Al Harrington — Waikiki showroom headliner, television actor, teacher, and businessman — died Tuesday afternoon after suffering a stroke last week, his family confirmed. He was 85.
Born Tausau Ta’a in American Samoa, Harrington was raised by his maternal grandmother until he was 3 and his mother, Lela Suapaia, had him join her in Honolulu. She eventually married mainland-born Roy Harrington who had come to Hawaii while serving in the Army. Al got along so well with his stepfather that he officially changed his surname to Harrington.
Harrington attended Punahou (Class of 1954), playing on the school’s championship football team and participating in the theater program. He continued his education at Menlo College and then at Stanford where he played football and graduated with a degree in history.
Harrington’s stats on the field earned him an offer from the Baltimore Colts but he chose instead to spend two years on a Mormon mission in Samoa where he regained his fluency in his ancestral language. He then returned to Hawaii where he taught history and coached football at Punahou while moonlighting in a tourist show in Waikiki
In 1972, Harrington joined the cast of “Hawaii Five-0” as detective Ben Kokua, replacing Gilbert “Zulu” Kauhi (Kono) as the Polynesian member of the Five-0 team. Harrington’s three years on the show earned him an international following.
When Harrington left the show he made a full-time commitment to entertainment and became a Waikiki showroom headliner and recording artist.
Harrington brought a businessman’s approach to the business.
He attended the early morning school “tourist briefings” where visitors were given “sales pitches” for various shows and other attractions; he worked with a driver so that he wouldn’t have to look for parking. At his dinner shows at the Polynesian Palace showroom on Lewers Street, Harrington would go out during dinner and go table-to-table introducing himself and learning where each group was from. During the show he would then dedicate songs to “My friends from ….”
He also used his stage platform to educate the visitors who came to see him. Along with all the traditional “tourist show” components, and a bit of pidgin, Harrington would mention that the people of Hawaii wanted the same things that Americans everywhere else wanted — and that no one in Hawaii really wanted to go back to living in a “grass shack.”
Along the way he made a feather headband a personal trademark. He’d say that his mother had told him that he’d be OK as long as his head didn’t get too big for the headband, but being “the guy with the headband” also made it easy for visitors to remember him.
Harrington retired as a Waikiki headliner in 1992. For the next 13 years he lived on the mainland and did film work in Utah and California. He returned for a visit in 1996 to appear opposite Laura Bach (Desdemona) and Richard MacPherson (Iago) in the title role of Kumu Kahua’s radical reworking of “Othello.”
Harrington came back to Hawaii for good in 2005. He returned to network television several years later as surf shop owner/bus driver Mamo Kahike in the “reboot” of “Hawaii Five-O.”
He received the Hawai’i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
Harrington is survived by his wife, Rosa Harrington, sons Alema and Tau, daughters Summer Harrington and Cassi Harrington Palmer, and several grandchildren.