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Five-0 Redux

Saying aloha ʻoe to Hawaiian actor and director Keo Woolford

  • CBS

It’s been a tough week for “Hawaii Five-0.” On Monday, November 28 we all received the shocking news of actor Keo Woolford’s untimely passing. Woolford is best known to Five-0 viewers as HPD Detective James Chang, appearing in six episodes from 2011 to 2015. He first appeared as a plain clothes detective, and later appeared alternately as a uniformed officer. He has been credited as Sgt. or Patrol Sgt. Chang, as well as Detective Chang.

Still, no matter what his attire or his character name, Woolford played Chang as a straightforward and mostly by-the-book police officer. I think he is best remembered as the detective who tried to arrest McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) in the season two opener “Ha‘i‘ole” (“Unbreakable”). And perhaps as the cop who was attacked by a zombie in “Kūpouli ʻla” (“Broken”) on Waikīkī Beach.

For Five-0 fans, Woolford is mostly known for his peaceful and humble manner, as well as for his amazing talent as an actor and filmmaker. The few times Woolford attended fan events, he was always incredibly gracious, and seemed almost surprised at how often folks wanted pictures and autographs.

He attended the pre-Sunset on the Beach fan tweetup at Big City Diner Pearlridge in 2013, while fans from around the Germany, Australia, and France, as well as many from the continental US, were in Hawaiʻi to attend the season three premiere on the beach. They were thrilled to be able to meet actors Dennis Chun, who plays Sgt. Duke Lukela; Shawn Mokuahi Garnett, who plays Cousin Flippa; as well as Woolford, a few days before the gala event. Woolford posed for pictures, signed t-shirts and souvenir Hawaiʻi plates, and passed out postcards for fans to attend a screening of his movie “The Haumāna” at the 2013 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Woolford is widely known for his film, about a Waikīkī showman, Johnny Kealoha, who leaves his Polynesian lūʻau show in order to reconnect with the hula traditions he has seemingly abandoned, for what he thought was fame and fortune. Woolford wrote and directed the film which is credited as “the first narrative feature film about traditional hula.” Woolford based his film partly on his one-man theatrical show “I-LAND,” in which he juxtaposed hula and hip hop culture to tell, in part, his dramatic life story. Woolford toured with this show a few years before he wrote “The Haumāna.”

Many fans were also aware of Woolford’s dedication to hula, as he was trained by kumu hula Robert Cazimero as a member of his halau, Nā Kamalei o Lililehua. According to Hawaii News Now, Woolford had also achieved the rank of kumu hula in a ʻūniki (graduation exercises, as for hula) ceremony from Cazimero, this summer. His talent and expertise in the ancient art is evident in his film, as well as in the way he presented himself on screen and off.

Woolford also played the “Royal Hula Festival Soloist” in “The Haumāna.” The Royal Hula Festival is fashioned after the famous Merrie Monarch Festival which is the ultimate goal for any hula halau serious about their tradition and practice.

While Woolford worked on his film, he also worked on different episodes of “Hawaii Five-0.” In season two he was in “Ha‘i‘ole” (“Unbreakable”), then in season three he returned as Sgt. Chang in “Kānalua” (“Doubt”) and  “Hoa Pili” (“Close Friend”). He took out the zombie in “Kūpouli ʻla” (“Broken”) in season four, and then returned as plain clothed Det. Chang in “Kahania” (“Close Shave”) in season five when he set up the line-up that implicated Jerry (Jorge Garcia). His last turn on Five-0 was last season in “Ka ʻalapahi nui” (“Big Lie”) as the police officer who shuts down the high rise that had just been infiltrated by a motorcycle riding/building jumping gunman.  

I had not seen “The Haumāna” until I was gifted with a copy from Dennis Chun, who shared the film with me, because he thought I would love the story and the acting, but also because of the music and the hula. I did love the film — seeing familiar faces of actor friends from high school, and understanding a very familiar and relatable story. For the most part, indigenous people have to bridge themselves between a Western world, that doesn’t quite understand how a person with deep cultural roots can’t just cut off their ethnic selves, in order to assimilate and blend in this world.

While the film tells a different story than what Five-0 viewers saw of Woolford in the police procedural, fans who saw his movie, loved the story, as well as the music. The film won several awards at different film festivals including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, the Big Island Film Festival, the Wairoa Māori Film Festival, the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, and the Hawaii International Film Festival. The soundtrack to the film won a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Best Compilation in 2014.

Among Woolford’s film credits, and his one-man show, he also portrayed, like fellow “Hawaii Five-0” actor, Daniel Dae Kim, the King of Siam in “The King and I” at the London Palladium. He also was seen in the feature films “Act of Valor” (2012) and “Godzilla” (2014). He directed two short films, “Song on Canvas” and “Lunchtime”, and his latest film “The Fifth Passenger” is scheduled for release in 2017. Woolford plays Capt. Odate in the Sci-Fi/Horror film, which is now in post-production.

When I heard the news last week about Woolford having a stroke, I was shocked, and then when I learned of his passing, my shock turned to heartbreak and deep sadness. I was comforted by the outpouring of love and aloha for Woolford and his ʻohana by the cast and crew, as well as the fans from all over the world. Dennis Chun sent me a text and posted on his Facebook page a message about Woolford that seemed to sum up what many of us were also feeling about Woolford’s death.

“It is with a broken heart and sadness that I bid Keo Woolford aloha. He was a beautiful spirit and light that blessed this ʻāina with grace and eloquence. There are no words to convey the sense of loss so many of us feel,” Chun stated on his Facebook page.

I was at a loss for words most of this week, but I found an ʻōlelo noʻeau (Hawaiian Proverb), that is said of someone who has died suddenly, that spoke to me. “Niau kololani ka helena, hūnā na maka i ke auoli” — which means, “Silently, quickly he departed, to hide his eyes in the sky.” We feel your eyes now, Keo, watching us, continuing to teach and bless us with your enduring legacy. Mahalo palena ‘ole for sharing your talent and light with us, on so many stages, and with the whole of your heart.

Wendie Burbridge is a published author, playwright and teacher. Reach her via Facebook and follow her on Twitter  and Instagram.

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