Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was never a very hospitable time for Asian American actors, who were seldom called upon to play the lead in any movie—not even those featuring Asian characters.
But Keye Luke, born on June 18, 1904 in China, came to America as a child and went on to have a long run of success in film and TV. Best known as detective Charlie Chan’s “No. 1 son” in the popular Chan series of the 1930s, Luke also had a running role as the assistant to Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) in the follow-up to the Dr. Kildare series of movies at MGM. Then, in the TV series Kung Fu (1972-75), Luke was the memorable Master Po, mentor to David Carradine’s Kwai Chong Caine.
To celebrate Luke’s long, influential career, we’re sharing excerpts from his interviews with James Bawden and Ron Miller from their recent release Conversations with Classic Film Stars:
BAWDEN: How did you get to Hollywood?
LUKE: I was born in 1904 in Guangzhou, China, near Canton and my dad owned an art shop. Growing up I was always painting away, but we moved to Seattle when I was very young. I started out as a local Seattle artist, specializing in murals. I helped on some of the original murals in Grauman’s Chinese theater, working on faux Chinese murals. And I had a gig drawing the art for the King Kong press book in 1933.
MILLER: While you were working in the publicity department at RKO in the early 1930s, I understand you almost had a chance to play a romantic lead in a big new musical. True or false?
LUKE: True. The producers of Flying Down to Rio (1933) wanted to follow it up with a new musical teaming Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to be set in Shanghai. Anna May Wong was set as the second female lead, but they couldn’t find a Chinese leading man for her. Then they remembered this guy who was working in the publicity department: Me. They called me to their office and told me I would be co-starring with Anna May Wong. It was like a bolt out of the blue. I was planning to go to New York to study at the Art Students League, then go to Paris and complete my art education. I knew nothing about being an actor.
MILLER: So what happened?
LUKE: The film was cancelled when the producer was fired. But I was given a consolation prize: I made my “acting” debut in a Leon Errol comedy short subject. I played his Japanese gardener in a scene where I mowed his rug with a lawn mower. I considered it a silly whim and returned to my art work without any regrets.
MILLER: Why did you move from RKO to MGM right after that?
LUKE: Frank Whitbeck, my former boss at Fox, had moved to MGM as advertising director and he asked me to come in for a job interview. That’s when I learned MGM wasn’t interested in my portfolio. They had heard about my near miss at RKO and asked me to test for a role at MGM. Fortunately, it turned out all right. I got the part — and I started right out at the top.
BAWDEN: So you wound up making your feature film debut in The Painted Veil with the legendary Greta Garbo in 1934.
LUKE: I had the small part of Shay Key Fong (a young Chinese doctor who assisted Herbert Marshall, playing a doctor battling a cholera epidemic.) But I didn’t get billing.
MILLER: Was your test so good that you beat out the real professional actors who were trying for the part?
LUKE: There were very few Chinese actors in Hollywood in those days, so I was practically a pioneer. I don’t think I had any competition for the part.
BAWDEN: What was Garbo like?
LUKE: As if I really met her! She was a true beauty from the neck up. But her body was stocky, her feet long. We rehearsed our dialogue scene (together). She was very kind to me and just moved on. The camera was her best friend. In close ups, she was exquisite. George Brent (one of the two male leads) was after her from the beginning.
BAWDEN: Describe L.A. in 1934.
LUKE: I never went into the big department stores. L.A. was segregated, but not formally. One never saw blacks on Wilshire Boulevard. Parts of the city I avoided–all white areas like Beverly Hills. Even after working with somebody like a big Caucasian actor, I’d be ignored if we met on the street. Asians were invisible, you see. We knew our place: One step back. That’s why the Charlie Chan films were so important. They deflated a lot of the current racial myths. But even the Chan films had rules. Charlie never touched a white woman except as a handshake. I’d never have a white girl friend, not that I wanted one in pictures. Whenever a young, personable “Chinaman” was needed, I’d get the job. But in films like The Casino Murder Case (1935), Oil For the Lamps of China (1935), King of Burlesque (1935), I’m very much in the background and often not listed in credits.
BAWDEN: How did you get into the Charlie Chan movies?
LUKE: The Fox casting director saw my work in The Painted Veil and was looking for a non-threatening Asian actor. At first they wanted to hire a Caucasian, but nobody knew how to act the part, which was of a callow teenager trying to learn the detective business from his dad. I did a test with Warner Oland (who had acted with Luke in The Painted Veil) and he said “hire the kid” and I eventually did a slew of them. In 1935, I did Charlie Chan in Paris and Charlie Chan in Shanghai. In 1936 I was in Charlie Chan At The Circus, Charlie Chan At the Race Track and Charlie Chan at The Opera. which I think the best one of them all. In 1937, I did Charlie Chan at The Olympics, Charlie Chan On Broadway and Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo.
[. . .]
BAWDEN: You also played Kato in two Green Hornet serials?
LUKE: I was the chauffeur and they asked me to adopt a Filipino accent, which I obliged, but it was awful. The (first) serial was made super quickly and Universal decided on a second, which was equally popular. But they only had rights to these two stories. Gordon Jones had the lead, a nice guy who wound up in Abbott and Costello stuff.
BAWDEN: In 1940’s Phantom Of Chinatown, you were the first Asian actor to play an Asian detective in a Hollywood film.
LUKE: Boris Karloff’s career really took off and he didn’t want to do any more Monogram Wongs. So they called me in, not as a replacement, but as a bustling new character, Jimmy Lee Wong, a generation younger than Boris’s character. Grant Withers was still the detective and he was mad as a hornet that they didn’t make his character the new lead. The girl was the wonderfully named Lotus Long, who acted under several names. She played Tokyo Rose in that Bogey movie (Tokyo Joe) and suffered from that. She was part Hawaiian and Chinese. The story we had was written by George Waggner, who later directed the first Wolf Man film, but the production values were lower than low and the series was discontinued.
[. . .]
MILLER: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember you and some other Chinese-American actors playing Japanese characters during World War II.
LUKE: That’s true. The best for me was the part of a Japanese spy in Across the Pacific with Humphrey Bogart. Of course, he found me out, we had a fight and he threw me overboard!
BAWDEN: But after the war, I guess parts were scarce and you did what you had to do to survive.
LUKE: That meant TV. I was in multiple episodes of Terry and the Pirates (1953) and The New Adventures of China Smith (1953), not as a regular, but different characters. I even played a Japanese in South Sea Woman (1953)—had to, needed that paycheck, which was $100. I’m uncredited. I was uncredited in Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (1955). The Chinese acting community in L.A. was still tiny. I’m also unbilled in Around the World in 80 Days (1956). I’m an older man at the Yokohama Travel Office. I was a waiter on December Bride (1954) and a professor on Meet Mr. McNutley (1954). Gale Storm remembered me from a day job on My Little Margie and got me on The Gale Storm Show (1957) several times. I was on several times as a suspect on Perry Mason and several times as the same character on Kentucky Jones (1964). With a little help from my friends, I kept going.
[. . .]
BAWDEN: You finally hit Broadway with Flower Drum Song. which you played for almost two years in New York and two years on the road.
LUKE: I remember being in Toronto in the road show of that one. Oscar Hammerstein, who was very nice, auditioned and picked me. Dick Rodgers was not quite so nice. I didn’t get the role in the movie. [Producer] Ross Hunter picked Benson Fong! In a way I felt relieved. There was now a growing community of Chinese actors. We started competing with each other. Previously Philip Ahn and I had divided up the work.
BAWDEN: How do you do it? You’re in Anna and the King and also doing two other series: Kung Fu and the cartoon series The Amazing Chan and the Chan-Klan.
LUKE: Well, I finally got to play Charlie, so how could I turn that down? I’m only voicing the cartoon, so I do that on weekends. Then I split my time between Anna and Kung Fu. I don’t have big parts. On Anna, I’m Siamese, but what the heck! It’s a good paying job. My only concern is we have no music rights so Yul Brynner will not burst into song. The first day he bellowed, “That’s not my throne!” And he was right. They sold his golden throne during the great movie auction. They really had to rummage and they discovered Rex Harrison’s throne from the 1946 movie and Yul has to do with that.
On Kung Fu, I’m in scenes with David Carradine. Knew his dad (John Carradine) at Fox. I think the son eccentric, but has great possibilities as an actor. So I think I’ll continue a little longer at the game.
MILLER: (Years later) You’ve had some juicy roles lately, like the old shopkeeper who sells
the “mogwai” in Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and a Chinese crime boss on TV’s Miami Vice. And I’m happy to discover you still have one of the most imposing voices in Hollywood. How do you maintain that quality?
LUKE: I practice opera to keep my voice in shape—and I’m currently memorizing all the great Shakespearean roles as a mental exercise.
MILLER: You have such a rich history in Hollywood, do you often look back on those years as almost a fantasy life?
LUKE: I don’t live in the past, but I glory in the past. I think it’s beautiful and the memories are golden and fragrant. But I’m more interested in life today. I find it’s still miraculous and full of wonders.
Keye Luke continued to work busily in both television and films until the end of his life. Among the TV shows: Quincy, Hunter, Vega$, How the West Was Won and such flicks as Won Ton Ton, Just You and Me, Kid and his final, Woody Allen’s Alice (1990). He died January 12, 1991, aged eighty-six, at his daughter’s home in Whittier, CA.
If you’re looking for more astounding behind-the-scenes stories from the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, look no further than Conversations with Classic Film Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller.