Mako dies of cancer at 72

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Japanese-American actor Mako, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work in the 1966 film The Sand Pebbles, has died from esophageal cancer, the spokesman for a theater company he cofounded said Tuesday.

Mako, 72, whose birth name was Makoto Iwamatsu, died this past Friday at his home in Somis, California, northwest of Los Angeles, said Jay Africa, marketing director of the East West Players theater company Mako cofounded.

Mako enjoyed a long career on Broadway and in Hollywood. He was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for playing a Chinese laborer in The Sand Pebbles, which was set during the US military presence in China in 1926 and looked at the uneasy relationship between villagers and foreigners.

His leading role as the reciter in Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures earned him a 1976 Tony Award nomination, the highest award for Broadway theater.

Over the years, Mako performed in numerous films and television shows, and he used his popularity to push for greater and more diverse roles for Asian-American actors in Hollywood. Recently, he provided voices for the cartoon Avatar, The Last Airbender.

In 1965 he helped start the Los Angeles-based East West Players, which established itself as among the top Asian-American theater troupes in the United States.

Born in Japan, Mako came to the United States following World War II to join his parents, who had been in the country at the war's outbreak and remained throughout its duration. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1956.

Mako is survived by his wife, two children, and grandchildren, Africa said.