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The Tragic Reason Uncle Iroh's Voice Changed In Avatar: The Last Airbender

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is a beloved series from Nickelodeon. Running for three seasons and 61 episodes total, "The Last Airbender" followed the exploits of Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), a reincarnation of the Avatar, a being that can manipulate all of the primal elements to maintain a balance between four nations. Each group draws its strength — and name — from one of the aforementioned elements, resulting in Fire, Earth, Air, and Water Nations. Within the show, the Fire Nation has engaged in world conquest and subjugation of the other elemental tribes, and Aang must be the one to stop them.

The show was a huge success for Nickelodeon during its run from 2005 to 2008. The series holds an impressive 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it spawned an entire franchise that includes spin-off shows, video games, and a much-maligned live-action movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The characters of "The Last Airbender" are well-developed and multi-faceted, and fans seem to have favorites across all nations. One character, however, is often considered one of the best of the series, and that is the role of Uncle Iroh. Iroh is the uncle of Prince Zuko (Dante Basco), and both are members of the Fire Nation. Prince Zuko is brash and impulsive, while Iroh is friendly and compassionate. 

Fans of "The Last Airbender" may have noticed that the voice actor who plays Uncle Iroh changed in Season 3. What was the impetus behind the casting decision?

The original Uncle Iroh voice actor died in 2006

Despite being a member of the Fire Nation and a former general, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" character Uncle Iroh is a gentle soul. His love of tea is accompanied by his belief that peace and mutual understanding are essential for the world, which starkly contrasts the ideals of the warring nation from which he hails. When given even the slightest authority in the series, he utilizes the moment to declare a day of tea appreciation. Iroh is a beloved figure, so it came as a shock when Greg Baldwin took up the part after Japanese actor Mako established himself as the voice of the character in Seasons 1 and 2.

The real reason for Mako's departure from "The Last Airbender" is heartbreaking. The actor best known for his roles as Akiro the Wizard in the "Conan the Barbarian" series and as Aku in "Samurai Jack," succumbed to esophageal cancer on July 21, 2006, at the age of 72 (via The New York Times). Per his IMDb profile, Mako's last credited roles are in the live-action Lucy Liu movie "Rise: Blood Hunter" and voicing Splinter in "TMNT." Born Iwamatsu Makoto, one of Mako's first big breaks was playing the villain Low Sing, who faced off against Bruce Lee's Kato in "The Green Hornet."

As mentioned earlier, Baldwin took over the role of Uncle Iroh after Mako's passing, having long been his voice double. Mako left an indelible mark on pop culture, and his loss is still keenly felt today.

Uncle Iroh lives on ...

Both Mako and Greg Baldwin brought something special to the role of Uncle Iroh. For such an important character, it only makes sense for someone else to come into the picture and leave their mark on the legacy, and fortunately, the live-action "Avatar: The Last Airbender" coming to Netflix has cast the perfect actor for the role. 

It recently came to light that Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, best known for portraying Appa in "Kim's Convenience" as well as Captain Carson Teva in "The Mandalorian," would be the next to step into the iconic robe of Uncle Iroh. Both of these roles established him as an authority-type presence who knows when to get serious. However, he's also proven his more comedic side time and time again, which is bound to be a delight when eventually watching him interact with Dallas Liu's Zuko.

Of course, no one was more excited at the casting news than Lee himself, who took to Twitter to share the information along with the caption, "Big shoes to fill by the late GREAT Mako. I hope to do honour and justice to this character while still making it my own. Grateful for this opportunity and excited to start." Fans shared in his excitement, such as @MisterDaedalus writing, "They couldn't've casted a better, more lovable person in such a venerated role. I am so happy for you, sir!"

As we wait for more news on the live-action series, fans can rest a little easier knowing some immense talent is being brought aboard.