KEYE LUKE--BEYOND THE STEREOTYPE
Keye Luke has taken his share of criticism. He played the original No. 1 son of Charlie Chan in 13 of the 46 movies about the Asian-American sleuth--a series, starring Caucasians in the lead role, that some have found racially stereotyping.
Luke has made a career portraying mild-mannered types with a pleasant smile. Outside his roles, he’s never been a crusader and he’s never walked a picket line.
But he claims that he’s not the passive man many perceive him to be.
“I’m not accepting,” he said during an interview in the comfortable Whittier home he shares with his stepdaughter (his wife of nearly 40 years died in 1979). “I never had to accept much of anything in the way they think I’m accepting.”
Luke defends the Chan films while denouncing more recent pictures like “Year of the Dragon” that he feels are demeaning and mean-spirited toward Asians. He even advocates organized protests “because the more (we) protest, the more they will tone those things down so that they’ll bring them into the area of reality rather than exaggeration.”
“I’d be part of the protest if I really felt there was something in it that they (the producers) are doing that is harmful and that they can avoid doing it. But I can’t stop them from making movies and I can’t stop them from exaggerating because they are doing it for a specific purpose--money. And then ironically they put a lot of Asian actors to work. So what are you going to do?”
The solution, Luke offers, lies in a Tao saying: “ ‘Out of good comes evil, out of evil comes good.’ We cannot separate them, they’re mixed, it’s the gray area that is life.”
To hear him tell it, Luke has apparently been very happy during a career of more than 50 years. He has been one of the most familiar Asian faces on TV and in the movies, including “Kung Fu,” “Dr. Kildare,” “The Good Earth,” “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Around the World in 80 Days” and the more recent “Gremlins,” as well as appearing on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song.”
Now a hearty 81, Luke will be honored with the first Lifetime Achievement Award by the Assn. of Asian/Pacific American Artists at its media awards dinner March 17 at the Beverly Wilshire.
“I feel honored and grateful that some of my colleagues think me deserving of this award,” Luke said. “I feel that the organization (AAPAA) is performing a significant function about the recognition and statement of the Asian identity.”
“I never wanted to be an actor,” Luke said. “In school when we had oral expression in English class, I used to duck out on the days when I had to get up and give a speech--that’s how introverted I was. But I always wanted to draw.”
Born in Canton in 1904 but raised in Seattle, Luke began his Hollywood career in the ‘20s as a publicity and poster artist, first for the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, then for RKO during “a marvelous creative period.”
But thanks to Lou Brock, the producer of “Flying Down to Rio"--and a push from Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper--he got a break as an actor. Brock promised him a part in the sequel to “Rio” playing the love interest to Anna May Wong. “I’m an artist, not an actor,” Luke protested, but the producer talked him into it.
That sequel was never made because the producer was fired. But it triggered publicity for Luke when his columnist friends, Louella and Hedda, got wind of the story.
“I had tremendous publicity from these people--it was wonderful,” Luke said, although he could not remember exactly what they wrote. “I wouldn’t have money enough ever to pay for that publicity.”
The publicity also prompted a call from Frank Whitbeck, head of advertising at Metro and Luke’s former boss at Grauman’s. Thinking he was summoned for his artistic skills, Luke grabbed his portfolio of artwork and layouts.
Instead he was thrown a script and asked to read the part of a young Chinese doctor. He got the role and made his film debut in 1934 in “The Painted Veil” starring Greta Garbo.
“I was extremely lucky,” Luke said. “I started at the top. My very first picture was with Greta Garbo, so I never had to say to my agent, ‘Please get me a part where I have a speaking line'--I never had that type of strain and worry--I was a featured player right from the beginning.”
Other films soon followed, including “Oil for the Lamps of China” with Pat O’Brien and Josephine Hutchinson, before he landed the role that he was to be most closely identified with, that of the eager, awkward, inquisitive eldest son of the famous Earl Derr Biggers’ Chinese sleuth, Charlie Chan, played by Warner Oland. After 13 Chan movies, all of them with Oland, Luke bowed out of the series when Oland died, in deference to “the only Charlie Chan.”
It is a part he is particularly proud of. “I look back on it with great pleasure,” he said, “because it’s a pleasant role to play and people liked it so much. I’ve managed to give them enjoyment, so I have to be very happy.”
Responding to those who find the Charlie Chan image stereotypical, Luke retorted, “It’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous! When we made those pictures back in the ‘30s, we thought we were making the best damn murder mysteries in Hollywood. We were so proud of them and that’s all they were--pure entertainment.
“How can it be demeaning to the Chinese,” he asked, “when the Oriental character was the hero? People respected him, police departments consulted with him and called him in to help them.”
As for Oland, Luke had only respect: “Warner Oland was so unique because he came from the school of acting that taught you to obliterate your own personality and create a believable character for your audience.”
Luke dismisses the question of a white man playing a Chinese: “He gave a faithful portrayal of the Chinese Mandarin scholar,” Luke insisted. Oland, according to Luke, studied Chinese culture. “People on the outside don’t know that. I know that because I was there,” he said.
As for Oland’s stumbling and fumbling in his English, Luke suggested: “As an actor acting a Chinese, he believed he was a Chinese and he thought in Chinese and then he tended to translate into English, which is a foreign language, hence the groping and reaching for words. It just worked like magic for him. He also memorized his Chinese dialogue. Nobody had to dub it for him.”
Much as Luke loves the Charlie Chan movies, he feels that this Chan should stay missing. He thinks the character is dated and cannot be revived. Neither does he think he can play Charlie Chan “because people are stuck with that visual image of Charlie Chan, a stout, heavyset man. The only way I could play anything at all in the Chan equation,” Luke said, “is to play the grown-up son and as a contemporary Chinese American.”
Perhaps the most satisfying role of all to Luke is that of Master Po, the blind Buddhist monk of the Shaolin Temple, mentor to the David Carradine character in the “Kung Fu” TV series. “Po represents a certain high level in Chinese culture, the philosophical nature of Chinese culture. He was the example of the Buddhist Zen sect which I think is the best development in that physical thought of China. And given those sayings out of old ancient Chinese philosophy from Confucius, from Mencius, and actually saying them in English for a world audience, it was fantastic. Where do you get an opportunity like that?”
He also appears as a mysterious doctor treating underworld figures in Hawaii in a two-hour CBS movie, “Blood Sport,” that features the stars and characters from the “T.J. Hooker” series, due to air this spring. Luke said he would like to go on “doing the same sort of thing I’m doing right now.”
Besides practicing calligraphy, Luke is also keeping up with his singing, even though it’s been 30 years since “Flower Drum Song,” because “who knows, maybe tomorrow, I’ll have to audition for another musical.”