BY WENDIE BURBRIDGE / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Dennis Chun is a gracious, seemingly unassuming gentleman who has led an amazing life. If you don’t recognize Chun’s name, he is the talented actor who plays the recurring role of Sgt. Duke Lukela on “Hawaii Five-0″ — but he is more often regarded to as the “Son of Kam Fong.”
While he is very proud to carry the title, there is much more that makes up this man. Chun lives not in the shadow of his famous father, Kam Fong, who played Chin Ho Kelly in the original series, but in the warmth of his legacy.
Kam Fong was a legend not only in television and local acting circles, but as a former officer in the Honolulu Police Department and within the Chinese-American community in Hawaii. Chun has definitely followed in his father’s footsteps in more ways than just returning to act in the show that made his father famous.
I asked Chun if he would be wiling to spend some time talking to me about his own journey though life, what led him to being an actor and his role on the reboot of his father’s show. Much of what is written about him is about his father and his father’s career, but I wanted to know about Chun.
I am thankful he was willing to share his story and be so candid with me, as if I were a member of his family. I think it was easy for him to talk with me as we shared some history; we both graduated from Kamehameha Schools, and my mother and her brother, Tommy, who was also Dennis’s debate partner, all attended Chaminade University together in the late 1960’s.
Chun told me stories about how successful they were as a team and their confident bravado in winning their debates. But I think this connection made it easier for him to talk with me and share not only his special memories, but also photographs and the many scrapbooks of articles, theatre reviews and pictures from his life.
Chun was born and raised in Hawaii and was the oldest of four siblings. They all were lucky enough to graduate from Kamehameha, the “West Point of the Pacific,” where Chun learned about discipline.
“(Kamehameha) helped me to learn how to work toward a goal,” he said. “I knew that it was important that I took this gift of education and did something with it.”
This lesson has been especially helpful in his life, as well as in his acting career, as he still attends acting classes even after being on television, stage, and film since he was a teenager. Chun continues to hone his talents and be ready for his role on “Hawaii Five-0” as well as any other roles he plays on stage or screen.
After Kamehameha, Chun attended Chaminade for two years and then moved to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he earned his degree in Political Science. As a young mover and shaker during the Vietnam era, he wanted to do more than just talk about politics in collegiate debates.
“When we were young we all wanted to make the world better, you could talk, or you could try and do it,” Chun said.
He wanted to put some effort behind his words, so he became the Hawaii press secretary for George McGovern’s 1972 Presidential campaign and worked as a security guard at Ala Moana Shopping Center. He spent many years working at Family Court as a bailiff and a court operations specialist, and also worked as a community spokesperson in Chinatown to help rid the neighborhood of a major drug-dealing operation in the 1990’s.
Chun has spent a good part of his life not only working within the court system, but also by giving back to his community through his volunteering efforts, all in effort to “keep people safe.” He has very fond memories of being “McGruff the Crime Dog” and traveling to area schools to speak with children about “taking a bite outta crime.”
Chun said the children were always willing to speak to him about things they were afraid of, and that every time a child hugged him or talked to him, he was helping them to feel safer. I couldn’t help but notice that he seems to embody all of the Five-0 team traits in real life.
Chun said his father always told him “dreams are important, but keep your feet on the ground.” Chun, however, is living out his dreams, and that’s not a cliche — it’s all true.
Chun said he always wanted to be an actor, and he was lucky enough to act in three episodes of the original series while in his early 20’s. He also appeared in “Jake and the Fatman,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “The Brady Bunch,” as well as the locally shot film “Goodbye Paradise” with Joe Moore, Pat Morita, Ray Bumatai, and James Hong. He has had several terrific stage roles, among them the Bandit in “Rashomon,” and “The Song of the Nissei Fishermen” where he aged from 17 to 70 without make-up. He was also in “The Hilo Massacre” for PBS, as well as in the theatrical version for Kumu Kahua Theatre.
And as Sgt. Duke Lukela, he has appeared in both season one and two of the rebooted verson of “Hawaii Five-0.”
Chun spoke a long time about how terrific the “Five-0” set is to work on. Of the nine episodes he has been cast in, his favorite experience was during “Kūpale,” the episode which also featured a guest appearance by Apolo Ohno. Chun said he enjoyed playing out the conflict with McGarrett before they stormed Ohno’s house and he loves working with the main cast, especially Alex O’Loughlin and Daniel Dae Kim (the two actors he has done the majority of his scenes with). When he works on the Five-0 set he sees the “aloha in all of them.”
Chun also gave credit to the show for giving local actors a shot at television work and for making Hawaii look so great, in more ways than one. He often uses his vast acting experience to counsel young actors to be prepared and ready for their shot at “Five-0″ fame.
“They have to be ready, they have to take the job seriously,” he said. “This is show business, and sometimes it’s more business than show.”
Chun said he wants “Hawaii Five-0” to continue to hire local actors and give more Hawaii actors an opportunity to show the world their talents. If they are all like him, I am sure they will show more than just their ability — they will also show their heart.
When a father leaves a son with a legacy of love and happy memories, that makes room for a son to make a great name for himself. Dennis Chun definitely has made a name for himself as a good man, a protector of many, as well as a fine actor and performer. He is living the legacy of Kam Fong and “Hawaii Five-0” with humility and graciousness. I’m sure his father is very proud.
Redux Side Note:
Next week’s episode is a repeat of the episode “Pahele.” This is the first time we meet Ian Anthony Dale as Adam Noshimuri, before he and Kono decided to go steady. On Saturday, June 16, is a special showing of “Ha‘i‘ole.” If you missed the explosive start of season two, you might want to see McGarrett break out of Halawa to clear his name and rejoin the Five-0 team. It’s a great ride.
I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Dennis Chun for sharing his family history and pictures as well as the story of his life. I know there is much more to his journey that I did not cover, but I hope one day to tell it all and give him the credit he deserves. I am blessed to have had the chance to tell some of his story.