Director Robert Wise’s epic war movie The Sand Pebbles (1966) starring Steve McQueen and Candice Bergen has been getting a lot of press lately due to its restored director’s cut being re-released theatrically in selected cities and on DVD. Click here to read more. One actor who almost made it into the movie but didn’t was Sixties starlet Irene Tsu.
During the 1960’s, beautiful Chinese actress Irene Tsu played a variety of “native” girls in a number of popular drive-in films including Sword of Ali Baba, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style with Elvis. Tsu had poise and talent, which was noticed by producer/writer Arthur C. Pierce who cast her as a space traveler in Women of the Prehistoric Planet. It was her first starring role. She then played a South Vietnamese spy in The Green Berets, John Wayne’s homage to our boys in Vietnam before becoming part of the spy boom. She portrayed a geisha girl in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feature Karate Killers and a fashion model in the secret agent spoof Caprice starring Doris Day.
But the one role that got away from her was the part of Maily in The Sand Pebbles. The heartache of losing the part almost made her quit the business. She was director Robert Wise’s first choice for Maily in his epic film but studio machinations kept her from getting the role. Commenting in my book Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinema, Irene Tsu recalled,
“I interviewed with Robert Wise a few times and he set up an expensive screen test for me on a massive set with other actors. I thought I did very well but then weeks went by with no word. I went to see Wise and he told me he wanted me for the part but the producers overruled him. They gave the part to Marayat Andriane who was rumored to be Fox head Darryl Zanuck’s current mistress. When I found out I burst into tears and hoped never to have to go through something like that again.”
Though Irene was devastated, she wound up with a contract with 20th Century-Fox because “I had to sign with them before they allowed the screen test. For a short time I was treated like a star of the Golden Age. They gave me my own dressing room that was as big as a house. I even had my own parking space. Unfortunately, after only one film the studio went bankrupt. My contract was dropped along with all other such commitments Fox had.”
Undeterred, Irene kept working vigorously. The 1970’s saw Irene mature into a more than fine actress as she progressed from exotic parts to playing doctors, lawyers, and scientists in both film and television. And she is still active today.