The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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SOOíS STORY. Filmmaker Jeff Adachiís You Donít Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story tells the story of Jack Soo, a talented comedian, singer, and actor who broke through traditional portrayals onscreen. In the 1970s, Jack Sooís brand of humor and wit endeared him to viewers of the sitcom "Barney Miller," where he played detective Nick Yemana. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Adachi)
From The Asian Reporter, V22, #09 (May 7, 2012), pages 11 & 16.
You Donít Know Jack details the life of groundbreaking actor and singer Jack Soo
You Donít Know Jack:
The Jack Soo Story
Directed by Jeff Adachi
Airing Friday, May 25 at 11:30pm
on Oregon Public Broadcasting
By Maileen Hamto
The Asian Reporter
Positive images and portrayals of Asian-American males are a rare sight in mainstream media, even today. Beyond martial-arts heroes and brainy, nerdy sidekicks, film and television roles involving Asian-American men who transcend those stereotypes are few and far between. Thatís why Jeff Adachiís documentary You Donít Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story is an important telling of the life of a highly talented comedian, singer, and actor who broke through traditional portrayals.
In 1963, at a time when roles for Asian Americans were nil to nonexistent, Jack Soo became widely known for being the first Asian-American male cast in a lead, mainstream role in "Valentineís Day," a television comedy series. His comedic career closely followed his musical accomplishments: Soo was part of the history-making cast of the 1961 film Flower Drum Song. The film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit propelled Soo to further name recognition.
Soo was also the first non-African American signed with Motown Records, where he became widely known as the "Asian Bing Crosby." In the 1970s, his brand of humor and wit endeared him to viewers of the sitcom "Barney Miller," where he played detective Nick Yemana.
Sooís journey as a regular in the living rooms of heartland America did not come easy. Through interviews with Sooís childhood friends, colleagues, family members, and Asian-American actors who revere Soo, Adachi excels in creating a portrait of a man who lived through the Japanese internment, one of the most harrowing episodes in American civil rights, to emerge as a pioneering role model for Asian-American performers of all generations.
Born in 1917 to Japanese immigrant parents, Jack Soo began life as Goro Suzuki in Oakland, California. As a student, he excelled in sports, playing basketball, football, and baseball. He got his start performing as part of the choir for a Methodist church attended in large part by Oaklandís Japanese-American community. By the time "Goro" was a teenager, he was gaining a following as a singer at nightclubs and on the talent show circuit.
Soo was 25 years old when exclusion and imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent became law throughout the west coast. Even during internment, Soo stayed in character. At the Tanforan Assembly Center and later at the Topaz Relocation Center, he organized performances involving community members to sing and perform skits and theater works. Soo encouraged people to write jokes and songs that encapsulated the experience of internment.
"He made us forget our troubles for a few hours," says one childhood friend.
After World War II and newly released from internment, Soo found it difficult to find work in the entertainment industry with the last name "Suzuki," as anti-Japanese sentiment remained strong for many years following the war.
Early in his career, he lost a job in radio because he was suspected as an "enemy alien." In order to secure work, he decided to Anglicize his first name and shorten his last name to "Soo," to pass as Chinese. Only then was he able to find regular work doing what he loved: working as a nightclub comic, emcee, and singer.
Actor George Takei lauds Soo for his determination and hunger to achieve his goals. "Jack Soo became a performer despite the experience of internment. Despite the experience of prejudice and hatred," he says.
Beyond his exemplary talents in comedy and music, Sooís true and lasting legacy is in the roles he chose to play onscreen. Although roles were scarce for Asian Americans, Soo made a deliberate and conscious effort to seek mainstream characters to portray on television. In "Valentineís Day," he played a charming conman, a cool-cat hipster who could get away with virtually anything. In "Barney Miller," he was a thoughtful and laid-back police officer who had a reputation in the precinct for making bad coffee.
Let Soo be remembered for standing his ground on the roles he took on as an actor, choosing breakthrough characters who defied stereotypes of Asian-ness. As George Takei eloquently put it: "Jack Soo is the quintessential all-American with an Asian-American face."
You Donít Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story airs Friday, May 25 at 11:30pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting with a replay scheduled May 26 at 4:30am. To learn more, visit <www.opb.org> or <www.jacksoo.com>.