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Scott D. Pierce: In a sign of change, Daniel Dae Kim has the lead role in ‘The Hot Zone: Anthrax’

It’s the first time in his long career the Asian American actor plays the lead.

(National Geographic/Peter Stranks) FBI Special Agent Matthew Ryker and Agent Eric Sykes, played by Daniel Dae Kim and Morgan Kelly, give a scent to bloodhounds.

Pretty much everyone who was alive at the time remembers the 9/11 attacks, when terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. But how many remember another terrorist attack that began just weeks later, killing five people and sickening 17?

Letters containing anthrax were mailed to victims in New York, Florida, and Washington D.C. — including the offices of two U.S. senators. And the crimes weren’t solved until almost seven years later.

The National Geographic Channel retells the tale in “The Hot Zone: Anthrax,” a six-part limited series that delves into what happened and what went wrong with the investigation. (Episodes premiere in three two-hour blocks on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at 7 and 8 p.m.) It’s shocking on multiple levels — that anyone could’ve done this, that the culprit could’ve gone unpunished for so long, that the FBI’s investigation was so flawed.

And “The Hot Zone: Anthrax” is surprising for something that has nothing to do with the actual events — Daniel Dae Kim is cast in the lead.

Kim’s acting credits go back 30 years. He’s had recurring or co-starring roles in TV series that include “Hawaii Five-0,” “Lost,” “ER,” “24,” “Angel,” “Star Trek: Enterprise,” “The Good Doctor” and “New Amsterdam” — in addition to dozens of film roles and TV guest appearances. Almost 90 credits altogether.

But he has never been cast as the lead in anything. Until now. His character in “The Hot Zone: Anthrax,” FBI special agent Matthew Ryker, leads the investigation. Fights to keep it on track. He’s a composite of several real-life FBI agents. But what makes him unique on TV is that he’s Asian American.

“The fact we are in 2021 and we’re telling a story about 2001 … with a lead investigator who looks like me is probably something that would not have happened even in 2001,” Kim said. “I think it’s a sign of progress and it’s a testament to our producers and everyone associated with the show who are making decisions that they thought an Asian American face could represent the face of the FBI.”

It might not sound like much, but it’s a huge thing. Particularly because the character didn’t have to be Asian — it could have been cast with an actor of any ethnic background. And, in the past, those roles have primarily gone to white actors.

Kim said that his acting career has been both “very common” and “unique.” All actors struggle, and few succeed.

“There’s a saying that always stuck with me that I heard when I started acting, which is — there’s no room for you in show business, you have to make room,” he said. “There’s no shortage of actors right now on this planet, and especially in America, and so no one needs you. You’re another face that has to kind of muscle into an industry where you have to prove that you’re valuable in some way, shape or form.”

Like other young, struggling actors, he did “showcases for nothing.” He got paid $15 to appear in a play reading “and then maybe get some free muffins at the end of the night.” He would “act in anyone’s short film” to get himself on film.

The only “real difference” is that “there were fewer opportunities for Asian Americans; it was a significant kind of demarcation point in my career.”

During pilot seasons, his white actor friends were getting “three to four auditions a day.” In 2004, the year he was cast in “Lost,” “I had three auditions that entire year.”

He’s not complaining. Kim has built a hugely successful career and has worked steadily for decades. But it says a lot more about the industry than it does about him that he got his first lead role at the age of 53.

Art Streiber | CBS "Hawaii Five-0" stars Scott Caan, Alex O'Laughlin, Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim.

This couldn’t have finally happened to a nicer guy. I’ve interviewed Kim with some frequency over the years, and he’s always been great. Even when he was asked about his decision to leave “Hawaii Five-O” after Season 7 because CBS and the show’s producers refused to give him and Grace Park pay equity with the show’s white actors.

He didn’t complain. Kim simply said it was about his own self respect. I admired him then. I admire him now.

In one of the most fun/embarrassing things I’ve done in the three-plus decades I’ve written about TV, I was an extra in a scene with Kim in the 1999 series “Crusade,” a spinoff of “Babylon 5.” I don’t remember a lot of details — and they made me take off my glasses, so I couldn’t really see what was happening — but I do remember Kim being friendly. And he didn’t know that my TV critic pal and I weren’t just two more extras, who are extremely low on the TV totem pole.

Twenty years later, when I interviewed him as an executive producer of “The Good Doctor,” Kim was genuinely interested when I mentioned the “Crusade” thing to him. And he called my TV critic pal/former fellow extra over to talk to him about it, too. I can say without reservation that that doesn’t always happen when you’re interviewing actors.

I’m glad he got the lead in “The Hot Zone: Anthrax.” He’s very good in it. Hopefully, it will open the eyes of a few more casting departments.

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