Takayo Tsubouchi Fischer ’55

September 01, 2010

By Mary Seymour

The Pursuit of Acting

Five years ago, actress Takayo Tsubouchi Fischer ’55 had just finished shooting The Pursuit of Happyness and was about to leave LA for her 50th Rollins reunion when she got a phone call: the director had decided to film an extra scene and needed her in it. “Now I always think of The Pursuit of Happyness as my fiftieth reunion that I missed,” she said with a regretful laugh.

In the film, Fischer plays Mrs. Chu, a daycare proprietress who explains to Will Smith that spelling “happiness” correctly isn’t what matters; having happiness is. It’s a fitting part for a woman who finds joy in everyday life and was unprecedentedly happy during her two years at Rollins.

Born to Japanese immigrants Chukuro and Kinko Tsubouchi, Fischer grew up on a farm in California. What little the family possessed disappeared when they were placed in Japanese internment camps—first in California, then Arkansas—during World War II. With barbed wire fences and machine guns stationed around the perimeter, these places were more like concentration camps, Fischer said. Yet a lifelong gift came out of those captive years: young Takayo fell in love with the theater, thanks to artists and performers in the camps who taught traditional Japanese singing, music, dance, and kabuki to anyone who was interested.

After the war ended, the Tsubouchi family moved to Chicago, where discrimination against Asian Americans was an unfortunate fact of life. “I got used to having nasty things said to me and being stared at,” she said. Fischer attended Hyde Park High School, then took a year off to work as a secretary and to apprentice with a summer-stock company before enrolling at Rollins.

“When I arrived at Rollins, the discrimination I’d experienced seemed to disappear,” recalled Fischer, who was one of Rollins’ first Asian-American students. Friends such as Virginia Nelson Spears ’55, Doane Randall Broggi ’55, Louise Clarke Young ’55, and Mary Martin Hayes ’55 introduced her to all-American life, from dancing at debut balls to showing physical affection.

Fischer took what she learned home with her. “When I left Chicago for Rollins my second year, I decided that for the first time I would hug and kiss my parents goodbye. Prior to that, I don’t remember being hugged or kissed by them. We were of a different culture. It was probably very uncomfortable for them, but we lived through it, and from then on, that was the normal way I would say hello and goodbye.”

She majored in theater—a bold choice at a time when most roles for Asian actresses were maids or prostitutes. In one Rollins production, Fischer played the daughter of an Englishman; the reviewer praised her performance and never commented on racial disparities in casting. “I think Rollins was ahead of its time for color-blind casting,” said Fischer, who, during her long and distinguished career has played more than her fair share of secretaries, servants, nurses, and prostitutes.

At the end of her sophomore year, Fischer left Rollins to marry engineer Dean Doran ’53 (now deceased) and settle in Massachusetts, where they had three children. Fischer dabbled in regional theater, then in 1958 snagged the part of Gwenny, a prostitute with no sex appeal, in Josh Logan’s Broadway production of The World of Suzie Wong.

Theater has always been Fischer’s first love. She’s performed The Vagina Monologues at the famed Apollo Theatre with playwright Eve Ensler, and toured Europe in Peter Sellars’ production of The Peony Pavilion. Sean Penn passed along his compliments for her performance as Mama-san in the play G.R. Point. She won a Drama-Logue Award for ensemble performance in Tea at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, and she’s been in numerous productions of Los Angeles’s East West Players, the oldest Asian-American theater company in America.

Nowadays, Fischer prefers movie and television work—“less memorizing”—and can be seen in such recent movies as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Memoirs of a Geisha, and War of the Worlds. She remembers with amusement how she called her daughter to find out who Keith Richards was when he showed up to act in Pirates of the Caribbean. “’Mom, everybody knows Keith Richards—he’s from the Rolling Stones, and all the girls are crazy about him,” her daughter answered.

After Fischer caught a glimpse of him, she called her daughter back. “You said all the girls are crazy about him, but he looks like a little old man. He’s skinny and wrinkly.” She revised her opinion after getting to know the rock star, who invited her to have bangers and mash cooked by his private chef. “He was warm and charming and wonderful,” she said. “I told my daughter, ‘Now I’m crazy about him.’”

Fischer’s television credits are also a mile long: She’s appeared in Boston Legal, Scrubs, Weeds, and The Forgotten, to name just a few. On the FX show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, she played a man—a North Korean bar owner named “Mr. Kim.”

Despite her long résumé, Fischer said her acting earnings have never added up to a real living. (In fact, her biggest purchase, a 1990 Lexus, came from the government reparation check for her internment during World War II.) For years she worked for an investment-banking firm in New York City. After she married for a second time, her husband, literary agent Sy Fischer, gladly supported her career. Now she’s returning the kindness by caring for him as he suffers from Alzheimer’s.

At 78, Takayo Fischer is still going strong. A five-foot-one dynamo who practices tai chi and appears years younger than her age, she just landed a small part in the big-budget biopic Moneyball. She plays—guess what?—Brad Pitt’s secretary, but she’s thrilled to be working. And, she says, Pitt and Jonah Hill are thoughtful, kind, and giving.

Then again, Fischer doesn’t seem to have a bad word to say about anybody. She has a warmly upbeat attitude toward everything, despite all the servants she’s played, despite her years in relocation camps, despite the insults she’s endured as a Japanese American. “My philosophy of life is that no one is going to give you happiness,” she said. “You have to set your mind that you’re going to be happy.”

Call it happiness or happyness—it really doesn’t matter. However it’s spelled, Takayo Fischer has it.

Takayo Fischer ’55 returned to Rollins for her 55th reunion in March 2010. It was the first time she’d been back on campus since 1952. “Coming back, there’s an instant bonding,” she said of her weekend among old friends and classmates.

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