“I have played so many doctors and characters in the mainstream,” actor Keye Luke said about his 56-year film career. “Because of my appearance, or because of my personality, or whatever it may be, I was always put into good Boy Scout roles—lawyers, doctors, business executives and tycoons, the nice Chinese guy down the block.” Canton-born and Seattle-raised, the actor began his connection to Hollywood as an illustrator, painting the murals inside Grauman’s Chinese Theater and providing artwork for movie sets, press books and posters. His first acting job was for the 1934 picture The Painted Veil. The following year he would land a recurring role in the Charlie Chan and Dr. Kildare series as well as the part of Kato, the loyal chauffeur, in The Green Hornet serials. He worked steadily in movies and television until his death at age 86 in 1991.
Charlie Chan in Paris (1935)
Luke was working as an artist for Fox’s publicity department when he was selected for the role of Lee Chan, the “number one son” of detective Charlie Chan (Warner Oland). It would prove to be his most popular characterization and one he repeated in a dozen Charlie Chan pictures over the next 14 years. In this 1935 adventure, Lee helps his pop expose a bond forgery racket in the City of Lights.
The Good Earth (1937)
Luke, playing Elder Son, was one of the few Asians in the primary cast of this film, which saw main characters Wang and O-Lan played by Austrian-born Paul Muni and German-born Luise Rainer, respectively. At $2.8 million in 1937 currency, the big screen adaptation of author Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Chinese farmers and their hardships would be one of the more elaborately produced features of Luke’s career.
Phantom of Chinatown (1940)
A common practice in 1920s and 1930s Hollywood was to have non-Asian actors—such as Nils Asther, Myrna Loy, Peter Lorre, Paul Muni, Warner Oland, Luise Rainer and Sidney Toler—play major Asian movie characters. By the time 1940 came around, the casting of Asian actor Keye Luke as an Asian detective for Phantom of Chinatown most certainly qualified as “non-traditional casting.” Stepping into the role played in six features by Boris Karloff, Luke’s Jimmy Wong eschewed the more exotic touches Karloff brought to the role and portrayed the detective as an American gumshoe who just happened to be of Asian descent.
A shop in New York’s Chinatown run by Mr. Wing (Luke) sets the ghoulish and wickedly funny plot in motion when Wing’s grandson (John Louie) sells Rand Pelzer (Hoyt Axton) a cuddly creature for Pelzer’s son Billy (Zach Galligan). The rules for the little critter’s care and feeding are promptly broken, throwing the aggressively quaint town of Kingston Falls into turmoil. Luke would return in 1990 for the film’s sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Woody Allen’s comic fantasy features Luke as Dr. Yang, a Chinese healer who prescribes magical treatments that help pampered Manhattan housewife Alice (Mia Farrow) reevaluate her life. This would be the final film role for the actor, who died of a stroke soon after the film’s release.