Dr. Haing Somnang Ngor (Khmer: ហាំង សំណាង ង៉ោ; Chinese: 吳漢潤; pinyin: Wú Hànrùn; March 22, 1940 – February 25, 1996) was a Cambodian American gynecologist, obstetrician, actor, author, and refugee. He is best remembered for winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1985 for his debut performance in the film The Killing Fields (1984), in which he portrayed Cambodian journalist and refugee Dith Pran.
Ngor is the first (and to date, only) actor of Asian descent to ever win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He survived three terms in Cambodian prison camps, using his medical knowledge to keep himself alive by eating beetles, termites, and scorpions; he eventually crawled between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese lines to safety in a Red Cross refugee camp. His mother was Khmer and his father was of Chinese Teochew descent. Ngor and Harold Russell are the only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award in an acting category.
Born in Samrong Young, Bati district, Takeo province, Cambodia, Ngor trained as a surgeon and gynecologist. He was practicing in the capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975 when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge seized control of the country and proclaimed it Democratic Kampuchea. He was compelled to conceal his education, medical skills, and even the fact that he wore glasses to avoid the new regime's intense hostility to intellectuals and professionals. He was expelled from Phnom Penh along with the bulk of its two million inhabitants as part of the Khmer Rouge's "Year Zero" social experiment and imprisoned in a concentration camp along with his wife, My-Huoy, who subsequently died giving birth. Although a gynecologist, he was unable to treat his wife, who required a Caesarean section, because he would have been exposed, and both he and his wife (as well as the child) would very probably have been killed. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Ngor worked as a doctor in a refugee camp in Thailand and left with his niece for the United States on August 30, 1980. In America, Ngor was unable to resume his medical practice, and he did not remarry.
In 1988, he wrote Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey, describing his life under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In the second edition of Survival in the Killing Fields, Roger Warner, Ngor's co-author, adds an epilogue telling the story of Ngor's life after winning the Academy Award.
The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation was founded in his honor in 1997 to assist in raising funds for Cambodian aid. As part of his humanitarian efforts, Ngor built an elementary school and operated a small sawmill that provided jobs and an income for local families. Ngor's niece, Sophia Ngor Demetri, who testified at the trial of his murderers and with whom he arrived in the U.S., is the current president of the Foundation.
Ngor, despite having no previous acting experience, was cast as Dith Pran in The Killing Fields (1984), a role for which he won (among many honors) the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, becoming the first Asian to win Best Supporting Actor in debut performance and the second Asian actor to ever win an Oscar. Ngor was not initially interested in the role of Dith Pran, but interviews with the filmmakers changed his mind, as he recalled that he promised his late wife to tell Cambodia's story to the world. After appearing in The Killing Fields he told People magazine, "I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect."
Ngor went on to appear in various other onscreen projects, most memorably in Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth (1993) and the Vanishing Son miniseries. He also appeared in the Hong Kong film Eastern Condors (1987), which was directed by and starred Sammo Hung.
He also appeared in a supporting role in the 1989 Vietnam War drama The Iron Triangle. He guest-starred in a two-episode storyline on the acclaimed series China Beach (episodes "How to Stay Alive in Vietnam 1 & 2 ") as a wounded Cambodian POW who befriends Colleen McMurphy while under her care. He also guest-starred in an episode of Miami Vice called "The Savage / Duty and Honor".
Next to The Killing Fields, Ngor's most prominent feature film role was in My Life (1993), the directorial debut of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin. Ngor portrayed a spiritual healer, Mr. Ho, who provides guidance for protagonist Bob Jones (Michael Keaton) and his wife Gail (Nicole Kidman) after Bob is diagnosed with terminal cancer, months before the birth of his and Gail's first child.
The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation was organized in 1990 by Ngor and Jack Ong. The two actors met in 1989 while filming "The Iron Triangle" and soon after, Pastor Ong's church (Venice Christian Community in Venice, CA) launched Project Cambodia to raise funds to care for orphans and help rebuild the devastated country's infrastructure. Project Cambodia was the original foundation for The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation, which was incorporated in 1997 after Ngor's homicide (Feb. 25, 1996) as a 501 (C) (3) charitable organization. The goals of the Foundation include preserving the legacy of Ngor's accomplishments and human rights endeavors as well as the promotion of Cambodia's history and culture through education, activism and the arts. Ngor's niece, Sophia Ngor Demetri, who testified at the trial of his murderers and whom he brought to the U.S., is the current President of the Foundation; Ong serves as Executive Director.
On February 25, 1996, Ngor was shot dead outside his home in Chinatown, in downtown Los Angeles, California. Many Cambodians claimed that they had a stake in his estate, with one woman claiming that he had married her after coming to the United States. Most of Ngor's Cambodian assets went to his brother, Chan Sarun, while his American assets were used up in legal fees staving off claims to his estate. He was buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.
Charged with the murder were three reputed members of the "Oriental Lazy Boyz" street gang, who had prior arrests for snatching purses and jewelry. They were tried together in the Superior Court of Los Angeles, though their cases were heard by three separate juries. Prosecutors argued that they killed Ngor because, after handing over his gold Rolex watch willingly, he refused to give them a locket that contained a photo of his deceased wife, My-Huoy. Defense attorneys suggested that the murder was a politically motivated killing carried out by sympathizers of the Khmer Rouge but offered no evidence to support this theory. Kang Kek Iew, a former Khmer Rouge official on trial in Cambodia, claimed in November 2009 that Ngor was murdered on Pol Pot's orders, but U.S. investigators did not find him credible.
Some criticized the theory that Ngor was killed in a bungled robbery, pointing to $2,900 in cash that had been left behind and the fact that the thieves had not rifled his pockets. Why the thieves would have demanded his locket has never been answered; Ngor typically wore the locket next to his skin under his clothing, so it would not have been in plain sight. As of 2003, the locket has not been recovered.
All three were found guilty on April 16, 1998, the same day that Pol Pot's death was confirmed in Cambodia. Tak Sun Tan was sentenced to 56 years to life; Indra Lim to 26 years to life; and Jason Chan to life without parole. In 2004, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted Tak Sun Tan's habeas corpus petition, finding that prosecutors had manipulated the jury's sympathy by presenting false evidence. This decision was reversed, and the conviction was ultimately upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in July 2005.
After the release of The Killing Fields, Ngor had told a New York Times reporter, "If I die from now on, OK! This film will go on for a hundred years."
|1984||Killing Fields, TheThe Killing Fields||Dith Pran|
|1987||In Love and War||Major Bui||TV Movie|
|Eastern Condors||Yeung Lung|
|1989||Vietnam War Story: The Last Days||Major Huyen||segment "The Last Outpost"|
|The Iron Triangle||Colonel Tuong, NVA|
|Last Flight Out||Pham Van Minh||TV Movie|
|1993||My Life||Mr. Ho|
|Heaven & Earth||Papa|
|1994||Fortunes of War||Khoy Thuon|
|Dragon Gate, TheThe Dragon Gate||Sensei|
|1996||Hit Me||Billy Tungpet|
|1987||Miami Vice||Nguyen Van Trahn||Episode: "The Savage / Duty and Honor"|
In Season 7, episode 12 of The Simpsons, "Team Homer", Homer reveals that he stole Ngor's Best Supporting Actor Oscar and replaced the name on the plaque with his own. About a month after “Team Homer” aired in 1996, Ngor was murdered just outside his home in Los Angeles. In subsequent reruns, animators changed the Oscar in question to that of Don Ameche out of respect for Ngor, and to avoid the implication that Homer killed him for his Oscar.
In Season 1, episode 4 of The Critic, Miserable, Ngor is listed as one of the protagonist Jay Sherman's many enemies and someone who would have a motive to kidnap him. A brief flashback then shows Sherman criticizing Ngor's acting abilities by saying that Ngor "Should have gone to the acting fields."