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Kung Fu Panda 4 Director Says James Hong is the "Heart" of the Franchise

Kung Fu Panda 4 director Mike Mitchell speaks to the enduring talent of James Hong and his character, Mr. Ping.

By Tara Bennett

While every Kung Fu Panda film is ostensibly a love letter to the panda and newly minted Dragon Master, the films are also another opportunity to celebrate the legendary actor James Hong who plays Po's pop, Mr. Ping.

RELATED: Here's Everything to Know About the Cast of Kung Fu Panda 4

The prolific actor has been with the franchise since from the start when he was introduced as Po's adoptive father and the proprietor of the family business, Mr. Ping's Noodle Shop. In Kung Fu Panda 4, the ever anxious goose gets his own side adventure with Po's biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), which gives the two dads an opportunity to bond and rally around their son. 

The incredible career of James Hong

James Hong attends the 95th Annual Academy Awards

It's was a long path for Hong to this recent, much-earned adulation and appreciation. The actor has been working as a professionally for 70-years, and boasts a resume listing more than 600 individual roles. His first industry work was dubbing voices in Asian films to English. Then he transitioned to radio plays, television and film. Name a classic television series — from The X-Files to Alias and even Seinfeld — Hong appeared in them all. In 1965, he co-founded the Los Angeles based East West Players theater to advocate for and showcase Asian American actors and talent in the industry. And just two years ago, he earned his first SAG Award as part of the ensemble cast for Everything Everywhere All at Once

RELATED: What Happened in the Kung Fu Panda Movies Before Kung Fu Panda 4?

Kung Fu Panda 4 co-director Mike Marshall told NBC Insider that he and the rest of the creative team have always thought of Hong as the humor and heart of the franchise. "Jack Black is a big part of it, but James Hong is in every movie and he just nails it," Marshall enthused.

When they were developing the story for the fourth film, Marshall said they knew they wanted to showcase Hong by boosting Mr. Ping's story, and give him a buddy dynamic with Cranston's Li-Shan.

We were like, 'Either they're gonna join Po, or we're gonna give them their own story.' And that was the decision early on of let's get Cranston combined with James Hong which is hysterical."

James Hong finally honored by Hollywood's greatest institutions

Two years ago, James Hong finally got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The actor told SYFY WIRE at the time, "I've waited for this moment for 70 years. Actor Daniel Dae Kim raised the necessary funds, over $50,000 in four days through GoFundMe. That is a compliment and joy in the sense that there's enough fans out there. It shocked me that the fans were that involved."

Mitchell was just as thrilled that Hong was honored on February 22 with his handprints and footprints placed in cement at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX in Hollywood (formerly Grauman's Chinese Theatre).

"James Hong is 95 years old, and just had a birthday last week," Mitchell enthused. "He put his hands in the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater. At our premiere, he took the drumsticks from the Chinese drummer and he was playing the drums. He's got so much energy! Hopefully, when we're 95 we're all behaving like James Hong."

Taking cues from the master

While the director had no notes for Hong or his performance as Ping, he did take notes from the best when voicing his own cameo role in Kung Fu Panda 4.

"I'm a boar pig," he confirmed. "But we had a lot of new characters that joined us, and so many great actors from Ronny Chieng to Lori Tan Chinn. I mean, there's no room for me. I'll only brag about my last voice in Shrek Forever After where I played Butter Pants, and [said] 'Do the roar!' That's my claim to fame."

Kung Fu Panda 4 is exclusively in theaters now. Watch the original Kung Fu Panda on Peacock.