Star-Bulletin Features


Tuesday, January 26, 1999



By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Brian Stokes Mitchell says his ethnicity has been a
mixed blessing for him as an actor. He has won a variety
of roles in part due to his looks, but sometimes because
of those looks, directors and producers "don't know
what to do with me."



Duking It Out

The actor playing Duke
Kahanamoku understands
the protests over his casting

By Tim Ryan
Star-Bulletin

Tapa

Brian Stokes Mitchell strides out of the elevator at the Ilikai Hotel, tall, dignified and cerebral, his black hair showing some gray around the temples. This is the man who will portray Hawaii's beloved Duke Kahanamoku in the CBS two-night, miniseries, "Too Rich: The Doris Duke Story," tentatively scheduled to air next month.

And what "Stokes," as he is known, wants to talk about right out of the blocks is his respect for Kahanamoku and the uproar over his being cast as the icon.

Several anonymous callers to the office of Margaret Doversola, the local casting director for the miniseries, contested the casting of a non-Hawaiian in the role. Stokes is African American, German and Native American. Casting for the Kahanamoku part was not done locally, but by CBS.

"Right after I auditioned, like three weeks ago, I started doing research about Duke," Stokes said. "I called people, bought some books from Hawaii about him. I understood how important this man is to Hawaiians and Hawaii."



Hawaii's Duke, whose life
Mitchell has been studying.



But he also asked casting officials if Hawaiians had even been considered for the part, which places Kahanamoku in his 40s during a time he reportedly was romantically involved with the billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke.

"I was told by CBS and my agent that a casting call went out here, but no one of Hawaiian ancestry was available or qualified to play the part," Stokes said. "It's tough because you not only have to find someone ideally who is pure-blooded Hawaiian, but a certain age, physique, with the ability to act.

"Unfortunately, in Hawaii there are not many places for actors to develop their craft. So I ended up being the second choice, actually."

Stokes' research on the Hawaiian surfer and Olympic champion quickly told him the role was a formidable one.

"The most important thing I found out was that Duke Kahanamoku was a man of heart, who possessed a great spirit, someone with innate integrity, and a man of very few words," he said. "Of course that makes it strange for a film, because we really can't portray him exactly, since this is show business and the character must talk, perhaps more than he normally would."

Another problem is that the movie doesn't focus much on Kahanamoku's incredible athleticism in or out of the water.

"So my job, as I really see it," Stokes said, "is to try to capture that other essence, but I know no matter what I do it won't be 100-percent accurate. The bottom line is this is called the 'Doris Duke Story,' not the 'Duke Kahanamoku Story.' "

The miniseries stars Lauren Bacall as Doris Duke and Richard Chamberlain as her butler, Bernard Lafferty. A younger actress plays Duke during the years she is involved with Kahanamoku.

Stokes has a lengthy resume from a career that began at age 17 in San Diego. Asked his age, he will only say he is in his 40s.

He starred as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the stage epic "Ragtime," for which he received a Tony nomination, had a stint on Broadway in "Jelly's Last Jam," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Oh Kay!" and "Mail," for which he garnered a Theatre World Award.

"Ragtime" is set at the turn of the century, intermingling historical and fictional characters to tell the tale of how America really came together as a nation.

Stokes also has had equal success in regional theatre as well as film and television. After moving to Los Angeles from San Diego with the Twelfth Night Repertory Company, he won a role on "Roots: The Next Generation."

But professional experience alone does not make him more qualified than someone of Polynesian descent who has experience in front of the camera. Stokes, who has portrayed African Americans, Hispanics, Middle Eastern ethnicities and Native Americans, believes the "protest" of some people in the Hawaiian community over his casting as Kahanamoku is "a very good thing."

"I wasn't surprised at all when I heard about the protest," he said. "I completely agree that a Hawaiian should be the first consideration. It's like, finally, there's an opportunity for a Hawaiian to play a meaty role and they select someone else.

"But the protest is a positive thing because people -- and I'm talking mainly Caucasian directors and producers and casting executives -- need to be made sensitive to this problem. Frankly, the ones that have the harder time getting it are Caucasians -- most of the people who put productions together -- because they're the ruling tribe of the world."

Color barriers have been broken in instances when Italians have played Greeks, and Germans have played Arabs, "but it's never reciprocal," Stokes said. "It's Caucasians playing Caucasians; it's very rare that a Polynesian, or anyone with dark skin, plays a part meant for a white guy."

Stokes says he doesn't relate more to one part of his mixed ethnicity than another. And his "look" has been a mixed blessing.

"It's allowed me to play lots of parts because I fit in so many places. On 'Trapper John' some viewers thought I was Jewish. But because I don't look completely one ethnicity or the other, sometimes (directors and producers) don't know what to do with me."

Stokes' concern is to ensure he portrays Kahanamoku with dignity and respect.

"Editors and directors have control of editing the product to the way they want it. That's scary, but out of my hands. I can tell the Hawaiian community that I've been as honest and true as an actor can be to this character."

went out here, but no one of Hawaiian ancestry was available or qualified to play the part," Stokes said. "It's tough because you not only have to find someone ideally who is pure-blooded Hawaiian, but a certain age, physique, with the ability to act.

"Unfortunately, in Hawaii there are not many places for actors to develop their craft. So I ended up being the second choice, actually."

Stokes' research on the Hawaiian surfer and Olympic champion quickly told him the role was a formidable one.

"The most important thing I found out was that Duke Kahanamoku was a man of heart, who possessed a great spirit, someone with innate integrity, and a man of very few words," he said. "Of course that makes it strange for a film, because we really can't portray him exactly, since this is show business and the character must talk, perhaps more than he normally would."

Another problem is the movie doesn't focus much on Kahanamoku's incredible athleticism in or out of the water.

"So my job, as I really see it," Stokes said, "is to try to capture that other essence, but I know no matter what I do it won't be 100-percent accurate. The bottom line is this is called the 'Doris Duke Story,' not the 'Duke Kahanamoku Story.' "

The miniseries stars Lauren Bacall as Doris Duke and Richard Chamberlain as her butler, Bernard Lafferty. A younger actress plays Duke during the years she is involved with Kahanamoku.

Stokes has a lengthy resume from a career that began at age 17 in San Diego. Asked his age, he will only say he is in his 40s.

He starred as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the stage epic "Ragtime," for which he received a Tony nomination, had a stint on Broadway in "Jelly's Last Jam," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Oh Kay!" and "Mail," for which he garnered a Theatre World Award.

Stokes has had equal success in regional theatre, as well as film and television. After moving to Los Angeles from San Diego with the Twelfth Night Repertory Company, he won a role on "Roots: The Next Generation."

But professional experience alone does not make him more qualified and Stokes, who has portrayed African Americans, Hispanics, Middle Eastern ethnicities and Native Americans, believes the "protest" over his casting as Kahanamoku is "a very good thing."

"I wasn't surprised at all when I heard about the protest," he said. "I completely agree that a Hawaiian should be the first consideration. It's like, finally, there's an opportunity for a Hawaiian to play a meaty role and they select someone else.

"But the protest is a positive thing because people -- and I'm talking mainly Caucasian directors and producers and casting executives -- need to be made sensitive to this problem.

"Frankly, the ones that have the harder time getting it are Caucasians -- most of the people who put productions together -- because they're the ruling tribe of the world."

Color barriers have been broken in instances when Italians have played Greeks, and Germans have played Arabs, "but it's never reciprocal," Stokes said. "It's Caucasians playing Caucasians; it's very rare that a Polynesian, or anyone with dark skin, plays a part meant for a white guy."

Stokes says he doesn't relate more to one part of his mixed ethnicity than another. And his "look" has been a mixed blessing.

"It's allowed me to play lots of parts because I fit in so many places. On 'Trapper John' some viewers thought I was Jewish. But because I don't look completely one ethnicity or the other, sometimes (directors and producers) don't know what to do with me."

Stokes' concern is to ensure he portrays Kahanamoku with dignity and respect.

"Editors and directors have control of editing the product to the way they want it. That's scary, but out of my hands. I can tell the Hawaiian community that I've been as honest and true as an actor can be to this character."



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