Conrad Yama

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Conrad Yama born Kiyoshi Conrad Hamanaka, (October 8, 1919 – March 10, 2010), was an Asian American theatre, film and television actor.

Early life[edit]

Born and raised in Fresno, California, Hamanaka attended Fresno State after high school, studying speech and psychology. Hamanaka was interned in Jerome, Arkansas during World War II, where he worked on camp newspapers.[1][2] While in the camp, one of his children caught pneumonia, and another contracted tuberculosis.[3]


Upon his release, Hamanaka moved to Chicago, where, despite being accepted to study psychology at the University of Chicago, Hamanaka took the stage name Conrad Yama, and following a period of training at the Goodman Theatre, pursued an acting career. Some of Yama's first major credits were television appearances in Asian specific roles. Following tours of Teahouse of the August Moon and Auntie Mame, Yama made his first appearance on Broadway in the original production of Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song as Dr. Li, and understudying Keye Luke in the character of Wang Chi Yang. Flower Drum Song was a significant musical because most of the Asian characters were played by Asian American actors, whereas white actors in yellowface makeup was the norm. Later Broadway credits included the musicals I Had a Ball and Pacific Overtures where he played a trio of roles. Yama also appeared in the dramatic play "Plenty", both Off-broadway, at The Public Theatre, and on Broadway after the Public's production transferred. Off-Broadway, Yama originated roles in "Santa Anita '42" at both Playwrights Horizons and the Chelsea Theater, and in Frank Chin's The Year of the Dragon at The American Place Theatre. In the made for TV version of Year of the Dragon, broadcast by PBS as a part of the series Great Performances in 1975, Yama returned as Pa Eng, the father of the protagonist, played by George Takei, who replaced Randall Duk Kim in the leading role. Yama's performance in Pacific Overtures was recorded when the entire production was taped and broadcast on Japanese TV in 1976.

Due to his resemblance to Mao Zedong, Yama played Mao several times. Yama originated the part of Chairman Mao in Edward Albee's "Box-Mao-Box", delivering authentic Mao quotations from the Little Red Book. The role was played by Wyman Pendleton during its brief Broadway run in 1968. Yama's largest movie part was playing the title role, an unnamed Chairman Mao opposite Gregory Peck in The Chairman (1969), also known as "The Most Dangerous Man in the World". The New York Times review stated, "In the best scene of all, as the story moves into Chinese headquarters, Mr. Peck has an ideological Ping-Pong match, swatting it out verbally over a table with an incisive actor named Conrad Yama".[4] In a parody of this scene, Yama appeared as a Mao like figure for a Van Heusen shirt commercial, playing table tennis with a Van Huesen wearing American diplomat. Yama had another role similar to Chairman Mao when he portrayed the Chinese Prime Minister in "The Virgin President."

Yama's other onscreen acting included a number of small and supporting roles in film and made for TV movies. Highlights include The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), and Midway (1976) as Admiral Nobutake Kondō. In The Godfather (1972), Yama played the fruit-seller during the Don Corleone shooting scene.[5] Yama's last onscreen role was a small part in "See China and Die", a made-for-TV movie starring Esther Rolle in 1981.


Yama had three children. His oldest child and only son is the prominent San Francisco cultural figure, writer, and musician V. Vale.[citation needed] His oldest daughter is the New York City musician/singer Lionelle Hamanaka. Yama's youngest daughter is the noted children's author and illustrator Sheila Hamanaka.

When Yama acted in The Virgin President, his eldest daughter Lionelle Hamanaka appeared with him onscreen in the part of the Prime Minister's daughter (credited as L'nelle Hamanaka). Lionelle was born after Yama was released from the camps following Word War II. Because Yama withheld this from her, she only found out about internment in school. Lionelle wrote a play based in part on her family's experiences, which was presented as part of a series of plays about Japanese American internment by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.[6] Yama was a fan of jazz, and Lionelle performs professionally as a jazz singer.[7]

Yama died on March 10, 2010. His professional name "Yama" means "mountain" in Japanese.



  1. ^ Robinson, Greg (May 29, 2008), "The ‘Double Life’ of Journalist-Turned-Actor Conrad Yama (Hamanaka)", Nichi Bei Times 
  2. ^ "National Archives: Kiyoshi Hamanaka". Retrieved 2015-04-15. 
  3. ^ "3 DRAMAS ON JAPANESE-AMERICAN INTERNMENT DAYS". The New York Times. 12 March 1982. Retrieved 5 February 2016. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-07-28. Retrieved 2013-07-16.  See page 6.
  6. ^ "STAGE: ANGUISH OF INTERNMENT AMONG JAPANESE-AMERICANS". The New York Times. 19 March 1982. Retrieved 5 February 2016. 
  7. ^ "Lionelle Hamanaka bio". Retrieved 5 February 2016. 

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