It was 1985 when Dr. Haing S. Ngor won the Oscar as best supporting actor for his portrayal of Dith Pran, a real-life refugee whose escape from Cambodia after the fall to the Khmer Rouge is vividly depicted in "The Killing Fields."
In his acceptance speech, Ngor, a native Cambodian whose own escape from the Khmer Rouge could make a harrowing movie, offered a brief, heartfelt speech expressing his hope that the film would make the world more aware of and sympathetic toward the plight of his people.During the past five years he has continued acting in films and television, but his personal life has been devoted to fulfilling that hope and personally aiding the Cambodian refugees with whom he so strongly identifies.
Ngor was in Salt Lake City over the weekend to help the Salt Lake Acting Company celebrate its 20th anniversary, then on Monday he spoke to students at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He was invited by Jusak Bernhard, who is currently starring in SLAC's production of "M. Butterfly." Bernhard and Ngor became friends while making an episode of "Highway to Heaven," together some years ago.
During an interview Monday evening, Ngor and his partner Jack Ong discussed a variety of subjects, ranging from Ngor's years of persecution under the Khmer Rouge to his acting career in America.
But the discussion kept returning to his passion for spreading the word about the sufferings of his fellow Cambodians.
In just the past few months Ngor has established an organization to distribute medical supplies, food, etc., to Cambodian refugees - the Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation, which collects funds and distributes goods through The Project for Cambodia.
And he dreams of seeing peace restored to his country so he may return to his medical practice. "It's my dream that I can go back to a medical career, but I have to go back to Cambodia to help my people. I have to go back.
"I can say it will not be that long. I can go tomorrow, but as for peace in Cambodia, I don't think it will be imminent."
Ngor grew up in poverty in the capital city of Phnom Penh, but at an early age knew he wanted to become a doctor. He trained at a French medical school in Phnom Penh, learned nine languages and earned his medical degree.
After building a successful practice he saw it all come to an end in 1975 when Khmer Rouge guerrillas burst into an operating room where he was with a patient.
In the confusion that followed with the fall of Phnom Penh, Ngor lost contact with his family and over the next four years was repeatedly captured and tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Eventally, he escaped to Thailand and later emigrated to the United States.
He took courses at UCLA, intending to become an American licensed physician, but became sidetracked when, at the urging of friends, he auditioned for the role in "The Killing Fields."
Ngor, whose next film, "Mind Games," will have him playing Lou Diamond Phillips' father. , says acting is enjoyable but not as fulfilling as returning to his homeland as a physician would be.
"But I put it on hold right now. It is the right time to help my people, and I feel I need to use my clout (as an actor who has access to the media) to do that."
Meanwhile, those Those interested in contributing to or inquiring about the Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation and The Project for Cambodia may write to P.O. Box 1198, Venice, CA 90294, or phone (213) 392-6265.