THE LIFELESS BODY WAS FOUND shot in an alley behind the nondescript apartment building in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, the latest casualty in an area plagued by violence. This time, however, shock over the killing registered not just in the neighborhood but in Hollywood and well beyond. The victim, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, won the 1984 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Killing Fields—the first nonprofessional to win an Oscar in nearly 40 years. Yet Ngor, who had trained as a doctor in his native Cambodia, liked to remind people that he wasn’t really an amateur. “After all,” he would say ruefully, “I spent four years in the Khmer Rouge school of acting.”
And it was true. During the four-year reign of terror engineered by Pol Pot and the Communist guerrillas in Cambodia in the 1970s, Ngor had been forced to disguise his class to avoid execution. Born into a prosperous family, he was practicing medicine in the capital of Phnom Penh in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge overran the city. One of the goals of the guerrillas was to wipe out the country’s educated elite. Ngor, along with his family, as well as his fiancée, a university teacher named Chang My Hoa, were taken to a camp and forced to work as laborers.
In the following years, Ngor endured terrible abuse. He smashed rocks from dawn to midnight and was made to wear a yoke and plow the earth like an ox. His tormentors starved and flogged him, clamped his head in a vise, cut off part of his little finger and strung him up on a cross above a smoldering fire for four days in order to make him confess to being college-educated. To save himself, Ngor insisted he was nothing but a taxi driver. The ruse ultimately worked, but his greatest torture was yet to come. In June 1978, Chang went into labor with the couple’s son. She needed a cesarean section, but Ngor, who as it happened had specialized in gynecology, had no surgical instruments. Chang died an agonizing death in his arms. ” ‘Take care of yourself, sweet,’ she said to me,” recalled Ngor. “Then she was gone.”
Ngor escaped from Cambodia in 1979 after Vietnamese forces defeated Pol Pot. Most of his immediate family—including his father, mother, two brothers and two sisters—had been killed in the camps, so the next year, with $4 in his pocket, he emigrated to Los Angeles, where a surviving brother lived. He answered a casting call for The Killing Fields, a true-life account of the Pol Pot era. Out of 7,000 other Cambodian candidates, he was selected to play the part of Dith Pran, a Cambodian interpreter who saved the life of New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg and other Western journalists but then disappeared into the labor camps himself.
After the hoopla of his Academy Award, Ngor didn’t take on many roles, although he did appear in Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth and in My Life, which starred Michael Keaton. But his brief screen success didn’t seem to bother Ngor. His passion became helping to improve conditions in Cambodia. He lived frugally in Los Angeles in his two-bedroom apartment, pouring most of his income from movies and television into such causes as building a hospital at a Cambodian-refugee camp in Thailand. “He never bought anything for himself,” says the Rev. Jack Ong, a friend and fellow actor. “The major mission of his life was to save Cambodia.” The actor, believed to be somewhere between 45 and 55, was also forever outspoken in his condemnation of the Khmer Rouge, who killed an estimated 2 million people and are still active within Cambodia.
Some of Ngor’s friends and relatives speculate that his political activities might have led to his murder. But others close to him discount that possibility, saying that he had received no threats recently and that he was probably a victim of a robbery attempt. After the killing the Los Angeles police were at a loss as to the motive, though they did indicate that Ngor still had money on him. Whatever the case, those who knew Ngor were deeply stricken by his death. “The Cambodians believe that the spirit returns after death,” says Schanberg, now a freelance journalist, who met Ngor during the filming of the movie. “Ngor’s spirit will always be around. You just don’t kill a spirit—not his.”
SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING and JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles and RON ARIAS in New York City