Born: July 18 1930;

Died: May 24 2016

BURT Kwouk, who has died aged 85, was an actor of enviable range, equally capable in comic and dramatic roles, playing everything from dyed-in-the-wool villains to heroic underdogs, and hapless sidekicks to morally ambiguous protagonists.

Unsurprisingly, he was seldom out of work. Unfortunately, much of that was due to the readiness of British casting agents to send for Kwouk whenever they needed an oriental character of any description (or, indeed, nationality). As a result, his considerable talents were often employed in distinctly third-rate material. “I look at it this way,” he told one interviewer, “if I don't do it, someone else will. So why don't I go in, get some money, and try to elevate it a bit, if I can?"

His other handicap sprang, paradoxically, from his single greatest success. Kwouk was undoubtedly associated with one role above all others; that of Cato Fong, the manservant and martial arts sparring partner of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films.

Opposite Peter Sellers, Kwouk was thus half of one of the most popular and effective running gags in cinema. The set-up never varied. Cato, at other times a dutiful and dignified valet, is under standing orders to keep Clouseau’s self-defence skills up to scratch, by launching surprise attacks when the detective least expects them.

Kwouk’s performance – which otherwise left nicely ambiguous the question of whether Cato regarded Clouseau as a buffoon, or took him seriously – involved carrying this instruction to extremes, ambushing the inspector at home with billiard cues or other weapons, and usually destroying the flat’s fixtures and fittings. The pay-off was that, if interrupted by something impinging on his normal duties, such as a telephone call, Cato would instantly revert to his role as gentleman’s gentleman – whereupon Sellers would thump him.

Between 1964 and 1993, he appeared in seven of the films, from A Shot in the Dark (the second in the series, but the first to place Sellers’s Clouseau to the fore) to Son of the Pink Panther, which starred Roberto Benigni as Clouseau’s illegitimate son.

He was also in 1982’s Trail of the Pink Panther, cobbled together from Sellers’s deleted scenes in previous pictures, after the actor died before filming began; and in the following year’s Curse of the Pink Panther, a poorly received and ill-advised attempt to keep the series going, with Roger Moore taking a cameo as Clouseau (after extensive plastic surgery).

Wisely, Kwouk avoided Inspector Clouseau (1968) which had Alan Arkin in the title role but no involvement from the director Blake Edwards or the composer Henry Mancini, and two remakes (2006, 2009) starring Steve Martin. It was initially suggested that Jackie Chan take over as Cato, but the film-makers decided the role played on racial stereotypes which would not go down well in the 21st Century. Neither, however, did the films themselves.

The part inevitably overshadowed his other work. Yet he had begun his film career in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), an Oscar-nominated box office hit (with a score by Malcolm Arnold) in which he was moving and effective as a Chinese prisoner who sacrifices himself to save children from a Japanese patrol.

He was in no fewer than three James Bond films: Goldfinger (1964), the half-baked spoof version of Casino Royale and You Only Live Twice (both 1967). He was the leader of China in the following year’s The Shoes of the Fisherman and a doctor in Norman Jewison’s cult sci-fi drama Rollerball (1975).

On the small screen, Kwouk’s best work was probably as the honourable but flawed commandant Major Yamauchi in the Japanese PoW drama Tenko (1981), but he was also fondly remembered for roles in Doctor Who and as the narrator of Monkey, a Japanese show based on Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century classic fantasy novel, translated by Arthur Waley.

He was happy to send himself up on The Harry Hill Show, where he had a regular billet, and on Banzai! a ludicrous betting programme featuring the worst excesses of Japanese game-shows. For the final seven or eight years of its run, he also had a recurring part on Last of the Summer Wine, as a Chinese electrician improbably named Entwhistle.

Herbert Kwouk was born on July 18 1930 in Warrington in Cheshire, though his Chinese parents had been staying there only because they were en route to Shanghai, where he grew up; he always thought of Chinese as his primary nationality. At 17 he moved to the United States to attend college in Maine, where he read politics and economics. His family, previously well-to-do, had their fortune wiped out by the revolution of 1949, and Burt decided to move to Britain in 1954.

He had a serious of menial jobs before a girlfriend nagged him into taking up acting. His first film role was a bit part as a Malay in Windom’s Way (1957), but after following it with The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Cliff Richard’s preposterous film debut Expresso Bongo, he was seldom out of work.

Much of it was undistinguished, or downright racist, tosh; when Hammer needed another sinister Chinaman after send Christopher Lee into make-up, Kwouk was next in line. The greatest distinction of the atrocious Terror of the Tongs (1961), for example, was – according to urban folklore – that it inspired a Glasgow hooligan to christen himself “Terror” McCabe and mark out the Calton district as “Tongland” with graffiti which read “Tongs, Ya Bas”.

It was much the same story on the small screen, though it at least afforded Kwouk work on some of the biggest shows of the 1960s and after; he popped up on Danger Man, The Saint, The Avengers, The Champions, Minder, Lovejoy, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, Shoestring and even Howards’ Way. As well as Monkey, he narrated the Japanese series The Water Margin (1977) and several video games. His other notable Hollywood outings included Empire of the Sun (1987) and Air America (1990).

Kwouk was much admired and liked by his colleagues, and the range and reliability of his performances (as well as a gradual diminution of stock racial characters in drama) ensured that the quality of his roles improved over time. But he was also proud of being a jobbing actor, and happy to send himself up. He lived in north London, and was occasionally to be seen in the company of other actors at the bar of The French House (near the cutting rooms and voice studios of Soho). He was appointed OBE in the New Year’s Honours list of 2011

He married, in 1961, Caroline Tebbs; they had a son, Christopher.