Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1985
‘Charlie Chan’ Film Vet Still Waiting For Eastern Actors To Rise In Hollywood
By Vernon Scott, United Press International.
Keye Luke, Hollywood’s premiere Chinese-born actor, views the paucity of Asian actors in movies and TV with a wisdom worthy of Confucious.
It was Luke who played No. 1 son in a string of 14 “Charlie Chan” detective movies during the 30s and 40s.
Typically, the two actors who played Chan in Luke’s movies were Caucasians: Warner Oland and Roland Winters. A third Charlie Chan in other films was Sidney Toler, another non-Asian.
Luke, born in Canton 80 years ago but now as American as ham on rye, shrugs his shoulders patiently. The time will come, he knows, when Eastern actors will have their day in the Hollywood sun.
He was pleased that Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian, won the Academy Award for best supporting actor this year for his performance in “The Killing Fields.” He says he is equally delighted that Pat Morita, of Japanese descent, was nominated for “The Karate Kid.”
“It was a splendid thing for the public to see Orientals honored at a prestigious occasion like the Oscars,” he said. “Orientals came into their own to prove they can carry important roles. We’ve come of age as actors.
“Me? I’m a happy hedonist from Hollywood’s halcyon age. You don’t see many Oriental faces in films and TV because there is a historic lag between reality and art. But at least the Oriental stereotypes have disappeared.
“The Chinese laundryman and the Japanese gardener may still be with us, but most Chinese and Japanese now find themselves in the mainstream of American life.”
Progress for Asians in most fields has been rapid, he believes, but in Hollywood advances have been slow in an era when Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Southeast Asian communities in the United States are flourishing as never before.
Luke was established as a Hollywood fixture when Myrna Loy, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Richard Barthlemess, Luise Rainer, Peter Lorre and Nils Asther, among others, played Asians through the magic of makeup and wardrobe.
Luke grinned and said, “I didn’t see anything odd about it at the time and I still don’t. Acting is an art that transcends race and color. When I came to Hollywood there were only a few Chinese here and no other Orientals.
“Now all of Southeast Asia is here. In the old days I played Mongols, Filipinos, Japanese, Laotians and Siamese in addition to Chinese.”
Luke’s first major role was with Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall in “The Painted Veil,” a 1934 MGM melodrama. He went on to appear in more than 100 movies, working with Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Roz Russell, Bette Davis, Alice Faye, Loretta Young, Mae West, Claudet Colbert and scores of others.
“I suppose my most important role was in ‘The Good Earth,”‘ he said. “It won a lot of Academy Awards in 1937. But my most satisfying role was as Master Po in the TV series ‘Kung Fu.’ I was giving the actual sayings of great Chinese philosophers like Confucious for dialogue. It worked for me on every level.”
Luke, who sometimes lectures at colleges and clubs on Chinese art and philosophy, will be seen May 15 in the CBS-TV movie, “Blade in Hong Kong,” for which he traveled to China for the first time in almost 70 years.
He left China as a toddler and returned for the first time when he was 12 and was put to work in the rice fields.
“The memories are still vivid,” Luke said. “I would like to return to the mainland someday, but not until they have a new Hilton or Sheraton waiting for me at the historic sites so I can enjoy American comforts.
Asked if there was one part he would like to have played in his long career, which included starring on Broadway in “Flower Drum Song,” Luke thought a long moment. Then he said, “I would like to have starred in ‘The King and I.’ Ah, yes, that would have been a lot of fun.”