The Incredible Story of Haing S. Ngor

It was March 25th, 1985, and the 57th Academy Awards were in full swing.  As Linda Hunt dutifully ran through the nominees for Best Supporting Actor,  the production hit a snag on the penultimate name:  Haing S. Ngor (rhymes with floor), the Cambodian-born doctor who starred in The Killing Fields, hadn’t made it to the ceremony.  Clearly caught off-guard by Ngor’s absence, the control room slapped a publicity still onscreen and undoubtedly prayed that Hunt wouldn’t have to accept the award on his behalf.  He was the most intriguing nominee of the night–maybe the most compelling Oscar-nominee ever–and it looked like Ngor was even going to show up for it.  

Turns out, Ngor was just unprepared for the maddening bog of L.A. traffic.  His limo pulled up to to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion well after the ceremony had already started.  Ngor raced into the building, with his niece Sophia in tow.  He made it to the auditorium just as Hunt pried open the envelope:  “The winner is…Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields!”  Ngor escorted Sophia to her seat–right next to a sparkling, purple-clad rock star named Prince–shared a quick hug with co-star Sam Waterston, and bound up to the stage.  

His ebullience and unvarnished humility were striking, in contrast to the mock sincerity so many actors bring to such an occasion.  Ngor thanked and praised his co-workers, and you could tell he meant every syllable of broken English.  Finally, he looked up to the heavens and saluted God–Buddha, he was quick to clarify–for getting him this far.  From the detached politeness Ngor received from the half-sauced crowd, they were unaware of just how much tragedy–how much abject horror–this man had endured to stand before them.  If they had known, there’s a good chance they might still be clapping.  

© Warner Bros

The Killing Fields

When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975, they saw an opportunity to tear down and rebuild the country to suit their Marxist-Leninist ideology.  Anyone with any pre-existing cultural, intellectual, or political standing was quickly executed.  Millions more were herded into work camps to be tortured or starved.  This frighteningly efficient genocide became known as Year Zero, and it was as savage and devastating as anything the world had ever seen.

As a practicing physician, Ngor’s life was in immediate danger.  He concealed his profession and retreated to the Cambodian countryside with his family.  Soon, starvation spread like wildfire, prompting Ngor to forage for anything to survive.  On one of these excursions, he was captured as a suspected spy.  Ngor denied this charge, also their accusations that he was a doctor in disguise.  As punishment, the Khmer Rouge severed one of his fingers with a pocket knife and left him hanging over a smoldering fire for four days.  Ngor begged for death, but he somehow survived.  Unfortunately, this hidden blessing brought the curse of even rougher times ahead.

Within the next few weeks, Ngor’s parents, brother, and sister-in-law were executed by Khmer Rouge guerillas.  Even with those immense losses, noting could prepare Ngor for the despair of losing his wife in childbirth.  Huoy Ngor was malnourished and in agonizing pain.  She needed a Caesarean section, but Haing didn’t dare broadcast his true vocation, and the proper surgical tools were nowhere to be found.  Huoy died in his arms, begging for something to eat.  Ngor would later say that his universe “was falling apart.”

In 1979, a Vietnamese invasion prompted the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  Ngor grabbed his niece and embarked on a mind-boggling exodus.  They spanned hundreds of miles, living on rats and scorpions, all while ducking the attention of wandering bandits.  Eventually, the Ngors crossed into Vietnam and made their way to Thailand.   There, despite his weakened condition, Ngor volunteered to help scores of sick and wounded in a refugee camp.  After a year, he left for the United States.

© Warner Bros.

Something Perfect

That journey landed Ngor in Los Angeles, where he went to work as a counselor in Chinatown.  Meanwhile, a first-time director named Roland Joffé began work on The Killing Fields, a sweeping epic that centered on the genocide in Cambodia.  It was based on the experiences of Sidney Schanberg, a reporter for The New York Times, and Dith Pran, who acted as his interpreter and guide into Pol Pot’s mosaic of misery.  In many ways, Pran serves as the heart and soul of the film:  Brave, resourceful, and imbued with hidden reservoirs of strength.  Casting director Pat Golden conducted an extensive search before settling on Ngor.  Even though he had never acted professionally, Dr. Haing S. Ngor was about to co-star in a major motion picture.

For Ngor, The Killing Fields wasn’t just a project.  It was a time machine, hurtling him back to the scenes of his greatest sorrow.  The Khmer Rouge’s wholesale devastation gets meticulously duplicated for the big screen:  Parentless children run screaming through the ashen streets of Phnom Penh.  Explosions rock the city and claim hundreds of innocent lives.  The experience would supercharge Ngor’s commitment to making sure the story of Cambodia never stops being told.  “I realized I could never be content until America knew the full truth about the killing fields,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1988.  

The movie debuted to widespread acclaim.  Sam Waterston and John Malkovich would get their usual accolades, but many reviewers focused on Ngor’s performance.  “[He] brings to it a simple sincerity that is absolutely convincing,” observed Roger Ebert.  Peter Travers concurred:  “[T]he film belongs to Dr. Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran.”  Ngor would become the first amateur in forty years to win an Academy Award.  He would also take home a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, among many others.  Ngor donated most of his royalties to help build a hospital for Cambodian refugees.

As the adulation died down, the movie industry openly speculated on Ngor’s future.  Was he a one-trick pony, someone who miraculously found a movie within his range?  Or could he build an actual career in such an unforgiving business?  The actual answer would land somewhere between those two questions.  Ngor would pop in occasional roles, but he would never come anywhere near the rarefied air he breathed in The Killing Fields.  His greatest post-Oscar success came with the release of his autobiography, “Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey.”   A harrowing account of Ngor’s imprisonment and escape, the book hit the bestseller list and went through several print editions.

And that’s not to say he didn’t turn in some great acting.  One of Ngor’s memorable roles came within a Michael Keaton tearjerker called My Life.  Keaton plays an expectant father who learns that a terminal illness may keep him from witnessing the birth of his son.  He turns to Ngor’s character, an alternative healer named Ho.  As Keaton’s disease progresses, the Ho character advises him to look within his heart–to make peace with both where he’s been and where he must go.   These scenes carried a special poignancy, as Ngor had spent years confronting his own fragile mortality.  He once told the People Magazine that the Academy Award made him content with his legacy.  “My heart is satisfied.  I have done something perfect.”  

“Now I am alone.”  

On the night of February 25, 1996, officers from the Los Angeles Police Department responded to a shooting in a Chinatown parking lot.  They found a middle-aged Asian man with multiple gunshot wounds, sprawled next to his Mercedes.  It was Haing S. Ngor.  He was pronounced dead on arrival.  Detectives initially ruled out a robbery:  Ngor’s wallet, with $3000 cash inside, was untouched.  His pockets hadn’t even been rifled.  

The Cambodian community immediately suspected that Ngor’s murder was an organized hit.  He spoke bluntly and often about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and Pol Pot’s influence could’ve spread just far enough to finally take out Haing Ngor once and for all.  It wasn’t long before investigators learned that this had indeed been a robbery:  Ngor had been wearing a Rolex watch and a gold locket around his neck.  Both were missing.  

By April 1996, the LAPD had arrested Jason Chan, Indra Lim, and Tak Sun Tam for Ngor’s murder.  They were members of the notorious Oriental Lazyboys gang.  All three were teenagers.  Authorities came to believe that the thieves demanded Ngor’s locket, and he refused to give it up.  The reason?  Inside was a picture of Huoy Ngor, his wife who had died in childbirth.  Haing had made a vow to never take it off, so they killed him for it.  As of 2020, the locket has never been recovered.  

Tributes to Ngor poured in.  “He was a man of great strength and courage,” Oliver Stone told The Los Angeles Times.  Dith Pran put it succinctly:  “He is like a twin with me.  He is like a co-messenger and now I am alone.”  Ngor himself had an eerily prescient opinion of his journey’s end.  “If I die now–OK!  This movie will live on for a hundred years.”  He clearly took some solace in that a meaningful message can outlive its messenger.  Ngor’s war was over, but still the battle goes on.

For better or worse, winning an Academy Award usually serves as the defining achievement of one’s life.  Much like the Heisman or Pulitzer, it’s pretty much guaranteed to precede your name in any obituary.  Ironically, Haing S. Ngor was both the embodiment of and exception to that rule.  Yes, in death, he was remembered as the guy who won the Oscar for that one movie.  But that only partially captures how special he was.  

Ngor was a man who had everything taken from him, only to respond by giving more than he could ever afford.  He was a victim, but he was also a survivor.  Ngor committed himself to being a voice for the silenced and a torch-bearer for humanity’s deepest darkness.  Even in death, his life reminds us that there is an unquantifiable–and therefore unconquerable–aspect to the human spirit.  Haing S. Ngor represents the best of us, a fact that has nothing to do with the awards he won.  

 

 

 

 

Author: Todd Wofford

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