to say ‘flied lice.’ Now, thankfully, that’s finally changing and we are allowed to say ‘fried rice’ like in real life.”
Herbert Tun-Tse Kwouk was born in Warrington, England, on July 18, 1930. He moved to Shanghai a few months later, and his prosperous family sent him to study at Bowdoin College in Maine. After his graduation in 1953 with a degree in government, he settled in England and worked odd jobs until a girlfriend “nagged him into acting.”
He had a noteworthy supporting role in “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958), a melodrama featuring Ingrid Bergman as a missionary in China helping guide orphans to safety from Japanese invaders in the 1930s. He played a reformed prisoner who sacrifices his life to aid Bergman.
Mostly, Kwouk was cast in villainous and untrustworthy roles. He found ample work in Hammer studios horror films of the 1960s as the assistant to Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu. He debuted as Cato — then spelled Kato — in “A Shot in the Dark (1964), the second “Pink Panther” installment, and continued in the series after it sunk into the doldrums after Sellers died in 1980.
His later credits included “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968), “Rollerball” (1975), Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama “Empire of the Sun” (1987).
Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Caroline Tebbs, and a son.
In an interview with film historian Barry Littlechild at the London Cinema Museum in 2010, Kwouk acknowledged that the “Pink Panther” films had brought him an unusual amount of fame — enough that people recognized him, but not enough that they knew who he was.
“I’m a very familiar face,” he said. “People don’t say, ‘Oh there’s Burt Kwouk.’ What they say is, ‘Isn’t he the bloke off the telly?’ ”