Richard Lee Sung passed away on August 16th, 2021, two days after his 91st birthday. The El Paso, Texas native was perhaps best known for his various roles on the show MAS*H. He appeared in the show for a total of 11 episodes, sometimes in speaking-parts and a few bit parts.
But his life and career were far more remarkable than these 11 episodes. He was the self-proclaimed “sex symbol of Chinatown” and lived an incredible life that many of us would envy.
But how did Richard Lee-Sung get his start in life? And how did he manage to keep appearing in episodes of MAS*H?
Let’s look back at the incredible life and career of Richard Lee Sung….
Richard Lee-Sung was born on August 14, 1930, in El Paso, Texas. As a child, he and his family moved to Los Angeles where he grew up. Ethnically, Richard was Chinese and part Mexican – and he often joked that he didn’t know which ‘part’ it was!
He grew up in Chinatown and would later proclaim himself as being the “sex symbol of Chinatown” – no doubt from the notoriety he gained in the neighborhood.
Richard graduated from Belmont High School and then joined the US Marine Corps where he served during the Korean War. Little did he know that a few decades later, he’d appear in several episodes of a popular TV show set during the same war!
He earned a Purple Heart due to his being a survivor of the Chosin Resorvoir battle. He later became known as “one of the Chosin few…”
After the Korean War ended, he returned to Los Angeles and began working as a bartender in Chinatown. He became a local celebrity at local bars such as Tangs and General Lee’s. He adopted the nickname “Curlee” and became a huge hit among the patrons – whom he frequently entertained with his banter and his jokes.
He soon realized that his true talents lay in show business. He soon began performing stand up comedy at local nightclubs. He also performed stand up at General Lee’s – showing the patrons he could do more than serve them drinks! Little did he know, but this would become the start of a long career in show business…
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RICHARD’S EARLY SHOW BUSINESS CAREER
Richard certainly made an impression with his stand up performance at General Lee’s. The year was 1975 and there was a short profile written about Richard’s performance. This was enough to garner the attention of TV producers.
Richard knew that the next step in his career would be to study acting. While juggling bartending and working in a jewelry store, he began honing his acting skills. He studied Shakespeare with Lynn Redgrave and also became a member of the popular acting troupe East-West Players. He was later cast in a musical called Pacific Overtures.
Later, in 1975, he was cast in a variety show called Keep On Truckin’. This show featured an ensemble cast and he played a variety of roles. Sadly, this show was short-lived.
But this didn’t hinder Richard’s career one bit! He was soon cast in an episode of the popular series MASH – which followed a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War! His MASH appearance would be the first of many. He also managed to land a few bit parts on two episodes of the show Kung Fu.
His first TV credit actually goes back to before his stand up performance at General Lee’s. He appeared in a 1965 episode of I Spy entitled “Chrysanthemum.” In 1973, he had a bit part in the feature film Lost Horizon.
In total, Richard Lee-Sung’s career spanned almost 6 decades. He appeared regularly in TV shows, TV movies, and feature films. He managed to play a broad range of characters and remained a popular actor until he retired from acting in 2010.
His best memories of acting were whenever he appeared on MAS*H. He loved the various characters he played and must have gotten a kick out of acting in a show that took place during a war that he fought in! He also had tremendous respect for Alan Alda who starred in the show and directed several episodes.
RICHARD’S TV CAREER
Richard’s first TV role was in a 1974 television movie called Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders. The TV movie was set in 7th century China and featured an ensemble of Asian-American actors. Richard had a small role as a driver in this TV movie.
His first foray into a TV series was on the show Kung Fu – which starred David Carradine. He appeared in two episodes of the show titled “The Devil’s Champion” and “The Thief of Chendo.” He managed to regularly secure TV gigs following his appearances on Kung Fu.
He appeared in the episode “The Chinese Connection” in the TV series SWAT in 1976. The same year, he appeared as “Terukazu” in the episode “Arnold’s Wedding” on the show Happy Days. His first major TV role that got him national recognition was in Starsky & Hutch.
He played Clint Takahashi in the two-part “Murder at Sea” episodes. This role gave him a chance to show his range and prove that he was a serious actor. After securing the role as Clint Takahashi, he was set to have a long-running career in film and television.
He continued to land roles in some of the most popular TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s. These included roles in shows such as The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Incredible Hulk, What’s Happening!!, How the West Was Won, Fantasy Island, Foul Play, Trapper John MD, Archie Bunker’s Place, and Quincy M.E.
But his best-known TV work was, of course, in MAS*H. He appeared in 11 episodes of the show from 1974 to 1982. He played a range of different characters on the show – sometimes appearing in speaking parts and sometimes in non-speaking parts.
Regardless of how big or small his roles on MASH may have been this is where most of us remember Richard Lee-Sung. Working on MASH was one of his favorite gigs and he always had fond memories of working on the show.
He continued to act on television during the later years of his career. He appeared in the 1984 TV movie The Jerk, Too and also appeared on an episode of The New Leave it to Beaver. His last TV role was in the 1989 TV movie Man Against the Mob: The Chinatown Murders – in which he played Jackie Fong.
RICHARD’S FILM CAREER
While he was perhaps best known for his unique range of characters on television, Richard Lee Sung also had a rich film career.
In fact, he couldn’t have started his film career at a better time! While his first film role was an uncredited appearance in the 1973 film Lost Horizon, his first major film role was as Kung Fat in the 1974 film Dynamite Brothers.
This was a fun action film that starred Timothy Brown, Alan Tang, and Aldo Ray. It was released at a time when martial arts films were all the rave in America. It was in the 1970s when Bruce Lee began to reach stardom in America and opportunities for Asian-American actors were opening up. Richard Lee Sung came in at just the right time!
In 1975, he appeared in the comedy-western film The Apple Dumpling Gang. He focused mainly on television for the rest of the 1970s and didn’t return to acting in films until the early 1980s. He had a few bit parts in films such as Slapstick of Another Kind and Firewalker. He had bigger roles in films such as Armed Response, In Dangerous Company, and Beverly Hills Brats.
Some of his best film work came toward the end of his career. He played the famous “arguing man” in the film Another 48 Hours starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. He played a restaurant owner in American Me and played a villain in Inpsector Gadget.
His final film role would also be his final acting role. He appeared in the 2010 feature film Genghis Khan: The Story of a Lifetime. This film begun production in 1992 but it took almost two decades to complete and release a final film!
Richard Lee Sung retired from acting in the mid-2000s.
Richard Lee Sung died on August 16, 2021, two days after his 91st birthday. He’s remembered by his fans and his colleagues for his professionalism and courteousness. He remains best known for the variety of characters he played on MAS*H.
But as one can see, he had a rich and long-running career in film and television. His career consisted of small bit parts as well as major roles in films, TV shows, and TV movies. One should also make note of Richard’s contribution of paving the way for Asian-Americans in cinema and television.
He began his career at a time when more opportunities were being created for Asian-American actors in film and television. He took advantage of these opportunities and played some of the most memorable characters in American film and TV. His contribution shouldn’t go unrecognized, and he’s certainly opened doors for Asian-American actors today.
His life is one worth learning from. His acting career spanned close to 6 decades and he managed to make a name for himself throughout the generations. He persevered in his career and brought his talents to comedy, drama, action films, and westerns.
If you’ve got some free time after you watch this video, why not look through his filmography and find some films or TV projects of Richard’s to watch later?
Are you a fan of Richard Lee Sung? Which was his best character on MAS*H?
In fact, here’s what we’d like to know:
Do you think that his best work was in MAS*H? Or were there other films and TV shows that new fans should check out to learn more about his career?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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