GREENSBORO — Actor Ken Jeong mixed his signature comedy with serious advice in his Friday commencement speech to UNCG graduates.
Jeong, who grew up in the city, garnered repeat applause and laughter from the crowd that filled the Greensboro Coliseum. The California physician-turned-comic actor is the star of such films as "The Hangover" movie trilogy and "Crazy Rich Asians," as well as television series "Community" and "Dr. Ken."
The actor amused, praised and encouraged about 2,500 graduates who had gathered with faculty, family and friends.
It was a return to the venue where he saw his first concert (Prince and the Revolution in 1984) and spoke to graduates of the university where he once took a summer organic chemistry class.
"Find your passion," Jeong told them. "And if you found your passion, as you graduate, let that evolve."
He traveled a long road to get there, Jeong said.
Jeong, 49, was born in Detroit to parents from South Korea. He attended Bessemer and Cone elementary schools, Aycock Junior High (now Swann Middle School) and Page High.
"I was a shy kid at Page High School who never even dreamed to be an actor," he said.
He went to Duke University, then to medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"A lot of people think I’m the model minority. I’m a doctor. I’m an actor. I’m an Instagram model," he said, prompting laughter. "What a lot of people don’t know ... was I had a passion for acting. I had a passion for comedy."
Jeong got his start as a comedian while attending medical school, performing at open mic nights in the Triangle.
He made his film debut at age 38 in Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" as Dr. Kuni, which proved to be his breakout role. Then he was able to transition from medicine into a full-time career in the entertainment industry.
He feared quitting his day job.
But his wife, physician Tran Ho, supported that decision. So did his parents — retired N.C. A&T economics professor D.K. Jeong and homemaker Young Jeong. His parents still live in Greensboro and were in the audience on Friday.
Jeong thanked them all.
"I would not be here if it wasn’t for my parents," he said to applause.
He credited his education with keeping him grounded through the ups and downs of show business.
He praised UNCG's first-generation students — the first in their families to attend a four-year college. At UNCG, 38 percent of students fall into that category.
He described his biggest talent as "persistence."
"If I'm passionate about it, I do not give up," he said. "And I encourage you, in good times and bad, keep moving and keep finding your passion."
UNCG on Friday awarded 1,867 bachelor degrees, 578 master's degrees and 111 doctoral degrees.
"You guys are finishing up Act 1 of your film and your story," he said. "Figure out what Act 2 is, and embrace the change, embrace the twists and the unexpected turns."
Jeong later stopped by Red Cinemas to see the massive portrait of him taking shape on the building's exterior, thanks to owner Marty Kotis and artist Brian Lewis — better known as JEKS. Kotis and Jeong attended Aycock Junior High together.
As he finished his commencement speech, Jeong left his audience laughing.
"Thank you guys for having me, and congratulations to the class of 2019," he said. "Now, where’s my private jet?"