Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
On the morning of the day when he won the Academy Award, Dr. Haing S. Ngor was a busy man. Just after dawn, outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he was clicking off TV interviews, one after another: "A.M. Los Angeles," "Good Morning America." The fans in the bleachers, who had waited all night huddled in their sleeping bags, chanted "Haing! Haing!" He waved to them like a kid at his first prom.
Dr. Ngor was shot to death Sunday night outside his home in Los Angeles. He was only 45. On the day he won the Oscar, he was 34. On the day when he escaped from a Khymer Rouge prison camp and crawled to safety in a Red Cross camp beyond enemy lines, he was 28, and he weighed 50 pounds.
He had been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "The Killing Fields," which told the story of another Cambodian prisoner, Dith Pran, who worked as a translator for The New York Times and then went through indescribable experiences in the camps. In a sense Ngor was starring in his own life story, because he had been through the same ordeal; his knowledge of nutrition saved his life, he said, because he knew to eat beetles, termites and scorpions. This morning, though, he was gulping down doughnuts and coffee in between his TV appearances. He didn't look like a Southern Californian. He was a small man, wearing glasses, dressed like a doctor in a blue blazer, brown slacks, a vest, a shirt and a tie. I'd asked to follow him around on his big day, and after the TV interviews he got into a big stretch limousine provided by Warner Brothers, and sped off to the Tuxedo Center, on Sunset Boulevard, to rent a tux.
Inside the store, another Oscar nominee was also being fitted: The late Adolph Caesar, nominated for "A Soldier's Story." Ngor nodded politely, at a loss for words. "Take my best wishes!" Caesar told him. "Take my deepest respect! Take everything but the Academy Award!" Ngor, whose English was still shaky, smiled politely. "His English has improved a lot," said Ed Crane, the studio publicist. "Tell about your fan mail."
"I get letter, phone call, I don't know who give phone number," he said. "Girls want to meet me. Is crazy." He was working, he said, at the Chinatown Counseling Agency, finding jobs for new immigrants, some of them survivors of the same death camps he had known. "Other day, I was in hotel with Roland Joffe, who directed film. I hear Cambodian being speaken outside door. I open door--there are two maids I know! I got them jobs!"
He had not given up the day job, he said: "I take off three weeks to promote film in Europe. I take off today. Otherwise, I am happy to have job."
After the Tuxedo Center, we went to the Chateau Marmont to tape another interview, and then we went to a Siamese restaurant near Hollywood Boulevard. Surprisingly, no one recognized him there, maybe because the waiters were not in the habit of seeing Hollywood movies, even those starring Cambodians.
He ordered for everyone: Beef with mint leaves in chili sauce, and a spicy soup. As he studied the menu, I noticed that half his right little finger was missing. Chopped off by the Khymer Rouge, I had heard. "This is better than scorpions!" Ed Crane said. Ngor laughed. "That's our private joke," Crane said. "Whenever we're in some situation like flying first class, I tell Haing, it sure beats scorpions!"
Does it sometimes strike you, I asked Ngor, how different your life is now than it was six or seven years ago?
"Yes," he said. A long pause. "Khymer Rouge kill my mother, father. Kill my niece. Kill her parents. My other niece, who I just discovered living in France, they kill her whole family. On June 2, 1978, my girl friend died of starvation. She died in my hands." He took a sip of green tea. "I hope with this movie, whole world will know what happened. What saved me was Buddha, and my mother's breast milk, which gave me courage when I was still a baby."
There was talk about whether Ngor would continue his acting career, or stay in medicine and counseling. Was he a one-movie actor? "My English get better, I can play anything," he said. "Maybe comedian. Acting is gift of Buddha, my mother, and my daddy."
After lunch, Dr. Ngor went off for more interviews, and a nap. That night he was named the winner of the Academy Award for best supporting actor. He did go on to some success as an actor; he appeared in the 1987 TV movie "In Love and War," and in a Hong Kong production the same year, "Eastern Corridors." He made "The Iron Triangle" in 1989 and "Vietnam, Texas" in 1990, and in 1993 he played the father of a peasant girl in Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth." In 1994, he landed a syndicated TV series, "Vanishing Son," where he played a mob boss.
He spent much of the money he earned to support refugee organizations trying to help his fellow survivors, and founded two organizations, Aid to Displaced Persons and Enfants d'Angkor. "I don't want history to blame me, saying Dr. Ngor has many opportunities, why does he not help?" he said in an interview. Later that March night in 1985, I came across Dr. Ngor at the Governor's Ball, the Academy's official post-Oscar party. "Congratulations!" I said. I was going to add, "Better than scorpions," but somehow I didn't.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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