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Keye Luke--beyond The Stereotype

March 09, 1986|HENRY ONG | Ong is a local free-lance writer who frequently profiles Asian-American performers. and

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."

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