Talent is thriving outside the spotlightStars are hailed, admired and imitated. However, their adoring public is fickle, and once celebrities lose the spotlight, it’s hard to get it back.
In the entertainment world, all kinds of stars come and go. Yet amid these “star wars,” there are actors, actresses and singers who quietly go about their business. They neither stand out nor lead a glamorous life, but they are the stalwarts of television dramas, films and stages. They are not as popular as leading entertainers, but they are first class nonetheless.
Joo Chul-hwan, a former television producer and now a media critic, met these entertainers. Mr. Joo, 49, received many awards for producing popular programs such as quiz shows for college students and entertainment programs during his career at MBC from 1983 to 2000. He is now a public relations professor at Ewha Womans University.
Mr. Joo wrote this series on the unsung performers for the JoongAng Ilbo.
No role is too hard for her
Jeong Hye-seon, 62, was born with the name Young-ja, but when she debuted as a television actress in 1961, she had another name made. Her mother went to a professional name-giver to make one for her daughter. “Hye” means kindness and “Seon” represents being ahead.
When she graduated from high school, her father got her an application for a test to become an actress at the TV station KBS. She passed the test to be among 26 persons selected from 2,700 applicants.
Her talent was evident even when she was young. While at Sudo Girls’ High School, she was a disc jockey, radio host and actress. She also stood out in speech, dance and singing.
She was somewhat reserved when young, but she could not help expressing herself.
Ms. Jeong appeared to be more mature than her actual age because of her composed behavior. Her acting career was on the rise. Directors said they thought highly of her accurate pronunciation.
She got her big break at a time when Koreans were strongly anti-communist.
Many older viewers remember her starring role as a North Korean spy in a KBS series that was based on true stories, which aired during the 1960s. She played the chief spy for the North Korean Communist Party in Japan. In the series, she ran a bookstore, which she used as a hideout.
Even though it was only a TV show, it drew the attention of the government. Ms. Jeong remembers how National Intelligence Service officials often visited the set of the TV show.
She received much fame from various TV series, but not fortune. Unlike actors and actresses nowadays who are courted by fashion companies to wear their clothes on television, back in Ms. Jeong’s time, most actresses had to buy their costumes. Being a perfectionist, Ms. Jeong often ordered clothes that she designed herself.
Recently, Ms. Jeong played two different mothers in two programs. One was a dedicated mother of a dying daughter in “Wanjeonhan Sarang” (Perfect Love). The other was the merciless mother of a son who is trying to marry a single mother in “Cheonghon” (Marriage Proposal).
As she played two contradictory roles in the same period, she earned praise for her ability to portray a wide range of characters.
The producer of “Cheonghon,” Gang Sin-hyo, said Ms. Jeong acts “not with techniques but with her heart.”
Over her long career, Ms. Jeong has done it all and has nothing left to prove. “I don’t have any roles I aspire to play,” Ms. Jeong said.
She’s also lived life on her own terms and on her own. She was divorced 30 years ago and never remarried.
“I have never lived my life according to a plan,” Ms. Jeong said. “I tried to live my life day by day. That was my goal.”
A life sustained by music
In a youth-obsessed Korean society, there are few singers in their 60s who are still making new albums. Seo Soo-nam, 61, is one of them.
Using a sports and food analogy to describe himself, Mr. Seo said, “I am like the toss in volleyball and the dressing in salad.”
Mr. Seo has also been playing the role of the kindly grandfather, taking his youthful counterparts under his wing. Television producers who have him as a guest on various shows say they see him encouraging and guiding younger entertainers.
Classical guitar has been his specialty since he was a junior in high school. Mr. Seo often sang Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” trying to imitate the American pop idol.
When he was a junior at Hanyang University majoring in chemistry, Mr. Seo won the second-highest award in an MBC radio competition held at Dongdaemun Stadium in 1962.
After the event, three strangers greeted him backstage: Choi Ung-sam, a music major at Seoul National University; Park Chang-hak, who later became a producer for KBS, and Ha Cheong-il, who later became his duet partner.
They suggested forming a four-person band. At that time four-person bands like Brothers Four and the Everly Brothers were big hits in the United States.
The four Koreans formed Arirang Brothers, and their first album came out in 1964, which included a hit like “Animal Farm,” for which Mr. Seo wrote the lyrics. But they met an obstacle: Mr. Seo was too tall. At 187 centimeters (6 feet, 2 inches), he stuck out too much from the other three members.
Mr. Seo did not give up. When he sang country music for American soldiers stationed in Korea, Jo Young-nam, a famous Korean singer, introduced him to Hyeon Hye-jeong, a radio actress. They formed a duet and produced a hit, “Jeongmalo Neomuhae” (You’ve Gone Too Far).
Unfortunately, the partnership dissolved after only one album. In 1969, Mr. Ha joined Mr. Seo to form another duet, which proved to be a good match. Together they released 11 albums in all.
Despite their stardom, they didn’t make a lot of money, so they were forced to get day jobs. In 1988, Mr. Ha opened a sporting goods store. As Mr. Ha’s business prospered, the two started going their separate ways.
Mr. Seo also opened private schools teaching singing and guitars, which proved to be unexpectedly successful, especially among married women.
However, Mr. Seo’s life came to a crossroads when his wife left him, leaving him to deal with her debts, which she accumulated while he was making money.
One day in October 2000, Mr. Seo said, he stood on a balcony at his apartment for a long time, agonizing over whether to jump.
He decided not to jump, but to embrace a new goal ― holding concerts every year. And he’s stuck to that goal. Now he also teaches at Yewon Arts University part time.
“Painful times helped me to grow,” Mr. Seo said.
Humble living is his motto
Lim Hyeon-sik, a 59-year-old actor, first started pursuing an acting career at MBC 35 years ago, and during that time, he credits his mother for keeping him grounded and helping him learn to appreciate music.
He’s said that his hobbies are “working on a farm” and “playing the violin,” both of which came from his mother, Bae An-sun, who often sang in front of him.
When he was a child, he found classical music records in his house, something only a few people owned. Those records fed his musical education, which also included violin lessons.
While learning the violin, “I always got whipped on my calf,” he said. But the strict discipline paid off, as Mr. Lim won an award at a radio station in Gwangju.
“There were not many who played violin, much less piano, at that time,” he said, smiling.
While he was in high school, he continued performing, but in a different setting. Mr. Lim played the violin while wearing a clown costume in a biblical drama. Later, he played Peter.
Mr. Lim lost his father early in his life. Lim Byeong-ha, who studied politics at a Japanese university and later became a Seoul Shinmun journalist, disappeared during the Korean War. All of a sudden his mother was a widow.
All that her relatives could tell her was “to wait.” His mother waited all her life, until she died two years ago at the age of 80.
Because of his father’s disappearance and violent anti-communism sentiment in Korea, Mr. Lim was forbidden from leaving the country for a while.
For his mother, Mr. Lim’s finding a job was a life-or-death matter. Mr. Lim, who attended Hanyang University as a theater and film arts major, won a coveted spot at the MBC broadcasting station. He was among 30 hires out of 5,000 applicants.
Asked how he beat out the competition, Mr. Lim confessed that a senior producer at MBC was a distant relative. When he applied for the job, Mr. Lim dressed in a white suit and visited the producer, who was then a complete stranger, with his mother.
Mr. Lim remembers what the producer told him at the time: “Bad-natured people and actors with no talent are always smug.”
He took those words to heart. The roles he first took were lowly ones, such as a pickpocket in a police drama.
However, people eventually discovered Mr. Lim’s talent, despite his lack of self-promotion. When he played the husband of a dysfunctional family, he was praised for playing the role “comically.” Mr. Lim also won an award as a supporting actor. But he is best remembered as a repair shop owner in “Three Families Under a Single Roof,” which ran nearly seven years.
Mr. Lim has three single daughters. Asked what kind of sons-in-law he wants, he said, “He must be as ordinary as I am and love his wife.” Mr. Lim is known for his devotion to his wife, who has been struggling with cancer.
Ex-child star at top of career
Instead of hearing a regular ringtone, those who call Yeo Woon-kay, a 64-year-old actress, can hear the theme song of a hit MBC television series that ended a few weeks ago. Ms. Yeo played a chief court lady in the Joseon Dynasty in “Daejanggeum,” a character wildly popular with viewers.
It was in 1949 when she first appeared on television as a third-grader at Maesan Primary School in Suwon. Ms. Yeo entered an acting competition, and Hong Eun-pyo, then an assistant principal and a playwright and composer, recognized her talent and singled her out for a children’s radio drama.
At that time, she saw a microphone for the first time. She also loved the Western-style dress the radio show host wore, because in Suwon, she saw women only in the seamless traditional one-piece skirt and coat. She thought her own purple traditional skirt and yellow coat were outdated.
During the radio show, she would sing: “Hush baby, go to sleep now. Don’t cry and go to sleep and your father will come home.” She played the organ as well.
While she was in Muhak Girls’ High School, she was a cheerleader and class leader, and also sang in a choir and tried gymnastics. She was just dying to show off.
Ms. Yeo entered Korea University in 1958, when the number of female students at the school jumped to 45, from fewer than 10 the previous year. She later joined a drama club in her school.
Her first role, at 19, was Mrs. Gibbs in “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder.
“It was the beginning of my role as a mother,” Ms. Yeo said, adding that she acted in the role of mothers throughout her college years.
In 1962, when drama school graduates formed a theater center, she joined her fellow actors and actresses there who are now well known. They moved to TBC, a broadcasting station that is now a part of KBS, two years later.
Ms. Yeo won two Dong-a theatrical awards, but she had to play all kinds of unattractive supporting roles on television.
“I have this disadvantage. I am homely,” she said, smiling.
When asked why she left the theater, Ms. Yeo said bluntly, “There was little money.”
Even though she’s been acting for a long time, she said she thinks she’s only just hitting her stride.
Ms. Yeo played many grandmothers in many popular television dramas such as “Trap of Youth” and “King and Concubine.”
She has three grandchildren. Asked what kind of grandmother she is, she said jokingly, “They don’t like me, and I just nag too much.”
by Joo Chul-hwan
More in Features
[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it