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AHN, PHILSON
(1912–2001). American actor.

IMDB credits Philson Ahn is one of this encyclopedia's feel-good stories. After resolving to celebrate his acting career in science fiction film, despite its extreme brevity (one role), I received some messages from his son, who provided valuable biographical information, and it seemed that the late actor's entire family was quite pleased that he was finally receiving some recognition.

The son of Korean diplomat Dosan Ahn Chang Ho, Philson Ahn belonged to a family of overachievers, including his older brother, actor Philip Ahn (with whom he is often confused), who enjoyed a forty-year career of mostly minor roles until succumbing to lung cancer in 1978; younger brother Ralph Ahn, also an actor; and his younger sister, Susan Ahn Cuddy, the first woman to serve as a gunnery officer in the U.S. Navy and later a prominent community leader in Los Angeles. Upon enrolling at UC Berkeley, Philson originally wished to become an architect, but he was persuaded to major in chemistry in order to better assist the Koreans in resisting the Japanese. To earn extra money to finance his college education (his son suspects), he then drifted in small, uncredited film performances, undoubtedly with the assistance of older brother Philip, already established in the industry; and if the Internet Movie Database is to be believed, he only garnered two credited roles—the more prominent one as the Saturnian Prince Tallen in the Buck Rogers serial (1939).

Granted, this was not a prestigious venue (indeed, one theorizes that Philip was first offered the part, but turned it down and suggested his brother instead), and granted, the producers were undoubtedly casting an Asian-American in the part solely because they prejudicially thought that an Asian face would seem more alien to their young audiences than a Caucasian face. Still, this represented a rare opportunity for an Asian-American actor of that era to portray a figure with authority and dignity, and Philson, I think, acquitted himself rather well. While not entirely unable to overcome the tendency in these serials to deliver lines in the stilted manner of performers in a high school play, he persuasively conveyed that he was a man who expected and deserved respect; he was genuinely likable, so that one could readily believe that he was a beloved figure among his people; he made his improbable friendship with visiting Earthman Buck Rogers seem sincere and heartfelt; and since Rogers spent much of his time rescuing Prince Tallen, instead of female lead Wilma Deering, Tallen effectively functioned as the emotional centerpiece of the drama. Audiences came to care about his fate, and that was a major reason why they were rooting for Buck Rogers to save him and his people from the insidious schemes of Killer Kane. If not a remarkable performance, one can say that it was a memorable one.

This role might have jumpstarted Philson's career, since there were plans for a second Buck Rogers serial that surely would have included the reappearance of Prince Tallen; however, the relatively unenthusiastic response to Buck Rogers inspired producers to instead film a third Flash Gordon serial, and Philson returned to the obscurity of tiny, uncredited roles. Finally, feeling no genuine desire to stand in the spotlight, Philson retired from acting to work as an engineer at Hughes Aircraft, where he enjoyed a long career and reportedly had encounters with Wernher von Braun and Howard Hughes himself. He lived long enough that he could have earned a modest income and basked in the admiration of fans by coming to science fiction conventions and reminiscing about Buck Rogers, but he carried on with his private life until he died in 2001, succumbing to pneumonia after hip surgery, clearly preferring the obscurity that he had achieved. However, it is sometimes the task of science fiction film historians to retrieve certain figures from obscurity, and I'm glad to have done my share to draw attention to Philson Ahn's one impressive contribution to the history of science fiction film.

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