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Hollywood's 12 Worst Cases of Ethnic Miscasting

The Lone Ranger Disney

When it was first announced that this week's "The Lone Ranger" was going to star Johnny Depp as the Native American warrior Tonto, fans around the country scratched their heads ... and not just because they were wondering what he would look like with a giant dead bird for a hat. Depp as Tonto? Really?

Depp, as it turns out, does have some Native American ancestry and was recently adopted by the Comanche nation. But his role as Tonto and the subsequent casting of William Fichtner as the Japanese villain Shredder in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" did get us thinking about one of the most insidious aspects of Hollywood's moviemaking machine: namely, their ongoing insensitivity and downright obliviousness when it comes to casting ethnic characters.

So with that in mind, here's a look at some of the most egregious examples. Because the only color that seems to matter in Hollywood is green.

1. Charlton Heston in 'Touch of Evil' (1958)

Touch of Evil Universal

First off, this Orson Welles noir is a minor masterpiece, and it's not like Charlton Heston is bad in it. He is, however, Mexican in it, as he plays a south of the border copper investigating a car bombing gone bad (as if there is any other kind of car bombing). Given how close Hollywood is to Mexico, it seems unlikely there was a shortage of Mexican actors who could've played the part instead. Perhaps the studio was wary about the film's more progressive subtext, as Heston's character is married to the decidedly non-Mexican Janet Leigh. One step forward, two steps back.

2. Al Pacino in 'Scarface' (1983)

Scarface Universal

Speaking of non-Latino guys playing Latino characters, the most famous of them all has to be Al Pacino as Cuban defector Tony Montana in Brian De Palma's cult classic "Scarface." Pacino's fake accent has since been immortalized by generations of catchphrase-spewing dudes — and it was equally appreciated at the time, as Pacino earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. Whether or not any of those members of the Hollywood Foreign Press were Cuban, however, is another question.

3. Mickey Rooney in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (1961)

Breakfast at Tiffany's Paramount

One of the most offensive examples of whitewashing in film history has to be Mickey Rooney as the buck-toothed Japanese caricature Mr. Yunioshi in the hit 1961 romance "Breakfast at Tiffany's." This is a case where Hollywood had no interest in casting an actual Japanese star because the over-the-top racial parody was the whole point of the role. Rooney has since voiced regret over the role, but when you're over 700 years old, you're bound to have a few regrets. They just usually aren't this horrific.

4. Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time' (2010)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Disney

For those who are geographically challenged, Persia is basically part of Iran. You know, near the Persian Gulf, where people speak the Persian language. Where Persian rugs are from. The region around the ancient land of Persis. Jake Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, is from Los Angeles and is not Persian in any way. That fact didn't dissuade Disney from casting him in the lead role of "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," though. Hey, the name Gyllenhaal at least sounds kind of ethnic, right? Anyone?

5. John Wayne in 'The Conqueror' (1956)

The Conqueror RKO

Some of the casting choices on this list are offensive. Some are bizarre. But this one is just kind of ridiculously awesome, because in 1956, John Wayne — you know, JOHN WAYNE — played legendary Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan. We're not sure what anyone was thinking with this one, but we're glad they did it, because it's just so stupid it's amazing.

6. Lawrence Olivier in 'Othello' (1956)

Othello Warner Bros.

This, on the other hand, is a grade-A forehead slapper. In fact, there really aren't foreheads big enough to slap. It's not that Sir Lawrence Olivier, shouldn't have appeared in this adaptation of William Shakespeare's classic play. After all, he was one of the greatest actors of his generation, if not all time. No, the issue here is that he played the title role of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Who, like just about every other Moor, is black. Not that blackface in feature adaptations of "Othello" was new or even unusual; Orson Welles, who was responsible for "Touch of Evil" earlier on this list, played Othello himself in a 1952 feature version. But really, guys. Enough is enough.

7. Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in 'Memoirs of a Geisha' (2005)

Memoirs of a Geisha Columbia Pictures

One thing that's important to note is that Hollywood is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to miscasting ethnic roles. And no film illustrates this better than "Memoirs of a Geisha," which starred Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. Geisha, of course, are Japanese, while both actresses are Chinese. That not only sent Japan into fits, it also seriously angered China as well; the idea of their top female stars playing geisha didn't exactly go over well considering the fact that the Japanese military's World War II legacy of forcing Chinese civilians into prostitution remains a major political hot button issue between the nations to this day. But hey, it's fine because they all look alike, right Hollywood?

8. Fisher Stevens in 'Short Circuit' (1986)

Short Circuit TriStar Pictures

Let's get this out of the way up front: Fisher Stevens is cool. The guy doesn't get enough credit, something that is all too obvious when you consider that his most famous role is as Ben Jabituya in the terrible robot film "Short Circuit."  In fact, Jabituya was the breakout character in the movie, which in retrospect is kind of an indictment of our culture as a whole considering the comic relief aspect is almost entirely derived from Stevens declaiming malapropisms in a thick Indian accent. Best of all, Hollywood is currently working on a remake. What are the chances that, a quarter of a century later, they'll cast an actual Indian as Jabituya? Yeah, we're not holding our breath, either.

9. Christopher Lee in 'The Face of Fu Manchu' (1965)

The Face of Fu Manchu CBS

Given that the character of Fu Manchu was basically the walking embodiment of the Yellow Peril stereotype, you might have expected the villainous Chinese character to gently fade away into obscurity when the popular series of pulp novels by Sax Rohmer ended with the author's death in 1959. Only, you would have been wrong, because the character's popularity soared again in the mid-'60s thanks to a very unlikely source: Christopher Lee, best known to modern audiences for roles like Saruman in "The Lord of the Rings." Not only did Lee play Fu Manchu, he played him in no fewer than five films between 1965 and 1969. Think on that the next time you try to grow a mustache.

10. Rob Schneider in 'I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry' (2007) and '50 First Dates' (2004)

I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry Universal

Blackface? Sure. Yellowface? Happens. Rob Schneider masquerading as a native Hawaiian? Now that's kind of unexpected. We say "kind of," because Schneider's turn in "50 First Dates" is only one example of the alleged comedian's predilection for playing ethnic dress-up; he also appeared in the uncredited role of 'Asian Minister' in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry." In that case, though, he was actually the least offensive thing about the film, so ... hmm.

11. Eddie Murphy in 'The Nutty Professor' (1996)

The Nutty Professor Universal

Speaking of comedic license, Eddie Murphy has long had a habit of appearing as multiple characters in many of his films, including characters that are of other ethnicities. In "The Nutty Professor," for example, he cameos as Lance Perkins, an obvious parody of exercise guru Richard Simmons. So is this cool? Well, legendary comedian and actor Peter Sellers was also renowned for playing multiple roles in his movies (such as in "Dr. Strangelove"), yet this didn't prevent him from being heavily criticized for portraying an Indian character in the 1968 comedy, "The Party." Artistic license? We'll let you be the judge.

12. Everyone in 'Cloud Atlas' (2012)

Cloud Atlas Warner Bros.

Another somewhat unusual case is last fall's sci-fi epic "Cloud Atlas." In this instance, directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski seem to have made the decision to go with ethnically inappropriate casting choices for artistic rather than strictly commercial reasons. That's because the movie is kinda/sorta about reincarnation and they apparently thought the theme would be easier to present if they stuck with the same actors in each new time period. Still, the result is squicky stuff like Englishman Jim Sturgess playing a Korean character by means of prosthetic eye makeup. We get what they were going for, but ... maybe they shouldn't have gone for it.

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