February 27, 1996 in Nation/World

Killing Fields Survivor Killed In U.S. Cambodian Exile And Oscar Winner Haing Ngor Gunned Down In L.A.

Los Angeles Times
 

Academy Award-winning actor Haing S. Ngor - who survived the savage horrors of the Khmer Rouge before starring in “The Killing Fields,” a movie about the brutality in his native Cambodia - was found shot to death outside his apartment near Dodger Stadium, police said Monday.

Investigators said the 55-year-old actor apparently was shot in the torso about 8:30 p.m. Sunday as he got out of his car, which was parked in the carport of his two-bedroom apartment in an aging building. No suspects were identified and none was in custody, according to police Lt. Al Moen.

Director Oliver Stone, who gave Ngor a role in the 1993 film, “Heaven and Earth,” recalled the actor Monday as “a man of great strength and courage.

“For him to be killed so senselessly - whatever the motive - shows us that violence is no less a threat in the streets of our own cities than it was in Cambodia,” Stone said.

Thirteen years ago, Ngor was plucked from obscurity as a $400-a-month counselor at the Chinatown Service Center and given a leading role in “The Killing Fields,” a movie whose graphic depiction of life under the Khmer Rouge showed Americans the grim reality of the Cambodian holocaust which claimed millions of lives.

The film was based on the memoirs of New York Times reporter Sidney Schanberg, played by veteran actor Sam Waterston.

Ngor, who played Schanberg’s translator and photographer, Dith Pran, won an Oscar as the best supporting actor in 1984. He was the first non-professional in more than 30 years to win an Academy Award for acting.

“The Killing Fields” depicts the collapse of Cambodia in 1975, the torture of Pran at the hands of Khmer Rouge revolutionaries who seized the nation, and Pran’s eventual escape to Thailand - events terrifyingly similar to those of Ngor’s own life.

According to his highly successful autobiography - “Haing Ngor, a Cambodian Odyssey” - Ngor was a physician who divided his time between military hospitals and a lucrative private practice before the fall of Phnom Penh. A chauffeured Mercedes ferried him to and from work, and his evenings were spent at fashionable French bistros.

All that ended abruptly in 1975, when the victorious Khmer Rouge drove Phnom Penh’s citizens from the city. Tens of thousands fled in terror, among them Ngor, who left a patient dying on an operating table.

The young doctor and his family resettled in a village, where they were treated as “war slaves” - chattel to be used, or abused, at the whim of Angka, the dreaded new “organization on high.”

Doctors were among the educated professionals singled out by the Khmer Rouge for execution, and Ngor survived by pretending to be an ignorant taxi driver. He said he was forced to stand by, silent, as Khmer Rouge medics mistakenly injected a young patient with drugs he knew would prove fatal.

Caught scavenging for wild roots to supplement his family’s officially sanctioned diet of rice gruel, Ngor was sentenced to prison. There he watched as women were tortured and killed.

“Never had I seen deliberate killings before, carried out by professionals, in front of terrified spectators who knew that their own turns to die would come soon.”

Ngor’s turn came later, when he was crucified, burned and deprived of food and water for four days. But he survived, only to be returned to a miserable existence as a field worker.

Ngor’s father, his wife and several other members of his family died, but he eventually escaped to Thailand, finally reaching the United States and his new life as a counselor in Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1980.

“He was very dedicated and very much concerned in the community,” said Deborah Ching, the center’s executive director.

Five years later, Ngor rocketed to stardom in “The Killing Fields,” but his success did not go to his head. “He seemed to be very level-headed about it,” Ching said. “He saw an opportunity, but was clear about what he wanted to do: help other people. What he was concerned about was health services, medical services for refugees.”

In recent years, Ngor spent much of his time and his income supporting international refugee groups. He was instrumental in the formation of two refugee organizations - the Brussels-based Aid for Displaced Persons, and the Paris-based Enfants D’Angkor - and he helped launch and sustain relief funds for flood victims and for purchasing hospital supplies. He also was active in the Cambodian community in Long Beach.

“People will be saddened,” said Sovann Tith, director of the United Cambodian Center in Long Beach. “Because of the role he played, he informed the world about the four years of hell that we went through. That movie made people aware of what went on in Cambodia.”


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