Study: Keye Luke (KL009)

The text of an interview conducted for Canadian television (TV Ontario) in Hollywood, California, c. 1985

The following interview was produced for Canadian television sometime around the year 1985.  It was taped in Los Angeles, California, and was later aired as part of a three-film Charlie Chan movie presentation on TV Ontario.  This transcription was made verbatim, as closely as possible, in hopes of allowing the reader a truer sense of both the tone and subtler nuances of the interview.  When a word or phrase is uncertain, it is enclosed in [brackets].

INTERVIEWER: I can’t tell you what an honor it is to meet you.  I was raised on the films – this isn’t to date you – but I was raised on your movies, yours and Warner’s –

KEYE LUKE: Well, a lot of people say that (Laughing).

INTERVIEWER: They were all back in the ’30s, weren’t they?


INTERVIEWER: Every single one of those –

KEYE LUKE: In fact, I’d go and meet a producer, you know, for a part of something, and he’d say, “Hey,” you know, “I grew up on your pictures.”

INTERVIEWER: How many did you make, Keye?

KEYE LUKE: Well, I actually made fourteen – of the Chans.  There were forty-seven altogether in the series, you know.


KEYE LUKE: With three Charlie Chans.

INTERVIEWER: The other two – Sidney Toler and –

KEYE LUKE: Roland Winters.

INTERVIEWER: That’s right –


INTERVIEWER: But Warner Oland started it, didn’t he?

KEYE LUKE: Oh yes – well there were one or two before he started.  That is, they couldn’t make it – they tried them out.  Then Warner came in, and Warner was about the third, I think, and he clicked right away.

INTERVIEWER: Well, there were a couple of – actually – or one or two – There was an oriental actor, wasn’t there?

KEYE LUKE: Yes, Sojin.

INTERVIEWER: That’s right.

KEYE LUKE: Yes, he was a Japanese and he played villains.  Very menacing.  Tall man with whiskers, you know, and all that sort of thing, and an evil-looking face; and he played Charlie Chan.  And they say he was very good – but they never continued.

INTERVIEWER: And then Warner Oland came along –

KEYE LUKE: Then Warner came along –

INTERVIEWER: Who was not oriental –

KEYE LUKE: He was Swedish –


KEYE LUKE: (Laughing) Yes.

INTERVIEWER: But, there was something about his face, though –

KEYE LUKE: Well, you see, he said, “I’m residue of the Mongol invasions,” he said, “I come by these looks naturally.”  And that’s true, because I knew his whole family, and they all look alike.  They all have that oriental –

INTERVIEWER: The whole Oland –

KEYE LUKE: Yeah…yeah. (Chuckling)

INTERVIEWER: Now how many – you said you did how many again – 14?

KEYE LUKE: Fourteen, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: Fourteen of them.  What are some of the titles?

KEYE LUKE: Well, let me see – Charlie Chan in ParisCharlie Chan in Monte CarloCharlie Chan at the Race TrackCharlie Chan in the Opera, which was a great one, Charlie Chan at the OlympicsCharlie Chan at the Race Track, etc.

INTERVIEWER: Charlie Chan on Broadway.

KEYE LUKE: Broadway, yes.

INTERVIEWER: Charlie Chan at the Circus.

KEYE LUKE:…at Monte Carlo – I said that, didn’t I?

INTERVIEWER: Well, we’re running, on the occasion that this interview will be presented, Mr. Luke, three of the Chan films in one night –

KEYE LUKE: It’s an honor.

INTERVIEWER: Well, we’re the ones that are honored having your presence –

KEYE LUKE: Honorable father would be most happy! (Laughing)

INTERVIEWER: How did you feel – Some people get worried today about the fact that a Swede played an Oriental, or a Hungarian – Peter Lorre – played Mr. Moto; they call this racism.


INTERVIEWER: But, where does Keye Luke stand on that?

KEYE LUKE: Well, I call it artistry.  I think that regardless of race, color, background, so on – if a man can create a character which you can believe, he is an artist and is entitled to the distinction of artistry, and I don’t think race has a thing to do about it.  Furthermore, at that time there were no Orientals around that could have possibly played that part, for one thing.  They might have some today, but I don’t know of any – that is, those that fit the Chan image – you know, that portly, genial sort of character.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, because he did – he was more than just the detective.  He was the whole presence, wasn’t he?  He required a persona.

KEYE LUKE: He was the type of actor who could obliterate his own personality and create a believable character right before your eyes.  Of course, I had the great good fortune to work with him, and I observed how he worked.  He was so thorough.  If you watch him, he’s as smooth as skating on ice.  Never a break in there – one thing flowed into another.  The words matched the looks, the looks matched the words, and the actions matched everything.  He was amazing

INTERVIEWER: He was into his Chan series before you came into it, though, wasn’t he?

KEYE LUKE: Yes, he did about four.

INTERVIEWER: Charlie Chan in London, I think was made without –

KEYE LUKE: Charlie Chan’s Courage

INTERVIEWER: Egypt wasn’t made with you –

KEYE LUKE: No, no.  Stepin Fetchit was in that one.

INTERVIEWER: That’s right.


INTERVIEWER: And, how did you get the part, sir?

KEYE LUKE: (Laughing) That’s a story in itself.  Before I went to Hollywood, I was in Seattle, and my brother used to say to me, “Hey, you ought to read these stories about this Chinese Detective in The Saturday Evening Post.  Oh, he’s so clever!”  You know, all that.  I said, “Oh, the Post, I never read it – I’m studying Hamlet.”  You know, – so, of course, I was in drama at that time – into Shakespeare.

INTERVIEWER: Where, incidentally, in this country?

KEYE LUKE: In Seattle.  And, so, then, when I came down here, I became an advertising artist for Fox studios, and I was making illustrations for the Charlie Chan pictures.  The publicity director would come in.  He said, “Here are some stills from the Chan picture.  Give me some portraits of Oland and write a few Chinese characters for teasers.”  You know, in the papers.  So, I was doing that, never dreaming that I would wind up acting in the thing.

INTERVIEWER: Be the number one son.

KEYE LUKE: Yeah.  So what happens?  I was at Fox.  I knew everybody, they knew me.  So, one day, over at RKO, they made an actor out of me – no, MGM was really the one.  My publicity director over at MGM called me and says, “Hey, come on over here.”  So I took my portfolio and walked over and he said, “What the hell are you doing with that?”  I said, “Don’t you want to see some of my layouts?  “No,” he says, “Read this!”  And then he threw a script at me.  “Turn to page so-and-so.”  So I turned to page so-and-so, and the script was Greta Garbo’s The Painted Veil, by Somerset Maugham, you see?  And he says, “How do you like that part?”  And I said, “Oh, fine.”  “Would you like to play it?”  And I said, “Yeah, I’d like to play it.”  It’s the part of a young Chinese assistant to Herbert Marshall, a doctor.

So he took me downstairs to the casting department – and I knew most of the boys in the casting department – so he says, “You wait right here.”  And so I waited in the waiting room, and he went inside, and in a great circus barker’s voice – because that’s what he used to be, a circus barker – he says, “Gentlemen!  Out of China’s 300 million” – at that time it was only 300 million, you see – “I give you China’s greatest actor!”  And he walks off through another door.  Dead silence, you see.  I go, “I’m on.” So I went over to the door and I stuck my head inside and they say, “Get out of here, you bum!” – you know, see?  So, they all started to laugh like mad, see?  So I said, “Okay, boys, the joke’s over.”  So I started to walk out, and they said, “Wait a minute – come back here, come back here.”  They said, “We’ll make a deal with you.  Make a test,  If the test is good, you get the part.”  So I made the test, it was good, (Laughing) I got the part – so I was an actor!


KEYE LUKE: Yes.  And then, another publicity friend of mine, for whom I worked and for whom I did some of those Charlie Chan advertising drawings, called me up, and he says, “Now that you’re a Cantonese ham,” he says, “Come on out here and see what I can do for you.”  So I went out to Fox studios in Beverly Hills, and met the casting director, and he said, “I wish you had come yesterday,” he said, “I would have had a great part for you.”  I said, “What was it?”  He said, “A Japanese spy blowing up the Panama Canal.” (Laughing)  He says, “I had to give it to someone else, because if you had only come yesterday.”  “Well,” he said, “why don’t you run down to Western Avenue?”  See, Fox studios was divided into two parts then.  The original studio was down on Sunset and Western, and the other one, the newer one, was out in Beverly Hills.

So, I went down to Sunset and Western, and Jim Ryan was the casting director there, whom I knew, so he said, “You know,” he said, it just so happens we’re going to put a number one son in the Charlie Chan pictures,” he said, “and there is no reason you shouldn’t play it.”  So he said, “Let me call the writer.”  So he called him – Philip MacDonald – who wrote “The Lost Patrol,” directed by John Ford –

INTERVIEWER: Oh, Philip MacDonald – wrote a lot of mystery novels – this was –

KEYE LUKE: Exactly, exactly.  This was Charlie Chan in Paris he was writing.  And I had done all the artwork – newspaper artwork – for his picture, The Lost Patrol, you see?  So we knew each other.  So he came on and said, “This is Philip MacDonald, who is this?”  I said, “This is Keye Luke.”  “Whooo!” – you know?  He said, “Look, I’ll write a fat part in for you,” you know, which he did. So after the interview, the producer got me in the foyer and says, “Hey, how would you like to go under contract to do those pictures?”  So I said, “Yes, where do I sign?” – you know, see?  But, you see, what I’m telling you, it’s just a series of coincidences – of being in the right place at the right time, with amazing luck.  And all these favors being done for me, all these doors being opened for me by Franklin Beck, Gabe York, Eddie Eckles, Mike Newman – all those publicity men that I worked with, see? And also, all right, now I’m an actor, so, all the press took it up because I knew everybody on the papers.  I made drawings for them – for Luella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Jimmy Starr – all those people – they thought it was great fun.  They gave me great publicity, and I started out right at the top with Greta Garbo –


KEYE LUKE: In The Painted Veil.

INTERVIEWER: The Painted Veil

KEYE LUKE: I mean, I could have had 600 billion dollars and I couldn’t have brought this about by myself. 

INTERVIEWER: How many pictures did you do before Chan, though?

KEYE LUKE: Well, I did The Good – Oh, I did The Good Earth after I did Chan.  I did, I think it was, Oil for the Lamps of China, with Pat O’Brien –

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, Pat O’Brien –

KEYE LUKE: And Josephine Hutchinson.  And I think another one that I did was – oh, what was it – Oil for the Lamps of ChinaThe Painted Veil, well, The Good Earth came a little later – I think it was Anything Goes with Bing Crosby and Ethyl Merman –

INTERVIEWER: Oh – all before Chan.

KEYE LUKE: Yeah.  Well, Chan was in there, but just one.


KEYE LUKE: Just one, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: Keye Luke, Charlie Chan in Paris, then –


INTERVIEWER: You were saying – by Philip MacDonald –

KEYE LUKE: Uh-huh –

INTERVIEWER: – he wrote a good – for the – This was your entrée of the number one…


INTERVIEWER: What was your meeting with Warner Oland like?  Can you remember, or is that buried in time?

KEYE LUKE: Well, I think, as I remember part of it – You know, Warner never knew whether he was Chan or Warner Oland, you know.  I mean, the two were all one in the same person, almost. 

INTERVIEWER: Tell me more about that – fascinating – psychologically that’s fascinating.

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, it’s fascinating because when I came on the set the first time I met him, you know, he was “Poppa Chan” already, you know, see.  None of the – complete with gestures, everything, looks, and so on and so forth, you know.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, you mean it wasn’t the actor that greeted you – it was the character.

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, the character.

INTERVIEWER: And not the actor.

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, that’s right.  He’s marvelous that way.  And we never knew when he was giving off with Chan or giving off with Warner, you know, one in the same.  I remember one time (Chuckling) we were up at a sort of tourist attraction – a Japanese gardens or something – up high in the Hollywood Hills.  And we were just walking around, talking, and he saw a Greyhound bus come in with a whole load of tourists, you know, and they parked down there, and he says, “Come, come,” he says, “Number One, Number One.  Let’s go to shrine.  Must bow to Buddha and be occupied with prayer so bothersome tourists will not see us.”


KEYE LUKE: So, here we are, see, both bowing away, and so on, and, inside of two minutes we were both surrounded, see, by all these people, and he’s signing autographs and so on.

INTERVIEWER: Well, when he wasn’t Chan, though, I mean there would be times off the set and that when I guess he would talk to you as Warner, wouldn’t there be?  He wasn’t always in character?

KEYE LUKE: Practically always in character.

INTERVIEWER: He was practically in character…

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah, and –

INTERVIEWER: But, Keye, that’s a very strange thing you’re telling me – You know, this is very weird.

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, I know, I know, I know – Yeah, oh yeah –

INTERVIEWER: He was a very weird man, I suppose –

KEYE LUKE: No, he was a very lovable man, and fun.  Always with a twinkle in his eye.  And he just loved to play-act, just loved to play-act.  When we were out on location, for instance, on Charlie Chan at the Circus, we were in El Monte – he came in in the morning – that’s the winter home at that time for the circus – So, we were over there, and when lunch came – this was the first day there – he had two – he had two thermos bottles.  And so, he handed one to me and said, “This for number one son.”  He says, “Very good soup,” he says, “Pea soup.  You grow up to be big like father.  Eat it.”


KEYE LUKE: So he gives it to me.  Then he says, “This is honorable tiger tea for father,” see? Actually, martini!  Tiger tea! (Laughing)

INTERVIEWER: (Laughing) A martini was the tiger tea!


INTERVIEWER: Well, I heard that he liked to drink –

KEYE LUKE: Yeah.  He liked to drink, yeah, yeah.  The more he drank, the happier he got. (Laughing)

INTERVIEWER: Now, he’d drink between takes or –

KEYE LUKE: Well, I wouldn’t say that he did not, but I never saw him.

INTERVIEWER: Never, never – no.

KEYE LUKE: But, somewhere along the line, he managed to absorb a little, you see?  So that, I remember when we were making Charlie Chan at the Race Track.  He had to lean on the rail and watch these horses go by, see?  So, he’d see them coming in, so he’d follow like this (Turning his head), you see?  Well, of course, he was a little unsteady, so he’d slide along that thing – like that. (Acting unsteady)  So finally, Lucky Humberstone the director says, “Well, I know how to fix it.  Come on down here everybody!” you know?  So the crowd that was in the stands, you know, got – came down – and he said, “Now, crowd around him and prop him up.” (Chuckling)


KEYE LUKE: See?  Crowd around and prop up.  So, all right, Poppa was pinched in there, you see?  So, now, the thing to do was to get him to look at the horse when it was coming, and he wouldn’t turn, sort of like that (Looking to his left).  So he said, “So, what shall I do now?”  So he says, “Oh, I know what!”  So got a starter’s pistol, and he went down there a little ways, you see (Chuckling), and at a [zoom point], with the horses, he’d fire this –


KEYE LUKE: – and Pop would go (Looking to his left, laughing) and he’d follow the horses by!  God, it was funny!  Oh, we just died!  Everybody just died(Laughing)

INTERVIEWER: Gosh.  We met Bruce Humberstone a few years back –


INTERVIEWER: – and he spoke warmly about your screen da… – your screen poppa –

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, well, I think we had the most fun with Bruce, with Lucky Humberstone. (Laughing)

INTERVIEWER: What was it – Tell me about a day – how much would you shoot?  Could you describe a day, Keye?

KEYE LUKE: Well, a day –

INTERVIEWER: On a Charlie Chan film –

KEYE LUKE: (Laughing) A day on a Chan film was mainly fun, but it was also a little bit strenuous because Poppa had a way of missing his lines, you know, see?

INTERVIEWER: I’ve heard that about him, yeah.

KEYE LUKE: Yes, it was very cute, you know.  All right, he’d miss a line and say, “Oh, so sorry.  Honorable feet not in proper place,” you know, see.  Then, he’d say, all right, we’ll start again.  Then he’ll blow a line and say, “Oh, rustle of doves in rafters,” you know, because we had doves flying around in those big stages and never could get them out, you know.  So all right, so, then, another time he’d blow, and he’d look up and say, “Alex!  Why did you rustle that paper just on my line?”  Alex wasn’t even on the set.  Alex was his stand-in.  So, I mean, after everyone he’d [half-take]. The funniest one of all, though, I think, was when he was making a picture and, uh, this one had Henrietta Crosman.  She was a great character actress, you know.  And they were going up a flight of stairs, you see, and Warner was leading the way, and an actor, and Henrietta was following, and a couple of others, they’d wind up these steps.  So, he’d read his lines as they went up.  And he’d blow it, then they’d come down again and start up again.  You know, this kept up for about eight or nine times, see?  By that time, everybody was pretty well tuckered out, you know, see.  Well, especially poor Henrietta, you know?  So, up they went again, and he was letter perfect.  He had every – But on the last instant, Henrietta stubbed her toe and made a noise, and he turned around and says, “Henrietta, darling, I had my lines that time, too.” (Laughing)

INTERVIEWER: Oh…say…that’s lovely.

KEYE LUKE: Oh, God, he was marvelous, he was marvelous.

INTERVIEWER: So you go through a day, it would be what, seven in the morning you would turn up for your make-up?

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah.  And the shoot – sometimes we’d get lucky, you know, and our parts might be shorter for the day, and we’d go home.  But in those days, we worked Saturdays, and we worked Saturday nights all the way through into Sunday to complete the day’s shootings, and all that sort of thing –

INTERVIEWER: I’ve heard until two a.m. or something –

KEYE LUKE:  Oh yes; oh, yes –

INTERVIEWER: Of course, there was no Screen Actors Guild –

KEYE LUKE: No Screen Actors Guild in those days, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: Oh my God – did you mind it?

KEYE LUKE: Of course, I was too young to mind anything except for the glamour and the fun and the great good fortune of the whole thing.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, yeah, you were very famous, I mean, my gosh.  Now, you would work those hours – How much script would you shoot in a day, Keye?

KEYE LUKE: Well, I don’t know – we’d shoot as much as we can, as much as we can –

INTERVIEWER: A few pages?

KEYE LUKE: How many?

INTERVIEWER: Few – three or four –

KEYE LUKE: Oh, more than that, [sometimes], if we could possibly do so.  And then, the amazing thing about these pictures, was we had four weeks regular shooting schedule, and then they’d call us back for re-takes, of another week, maybe; it’d run several days, anyway.  And we made those pictures for about 250 to 275 thousand dollars.

INTERVIEWER: The Chan films?

KEYE LUKE: Yes sir.  Because we had the use of all the sets that were standing, you know, the “A” sets and all that.


KEYE LUKE: And, so, a lot of construction costs were cut.  And then, of course, back in those days, the ’30s, 250,000, 275,000 was a good figure.

INTERVIEWER: Charlie Chan at the Opera, which we both agree is one of the greats –


INTERVIEWER: With Karloff, of course –

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah –

INTERVIEWER: You got to meet him.

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, Karloff and what’s-his-name – Bill Demarest was in it.

INTERVIEWER: Bill Demarest.

KEYE LUKE: And Margaret Irving, the opera singer; I, yes – Nedda Harrigan, who was the wife of Walter Connolly.  I, yes – and let’s see, who else, now – if I can remember –

INTERVIEWER: I forgot the [villain’s?] name – But, uh, Stanley – Oh, it’ll come to me – But, where did you shoot that?

KEYE LUKE: We shot it right on the set, at Fox.

INTERVIEWER: They did the whole opera – they built the stage – and rehearsed the whole –

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah, they had the sets and all that sort of thing already built, most of them, and they just completed them with a little extra dressing or something.

INTERVIEWER: How was Warner Oland?  He had played, of course, in Shanghai Express – He played Fu Manchu, hadn’t he?  I think the first picture I ever saw as a kid of four was The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu.

KEYE LUKE: Yes, yes –

INTERVIEWER: He was a wonderful presence on the screen.

KEYE LUKE: Oh, well, he had that, as I said, that tremendous ability to obliterate his own character and give you a new, living character.

INTERVIEWER: Even though he had all these problems.  What was he like near the end?  I’m told it was pretty tragic.  I mean, his health was failing, and his drinking was increasing, and –

KEYE LUKE: Well, uh, actually I don’t think that there was anything about him towards the last there that a little rest wouldn’t have done –

INTERVIEWER: (Unintelligible) –

KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah, that was it.  Uh, I knew that he drank heavily and all that, but, uh, uh, he could maintain a level.  And, as far as his health was concerned, why, he wasn’t that sick.


KEYE LUKE: No, no.

INTERVIEWER:  What finally took him, Keye?

KEYE LUKE:  Well, he went to Europe.  He said that – at the time Hitler was making noises and Mussolini was making noises – and then I said – “, why do you want to go over there into a troubled sector?”  And he says, “Ah!  Honorable Poppa have appointment with chestnut trees blooming in Florence,” you know?


KEYE LUKE: So he went.  Everywhere he went, they wined and dined him, wined and dined him, and he sent back these headlines and newspaper clippings to me and all that, you know –


KEYE LUKE: And, so, it was just like a triumphant tour – all through Europe, there – and then he finally got up to Sweden to Stockholm to the ancestral home –


KEYE LUKE: – and he got bronchial pneumonia, and he died in his mother’s bed. 

INTERVIEWER: First time he had been back to his home in what, forty years or so? 

KEYE LUKE: Yeah.  We were shooting with Charlie Winninger, Alice Faye, and Warner Baxter, I think, the afternoon that the news came to us on the set, and we all just went home.

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