The son of a Christian minister, he was born Cho Yo Han in Seoul, South Korea on June 16, 1972. The family moved to the United States in 1978, and settled in Los Angeles, where Cho attended high school before enrolling at the University of California at Berkeley. Though he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature, he developed a passion for acting after appearing in the play, â€œWarrior Woman.â€ He was particularly inspired by the fact that many of his cast mates still displayed such dedication to their craft, despite being well into their fifth decades. After graduation, he returned to Los Angeles, where he worked as an English teacher at Pacific Hills School in West Hollywood while making his first inroads towards a professional acting career. Appearances in print advertising led to bit parts in features like his screen debut, â€œWag the Dogâ€ (1997), and television series like â€œFelicityâ€ (The WB, 1998-2002) and â€œCharmedâ€ (The WB, 1998-2006). In the meantime, he began performing with the acclaimed Asian-American theater group, East West Players, in Los Angeles.
Choâ€™s knack for dry comic delivery was soon tapped for more substantial supporting roles in features like â€œAmerican Beautyâ€ (1999) and the underrated â€œBowfingerâ€ (1999). His big-screen breakthrough, however, was as the manic high schooler John in “American Pie,” whose hormonal response to Stiflerâ€™s zaftig mom (Jennifer Coolidge) helped coin the catchphrase â€œMILF,â€ a somewhat rude acronym for a sexual response generated by attractive older women. His performance was well-received by the filmâ€™s audience of teen males, and he reprised the role twice in the sequels, â€œAmerican Pie 2â€ (2001) and â€œAmerican Weddingâ€ (2003). â€œPieâ€ creators Chris and Paul Weitz reunited Cho with his co-star Eddie Kaye Thomas for the short-lived sitcom â€œOff Centreâ€ (The WB, 2001-02), about four single men on the make in New York. Choâ€™s performance as an accident-prone, socially unbridled Vietnamese restaurant owner was largely regarded as the showâ€™s sole saving grace. After the showâ€™s demise, he teamed once again with the Weitz brothers in â€œDown to Earthâ€ (2001), a limp remake of â€œHeaven Can Waitâ€ (1978) with Chris Rock. In 2002, Cho shifted gears to play a casually cruel young man who becomes involved with bored students on a crime spree in the dark comedy â€œBetter Luck Tomorrowâ€ (2002). The film, helmed by future â€œFast and Furiousâ€ (2009) director Justin Lim, featured an all-Asian cast and received critical praise, as well as an Independent Spirit Award nomination in 2004. But Cho soon returned to lighter material like â€œBig Fat Liarâ€ (2002).
Choâ€™s biggest film success after â€œAmerican Pieâ€ was â€œHarold and Kumar Go to White Castleâ€ (2004), a sly send-up of racial stereotypes disguised as a slaphappy boysâ€™ comedy. Cho shone as Harold Lee, an overworked Korean banker whose craving for the title restaurant â€“ spurred by a late night marijuana smoke-out with friend Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) â€“ leads to a string of surreal events that include rabid raccoons, berserk extreme sports fans, and a debauched Neil Patrick Harris, played to the hilt by the actor himself. The film was a mild box office success but proved exceptionally popular on DVD, which in turn inspired an even more popular â€“ and crass â€“ sequel, â€œHarold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bayâ€ in 2008. The exposure afforded by the â€œHarold and Kumarâ€ films helped to make Cho a popular fixture in film and television comedies, with occasional forays into dramas. A brief stint on the sitcom â€œKitchen Confidentialâ€ (Fox, 2005), based on the book by chef Anthony Bourdin, preceded guest shots on â€œGreyâ€™s Anatomyâ€ (ABC, 2005- ) and â€œHow I Met Your Motherâ€ (CBS, 2005- ) opposite his â€œHarold and Kumarâ€ co-star, Neil Patrick Harris. Cho also enjoyed a recurring role on â€œUgly Bettyâ€ (ABC, 2006- ) as the best friend of Christopher Gorhamâ€™s nebbish accountant, Henry Grubstick.
Cho found himself at the center of considerable Internet and press buzz when he was cast as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise in J.J. Abramsâ€™ â€œStar Trek.â€ Initially, Abrams was concerned about casting the Korean-born Cho in a role made iconic by Japanese actor George Takei, but the original Sulu appeased his concerns by stating that both he and â€œStar Trekâ€ (NBC, 1966-68) creator George Roddenberry envisioned Sulu as a symbol for all Asian people. In interviews, Cho cited how pleased he was to play a role that afforded an Asian actor the chance to play a sort of cowboy, and how much he enjoyed the physicality of the part, which required him to undergo weeks of fight training. The film showcased Cho in a new light, and led to his regular role on ABCâ€™s “FlashForward” (2009- ), a sci-fi drama series in which he played one of a team of FBI investigators studying a brief but international time travel incident.