As they say in the performers’ trade, there is nothing like a strong finish. As they say in other trades, living long not less than living well can be the best revenge.
After all his years in a Hollywood that had all too little but stereotypical roles for Asian actors, it seems only fitting that the last performance to be released by Keye Luke, who died Saturday at the age of 86, was a warmly applauded, intelligent and humorous characterization as a Chinese doctor in Woody Allen’s “Alice.”
Luke had begun his screen career in 1934 in a Hollywood almost unimaginably different in its attitudes toward minorities of race, geography and gender.
He made his debut in a small part in a well-reviewed film drawn from Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Painted Veil,” and he became one of the few Chinese actors who kept relatively busy in an industry which took as an article of faith that white was beautiful and all other hues were subservient to it and possibly suspect too.
He was Charlie Chan’s No. 1 Son in that interminable series of films (in which, revealingly, Charlie himself was played by Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters, but never by an Asian). No. 1 Son was wisecracking and independent-minded and called his father Pops. But the fun still lay in the stereotyping and, seen now, what might be the discomfort of the films is muted by their naivete and by the engaging vim of Luke’s performance.
His subsequent career mirrored the slowly changing norms of the movies and the society. His movie-serial role as Kato, the Green Hornet’s right-hand person, seemed a step sideways rather than up in the kind of work available. He was a rival of Dr. Kildare in MGM’s film version (which long preceded the television series).
Yet change did come. There was a long Broadway run in “Flower Drum Song” and a TV run in “Kung Fu.”
Through it all, as good guy or a bad guy (occasionally doubling as a Japanese in wartime films), he became and remained a very good and versatile actor who frequently brought his own innate dignity to roles that needed all the help they could get.
In the end his seniority, his acting skills and his intelligence were just what the role as a troubled Mia Farrow’s confidant demanded. And so it is possible to remember Keye Luke, not simply as Chan’s impetuous No. 1 Son, but as a distinguished actor always capable of doing more than Hollywood--during so much of his career--dared ask him to do.