PASADENA, Calif. — When actress Tamlyn Tomita was in elementary school, she clashed in lots of playground scuffles. It wasn’t that the petite brunette was particularly aggressive. But when the kids would taunt her about her ethnicity, she would come out swinging.
“It happens to a lot of people who aren’t ‘American-faced,’ ” she says. “When they ask what are you? Where do you come from? ‘I’m from here.’ I was probably 8 when we moved to Northridge (Calif.). They said, ‘What are you? Where are you from?’
“I didn’t understand the question till I went home and my father and mother had to explain it to me. ‘Your father’s from here, but grandfather and grandmother are from Japan and your mother is from Okinawa and the Philippines.’ In elementary school you hear those playground taunts and you start to stand up for yourself,” she says.
“Since I was the eldest, I got into a lot of street fights. It wasn’t just blabbing off. It was being smart enough or articulate enough or taking a stand or responding or reacting, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. How dare you say that?’ And then I would punch them.”
‘I never hit first’
The last incident happened in junior high and brought her father to the principal’s office. “The reason why was these two boys had made fun of me and actually kicked me first. So my dad, being a policeman, got those two kids reprimanded. And I finally realized that taking a stand — not hitting first — was the good thing. It was just defending myself and my brothers too. I never hit first. If they came at me, I would start yapping and we would get into a scuffle and I made sure I finished the fight. I’m always very proud of that because people always think I’m so polished.”
That classy demeanor is one reason Tomita seems perfect as the elegantly polished but unwavering chairman of the foundation that runs San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital on ABC’s hit “The Good Doctor.”
One of the show’s executive producers is David Shore, best known for “House.” He gave her one bit of advice about her character before filming began: “She speaks quietly, and she doesn’t speak often. Because what she says is important. She doesn’t need to get messy because she’s not a doctor, she’s an administrator … But when she speaks, you better listen because her word is law,” he told her.
It’s a new realm for Tomita, who has played a doctor more times than she can count and has co-starred in shows like “JAG,” “Law & Order: L.A.,” “24” and “Eureka.”
She didn’t start out to be an actress and was majoring in history at UCLA when filmmakers were searching for a girl to star in “Karate Kid Part II.”
As queen of the Japanese Nisei Festival, Tomita was among a group of young girls asked to audition for the role. “I jumped through the hoops. I met Ralph Maccio, met Jerry Weintraub, the last of the great producers, and (director) John Avildsen who passed away this year. And I got the job,” she says.
It was a shock, adds Tomita. “I had no agenda. I had no desire to — I just thought it was a fine opportunity to find out how it works in Hollywood: people ask you to memorize some lines, put on a costume and act like somebody else. It was really an adventure for me.”
Buoyed by family
She earned her degree and continued her acting adventure with few interruptions until her father died of leukemia at 51. “That was the roughest,” she shakes her head. “My brother beneath me was stationed in Korea in the Army, and my youngest brother was a Marine about to deploy about ’89-’90, the escalation of Desert Shield to Desert Storm. My mother, being a home taker-care-of, she was left alone. It was really difficult.
“I wasn’t a very happy person, but you try to escape in watching movies or doing movies or telling stories. By God’s grace, I found myself with the assistance of family.”
When her grandfather immigrated, he was sponsored by the Quakers and Tomita was raised in the Japanese-American Christian school.
Married once, she’s now engaged to her sweetheart of 13 years, actor Daniel Blinkoff. They just bought a house together in a suburb of L.A. and rustle three cats. They’ve yet to set a date.
When she first started acting, her parents gave her a year to “reassess,” she says. “They wanted to protect their young daughter from the evils and the tawdriness. They didn’t want me to find myself on the casting couch where my dad couldn’t rescue me or my mom couldn’t say, ‘Did you see how that man looked?’ ”
Her mother still reminds her to brush her hair, she laughs. “I’m so-and-so age and my mother still treats me like I’m 11. It’s coming out of love.”