[HOLLYWOOD] Jack Soo Documentary ("You Don't Know Jack")
- You Don't Know Jack
It also noted that Yemana was the first regular adult character on US prime-time television written for an American of Japanese descent, a role long-sought by Jack. The most poignant moment of the show came at the end, when the cast members raised their coffee cups in a final farewell toast to the late actor.
Soo's last words in character to his Barney Miller co-star Hal Linden as he was being wheeled into the operating room before his death were: "It must have been the coffee
Suzuki, who took on the stage name of "Jack Soo" after World War II, returned to the West Coast, and was a popular act at Andy Wong's Sky Room and Charlie Low's Forbidden City in San Francisco, which featured all Chinese performers.
He got his first big break when he teamed up with Joey Bishop, playing Bishop's straight man in 1949 for a year and a half, and the duo played Chez Paris in Chicago.
He began his career as a singer and was often referred to as the "Asian Bing Crosby." He was among one of the first non-African American artists signed to Motown records in 1965, and was the first male artist to record the classic, "For Once In My Life."
In 1945, Jack Soo married former model Jan Zdelar, who he met in New York. They had three children: Jayne, James and Richard, and two grandchildren. Jack Soo's brother, Michio "Mike" Suzuki, was the director of policy at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in Washington, D.C.
Soo's breakthrough came when he played Sammy Fong, one of the four romantic leads and a kind of "Chinese Nathan Detroit" as "Variety" put it, in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical "Flower Drum Song" (1958).
The son of a tailor who taught himself English by reading books, Jack grew up in the tough west side, the only Japanese-American in the area, protected by the muscle boys because he was a funny kid. At 14, on winning an oratorical contest sponsored by the Japanese American Citizen League, Jack heard applause and from that moment on he was hooked. He finished Oakland Technical High, went on to University of California at Berkeley, and had occasional jobs in local clubs. Along came Pearl Harbor and Jack found himself behind barbed wire in the Utah internment camp for Japanese Americans. After the war, survival as an Oriental (Japanese/Asian American) comic was almost impossible, but Soo, married to Jan Zdelar, a pretty Yugoslavian model he married in New York, managed somehow. Then came Flower Drum Song. A man who would never take demeaning Oriental parts, Soo lived to see a 180 degrees change in attitude toward Japanese Americans.
DIRECTOR/WRITER/PRODUCER: Jeff Adachi
CO-PRODUCER/EDITOR: Alex Yeung
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Josiah Hooper & Ann Kaneko
SOUND: Jon Oh & Joshua Wilkinson
MUSIC: Michael Becker
TITLES/DESIGN: Sean Dana
USA 2009 | 60 mins. | Video | Color and Black & White
You Don't Know Jack tells the fascinating story of a pioneering American entertainer Jack Soo, an Oakland native who became the first Asian American to be cast in the lead role in a regular television series Valentine's Day (1963), and later starred in the popular comedy show Barney Miller (1975-1978).
Featuring rare footage and interviews with Soo's co-stars and friends, including actors George Takei, Nancy Kwan and Max Gail, comedians Steve Landesberg and Gary Austin, and producer Hal Kanter, the film traces Jack's early beginnings as a nightclub singer and comedian, to his breakthrough role as Sammy Fong in Rogers and Hammerstein's Broadway play and film version of The Flower Drum Song. The film also explores why Soo, a former internee who was actually born Goro Suzuki, was forced to change his name in the post WWII era, in order to perform in clubs in the mid-west. Because of his experiences, throughout his career in films and television, Soo refused to play roles that were demeaning to Asian Americans and often spoke out against negative ethnic portrayals.
Directed by Jeff Adachi, whose award-winning film The Slanted Screen premiered at SFIAAFF in 2006, You Don't Know Jack reveals how Jack Soo's work laid the groundwork for a new generation of Asian American actors and comedians.
The 60-minute film tells Jack Soo's story through a montage of film and television clips, rare footage, interviews with family members, friends, co-workers, and others who knew him best. From his early appearances on programs such as The Jack Benny Show and Valentines' Day, Soo's life is examined both in the historical context of the times, and the grandeur of an earlier Hollywood where stars like Soo succeeded in a multitude of artistic mediums, reminiscent of vaudevillian times. From Soo's early training as an announcer and stand-up comic, to his singing, acting and dancing career on Broadway, culminating with his signature role as Detective Nick Yemana, Soo's unique talent and dedication to his craft are fully explored and captured through a fascinating presentation of images, music, montages, interviews and stories.
Featured interview subjects include Nancy Kwan who was Soo's co-star in the film version of Broadway Flower Drum Song; Soo's co-stars on Barney Miller, Max Gail and Steve Landesberg; Hal Kanter, the creator and producer of Valentine's Day and George Takei, Soo's friend and co-star in The Green Berets, directed by John Wayne. The film also digs deep into Soo's past, including interviews with Soo's daughter and close friends, former Topaz internees, former Motown executive Al Abrams, and others who knew Soo at key points in his life and career.
Film historian and New York Times film critic Lewis Beale shares his opinions on Soo's work and how, as a performer, Soo injected his life experience into what he called "verbal ethnicity": taking a perception about a person, in Soo's case, his Japanese-American ancestry, and standing it on its head. Soo never shied away from his ethnicity and instead used it as fuel for his comedy. One of his most famous scenes in Barney Miller illustrates this technique. As Soo described it: "a fella says to me, `You shouldn't squint so.' I say, "I'm not squinting.' And, not moving a muscle, then I add, `This is a squint!'
In an interview with TV Guide in 1977, Soo said that he refused roles of houseboys and gardeners because he didn't want to portray Asians only in that way. As Soo explained, "I'm not putting down domestics. If it hadn't been for our first-generation Japanese Americans, who were houseboys and gardeners, there could never have been the second-generation doctors, architects --- and actors. I just didn't want to play domestics on a stage."
Soo also experienced overt racism and discrimination as one of the few Japanese American entertainers of the post-WWII era. Early in this career, the William Morris Agency teamed Soo with a Caucasian comic who later became a "big name" in the business. As the duo began performing, however, the agency surmised that teaming a Caucasian and Japanese American comic might hurt the Caucasian comic's burgeoning career. "Morris cut me loose without a word," Soo later said, recalling the incident. "Pretty raunchy of them."
Ironically, it was Soo's friendship with another Caucasian comic, Danny Arnold, who he had met in the late 1940's while they were both performing in nightclubs in Ohio, that helped Soo secure his most prominent television role. Arnold had said that he wanted to produce shows in Hollywood and that he would find a role for Jack. Three decades later, when Arnold developed a comedy series about a diverse group of New York cops, he hired Soo to as a member of its regular cast. Arnold later said, "I wanted (Soo) in this show not because I wanted a Japanese cop. I wanted Jack's humor." The film explores Soo's friendships with Arnold and other entertainers of the times, including Jack Benny, Tony Franciosa, and Ross Hunter, who produced Flower Drum Song and Thoroughly Modern Millie, and how those friendships influenced Soo and his career.
The film also explores Soo's decision to change his name. Performing as a comic and singer in the mid-west in the post World War II era, Soo changed his name in order to perform without fear of retaliation. When he was hired to star in the Broadway production of the Flower Drum Song, Soo tried to change his stage name back to Suzuki to reclaim his Japanese ancestry, but was told by producers that they preferred the name Soo to Suzuki.
The film ties rare footage of Soo's performances to illustrate the breadth of his talent and versatility of the roles he played. From tough cops (Police Story), to a notorious gambler and charming con-man (Valentine's Day), to the handsome, swinging club owner (Flower Drum Song), bookmaker-investigator (Monk) and the cunning crime boss (Hawaii Five-O, Ironside), Soo played a variety of characters, never failing to leave his one-of-a-kind stamp of humor, wit and comic surprise on the roles that he made his own for all eternity.
The Jack Soo Story
Jack Soo was born on October 28, 1917, as Goro Suzuki. Although his parents lived in Oakland, they decided to give birth to their son in Japan, and Goro Suzuki was born on the ship before it reached Japan.
The son of George Suzuki, a tailor, and Haruko Shiozawaa Suzuki, a dressmaker, Suzuki attended Oakland Technical High School, and worked as a farm laborer and eventually as a contractor, buying melons in Turlock. He decided early in his life that he wanted to be an entertainer a highly unusual choice for a second-generation American born Japanese. He attended and graduated from UC Berkeley, where he studied English, but by this time, was already performing in nightclubs in San Francisco, introducing other acts and performing stand-up comedy.
In 1941, Suzuki, along with his family, was interned at the Tanforan Assembly Center in South San Francisco and then at Topaz Relocation Center, Utah, along with thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II.
There, Suzuki, then in his mid-20's, quickly earned a reputation as a popular "camp" entertainer among his fellow internees by singing and performing at events. He later received authorization from the U.S. government to leave the internment camps and later worked in military intelligence in Cleveland, Ohio.
After the war, Suzuki began working as a butcher in Ohio but continued to moonlight as an emcee and performer in nightclubs and venues throughout the Midwest and Eastern States, including the Heidelberg Roof in Jackson, Mississippi, Vine Gardens in Chicago, the State Fair in Dallas and the China Doll in New York. He got his first big break when he teamed up with Joey Bishop, playing Bishop's straight man in 1949 for a year and a half, and the duo played Chez Paris in Chicago.
Suzuki, who took on the stage name of "Jack Soo" after World War II, returned to the West Coast, and was a popular act at Andy Wong's Sky Room and Charlie Low's Forbidden City in San Francisco, which featured all Chinese performers. It was at the Forbidden City that Soo was "discovered" by Gene Kelly, who offered Soo the role of nightclub announcer Frankie Wing in the Rogers and Hammerstein's Broadway production of The Flower Drum Song in 1958. Soo was hired and moved to New York City.
After earning rave reviews for his portrayal of Frankie Wing, Soo was elevated to the leading role of the nightclub owner and romantic lead Sammy Fong, and was chosen to play the same role in the film version of the musical, which was released in 1961.
The play and film made history, as the first mainstream musical to feature an all Asian-American cast. Soo sang his own songs and won accolades for his performances in both the play and the film. Soo decided to settle in Hollywood, and over the next decade, despite a lack of roles for Asian Americans, he managed to find work in films such as Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963), the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), The Oscar (1968) and The Green Berets (1968) with John Wayne. Soo was also cast as a regular in the series Valentine's Day, as the chauffeur-gambler Rockwell Sin, co-starring with Tony Franciosa, which aired for one season in 1964. He also appeared in many television shows, including Hawaii Five-O (1970), The Odd Couple (1972), Ironside (1974), MASH (1972,1975) and Police Woman (1975).
But Soo's talent stretched far beyond the memorable roles and characters he created for film and television. He began his career as a singer and was often referred to as the "Asian Bing Crosby." He was among one of the first non-African American artists signed to Motown records in 1965, and was the first male artist to record the classic, "For Once In My Life." He also sang several songs in both the film and Broadway productions of the Flower Drum Song. He was also one of the first Asian American stand-up comics to tour widely throughout the United States, including the Midwestern nightclub circuit, New York and Las Vegas.
In 1945, Jack Soo married former model Jan Zdelar, who he met in New York. They had three children: Jayne, James and Richard, and two grandchildren. Jack Soo's brother, Michio "Mike" Suzuki, was the director of policy at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in Washington, D.C.
Sadly, Soo died of cancer on January 11, 1979 at the height of his popularity. His death shocked Soo's friends and cast members of the show Barney Miller, which was in its fifth season, and the entire cast stepped out of character in a tribute to Jack in an episode that aired in May of 1979. It was said that his last words to his co-star Hal Linden, who played Barney Miller in the series, as Soo was being wheeled into the operating room before his death were "It must have been the coffee," referencing a running joke by his character from Barney Miller of having the reputation for making horrible coffee. At the end of the tribute, Soo's cast members raised their coffee cups in a final toast to his memory.
Jack Soo was born Goro Suzuki in Oakland, California. Soo was caught up in the Japanese American internment during World War II and sent to Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. Fellow internees recalled him as a "camp favorite" entertainer, singing at dances and numerous events.
Soo's career as an entertainer began in earnest at the end of the war, first as a stand-up nightclub performer primarily in the Midwestern United States. It was during his years playing the nightclub circuit that he would meet and become friends with future Barney Miller producer Danny Arnold, who was also a performer at the time.
Soo finally earned his big break in 1958 when he was cast in the Broadway musical hit Flower Drum Song in the role of the show M.C. and comedian Frankie Wing ("Gliding through my memoree"). He was working in San Francisco in the Forbidden City nightclub, which was portrayed in the musical and movie. He was offered the chance to go to Broadway on the condition that he change his name to something Chinese, as "Flower Drum Song" tells a story set in San Francisco's Chinatown. It was at that time that he adopted the surname "Soo". Jack moved up to the Sammie Fong role in 1961, when the film version of the musical was made.
In 1964, Soo played an important weekly supporting role as a poker-playing con artist in Valentine's Day, a one-season comedy television series starring Tony Franciosa. During the next decade, he would appear in films such The Green Berets (as an ARVN general) and the 1967 musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, as well as making guest appearances on TV shows such as Hawaii Five-O, The Odd Couple, and two episodes of M*A*S*H. In most of his roles in television, in movies, and on stage, Jack portrayed leaders or characters "breaking out" of the Asian stereotypes held at the time.
Soo was cast in his most memorable role in 1975 on the ABC sitcom Barney Miller as the laid-back, but very wry, Detective Nick Yemana, who was also responsible for making the dreadful coffee the entire precinct had the misfortune to drink every day.
Soo was diagnosed with esophageal cancer during the show's fifth season (197879). The cancer spread quickly, and Soo died on January 11, 1979 at age 61. His last appearance on Barney Miller was in the episode entitled "The Vandal", which aired on November 9, 1978.
Because his character (and Soo himself) was so beloved, a special retrospective episode was made, showing clips of his best moments: it aired at the end of the season. It also noted that Yemana was the first regular adult character on US prime-time television written for an American of Japanese descent, a role long-sought by Jack. The most poignant moment of the show came at the end, when the cast members raised their coffee cups in a final farewell toast to the late actor.
Soo's last words in character to his Barney Miller co-star Hal Linden as he was being wheeled into the operating room before his death were: "It must have been the coffee."
Movie about Jack Soo, the first Japanese-American comedian
Yesterday at SFIAAFF, I saw a documentary about Jack Soo, a comedian/singer who was famous in the 60s and 70s. Jack Soo is actually Goro Suzuki, a second-generation Japanese-American who grew up in an internment camp and changed his name to sound Chinese to avoid being sent back to camp after he wiggled his way out. He did stand-up in San Francisco and Chicago, and was in a bunch of TV shows. It was really goodI didn't know anything about the guy before, but I learned that:
- He was the first Asian American actor who refused to play stereotypical, derogatory roles. He also spoke English with no accent. Opened doors for lots of other Asian actors.
- He married an Eastern European model and has three kids, and a granddaughter who lives in San Francisco.
- He was an awesome singer. One of his co-stars of Valentine's Day equated his skillz to Frank Sinatra. In fact, he was recording some super famous songs but ultimately they gave the gigs to people like Stevie Wonder, possibly because that was more marketable.
- He died at the height of his career of cancer.
In the Q&A following the screening, director Jeff Adachi noted that there was very little information about Soo out there--but he managed to find a good number of old friends and family and put together an insightful tribute to the guy.
A genial, laid back, slumber-eyed character player especially adept at the relaxed wisecrack or dry comment, Japanese-American actor Jack Soo was born in Oakland, California, in 1917, his real name being Goro Suzuki. In the post-WWII years, he entertained as a stand-up performer in nightclubs and had made a reasonable dent on the Midwest circuit by the time he earned his big break playing Sammy Fong in the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit Broadway musical "Flower Drum Song" in 1958. Three years later, Soo won the honor of transferring his role to film and decided to settle in Hollywood. Over the next decade, despite a typical lack of roles for Asian-Americans, he managed to find a niche for his hip, deadpan demeanor on TV and a few other films including Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963), the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and John Wayne's controversial pro-Vietnam War film The Green Berets (1968). Soo is probably best remembered for his smart-aleck Detective Sgt. Nick Yemana on "Barney Miller" (1975), one of the more popular sitcoms of the 1970s alongside Hal Linden and Abe Vigoda. Sadly, he died of cancer during the show's fifth season in 1979 at the height of his popularity.
IMDb Mini Biography By: Gary Brumburgh / gr-home@...
The cast of "Barney Miller" (1975) stepped out of character on a retrospective episode that aired in May of 1979 to offer a tribute to Jack, who had died a few months earlier during the show's fifth season. The episode recalled some of his best moments on the show.
In the late 1940s, he first met "Barney Miller" (1975) creator Danny Arnold while sharing the nightclub stages in the mid-West early in their show business careers.
Was interned in a camp for Japanese-Americans in Utah during WWII.
His last words to _Hal Linden_ as he was being wheeled into the operating room before his death were "It must have been the coffee." This was a reference to the running gag of his character Nick Yemana from "Barney Miller" (1975) having the reputation for making horrible coffee.
Cast as the show M.C. and comedian Frankie Wing ("Gliding through my memoree") in the 1958 Broadway cast of "Flower Drum Song", and Larry Blyden was Sammie Fong. Jack moved up to the Sammie Fong role for the 1961 film.
"Barney Miller" .... Det. Sgt. Nick Yemana (98 episodes, 1975-1979)
- The Photographer (1979) TV episode .... Det. Sgt. Nick Yemana
- Inquisition (1979) TV episode .... Det. Sgt. Nick Yemana
- Computer Crime (1979) TV episode .... Det. Sgt. Nick Yemana
- Identity (1979) TV episode (credit only) .... Det. Sgt. Nick Yemana
- Open House (1979) TV episode .... Det. Sgt. Nick Yemana
Return from Witch Mountain (1978) .... Mr. Yokomoto
"Busting Loose" .... Hoofat (1 episode, 1977)
- House of Noodles (1977) TV episode .... Hoofat
"Police Woman" .... Red Star (1 episode, 1975)
- The Bloody Nose (1975) TV episode .... Red Star
"M*A*S*H" .... Charlie Lee / ... (2 episodes, 1972-1975)
- Payday (1975) TV episode .... Kim Chung Quoc
- To Market, to Market (1972) TV episode .... Charlie Lee
"Police Story" .... Bruce Chan / ... (3 episodes, 1974-1975)
- Year of the Dragon: Part 2 (1975) TV episode .... Bruce Chan
- Year of the Dragon: Part 1 (1975) TV episode .... Bruce Chan
- The Hunters (1974) TV episode .... Tai'ske
"Ironside" .... Joe Lee / ... (3 episodes, 1974)
... aka "The Raymond Burr Show" (USA: syndication title)
- The Over-the-Hill Blues (1974) TV episode .... Sing-Ho
- Amy Prentiss: Part 1 (1974) TV episode .... Joe Lee
- Amy Prentiss: Part 2 (1974) TV episode .... Joe Lee
She Lives! (1973) (TV) .... Dr. Osikawa
"The Odd Couple" .... Chuk Mai Chin (1 episode, 1972)
- Oscar's Promotion (1972) TV episode .... Chuk Mai Chin
"The Jimmy Stewart Show" .... Woodrow Yamada (2 episodes, 1971)
- Cockadoodle Don't (1971) TV episode .... Woodrow Yamada
- Pro Bono Publico (1971) TV episode .... Woodrow Yamada
"Julia" .... Judge Warren wazaku / ... (2 episodes, 1968-1971)
- Courting Time (1971) TV episode .... Judge Warren wazaku
- I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas (1968) TV episode .... Tree Man
"The Name of the Game" .... Sergeant George Kwan (1 episode, 1971)
- The Man Who Killed a Ghost (1971) TV episode .... Sergeant George Kwan
"Hawaii Five-O" .... Sam Quong (1 episode, 1970)
... aka "McGarrett" (USA: rerun title)
- The One with the Gun (1970) TV episode .... Sam Quong
The Monk (1969) (TV) .... Hip Guy
"The Red Skelton Show" .... Chinese Drama / ... (2 episodes, 1964-1969)
... aka "The Red Skelton Hour" (USA: new title)
- Why the Show Must Go On (1969) TV episode .... Narrator/Chinese Drama
- That's the Way the Fortune Cookie Crumbles (1964) TV episode .... George's Client
The Green Berets (1968) .... Colonel Cai
Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) .... Asian #1
"Summer Fun" .... Sidney (1 episode, 1966)
- Pirates of Flounder Bay (1966) TV episode .... Sidney
The Oscar (1966) .... Sam
"The Wackiest Ship in the Army" .... Shiru (1 episode, 1965)
- Shakedown (1965) TV episode .... Shiru
"Valentine's Day" .... Rocky Sin / ... (23 episodes, 1964-1965)
- I'll Cry at My Wedding (1965) TV episode .... Rocky Sin
- A Muffin Is Not a Tart (1965) TV episode .... Rocky Sin
- Farrow's Fling (1965) TV episode .... Rocky
- Viva Valentine (1965) TV episode .... Rocky Sin
- Mad, Mad Momma (1965) TV episode .... Rocky Sin
Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963) .... Yoshimi Hiroti
Flower Drum Song (1961) .... Samuel Adams 'Sammy' Fong
... aka Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song (USA: complete title)
Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) (performer: "The Japanese Sandman")
Flower Drum Song (1961) (performer: "Sunday", "Don't Marry Me")
... aka Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song (USA: complete title)
"Family Feud" .... Himself (1 episode, 1978)
... aka "Family Fortune" (UK)
... aka "The Best of Family Feud" (USA: reissue title)
- Barney Miller vs. Eight Is Enough (1978) TV episode .... Himself
"Dinah!" .... Himself (1 episode, 1976)
... aka "Dinah! & Friends"
- Episode dated 18 November 1976 (1976) TV episode .... Himself
"Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" .... Himself - Guest Performer (1 episode, 1971)
... aka "Laugh-In"
- Episode #5.11 (1971) TV episode .... Himself - Guest Performer
"The Movie Game" .... Himself (1 episode, 1970)
- Episode dated 24 August 1970 (1970) TV episode .... Himself
The Moviemakers (1968/II) (uncredited) .... Himself
"The Jack Benny Program" .... Himself (1 episode, 1962)
... aka "The Jack Benny Show" (USA: informal title)
... aka "The Lucky Strike Program" (USA: alternative title)
- Jack Meets Japanese Agent (1962) TV episode .... Himself
"Toast of the Town" .... Himself (1 episode, 1962)
... aka "The Ed Sullivan Show" (USA: new title)
- Episode #15.18 (1962) TV episode .... Himself
The hugely entertaining and much-missed Jack Soo (1917-1979) steps back into the spotlight, receiving a long-overdue tribute, when The 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival screens Jeff Adachi's new documentary, "You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story" 2:30 p.m. today, 15 March, at the Kabuki Theatre in Japantown.
The festival's program notes (by Nani Ratnawati) refer to Soo's spirit as "alive and unyielding, in spite of the discrimination of his time," and that pretty much sums up his appeal and explains the inspirational quality hidden beneath his enjoyable broad-stroke comedy.
Adachi, San Francisco's Public Defender since 2002, dabbles in filmmaking on the side, having previously made the 2006 documentary, "The Slanted Screen," which, in a brisk 60 minutes, covers the various images of Asian men on screen, from Sessue Hayakawa to Harold and Kumar.
The advocate/filmmaker became fasincated by Soo when he discovered that the actor was born Goro Suzuki - to Japanese parents - despite his Chinese-sounding stage name. For years, Broadway legend has passed along the rumor that it was Gene Kelly who personally suggested Soo's name change when he directed him in the supporting role of Frankie Wing in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" on Broadway.
There was already on Suzuki in the cast - Pat Suzuki who originated the role of Linda Low - and, besides, the Chinese-centric musical needed more Chinese in the cast. But Adachi's research found that Suzuki had actually changed his name to Soo much earlier - in order to secure work during the 1940s. The ploy worked. Soo became a staple of the nightclub circuit during and after World War II. In fact, he was famously billed in San Francisco's Chinatown as "China's funniest comedian."
Prior to his name change, Soo entertained inmates in a Japanese internment camp in Topaz, Utah with jokes and songs.
The Oakland native's big break came not in the stage version of "Flower Drum Song," but in Ross Hunter's 1961 film version, directed by Henry Koster who recruited Soo and upped him to the show's second male lead, Sammy Fong. Soo rewarded Ross and Koster by playing - and singing - the role as a hipster, in the ring-a-ding-ding style of Dean Martin.
Soo's Sammy Fong remains one of the film musical's most memorable characters. One could hardly imagine anyone else in the role. (Larry Blyden played it on stage; Blyden's wife, Carol Haney, choreographed.)
On screen, both big and small, he also starred in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The Green Berets," "Valentine's Day" and, of course, "Barney Miller," the hit sitcom he was doing when he succombed to cancer.
Adachi's film features archival photographs of Soo's life and career and testimonials and remembrances by past acting partners, including Nancy Kwan (of "Flower Drum Song"), old friends, fans and his daughter.
"You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story" gets an encore screening at the SFIAAFF at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, 18 March. Jeff Adachi will appear in person at both screenings.
A genial, sleepy-eyed character player especially adept at the relaxed wisecrack, Soo is best remembered for his hilarious Detective Sgt. Nick Yemana on one of the best sitcoms of the 1970s, "Barney Miller". His career, though, began three decades earlier, and the actor gradually managed to develop roles which were more than stock ethnic types, whose humor was based on the situations of life rather than the limitations of caricature.
Born in California, Soo spent several years of his young adulthood during WWII in an internment camp in Utah along with many other US citizens of Japanese descent. After the war he did standup comedy on a nightclub circuit in the Midwest and befriended another performer, Danny Arnold, who would eventually produce "Barney Miller". Soo's breakthrough came when he played Sammy Fong, one of the four romantic leads and a kind of "Chinese Nathan Detroit" as "Variety" put it, in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical "Flower Drum Song" (1958). In 1961 Soo made his film debut recreating the role, and over the next decade acted in several other films. He played a colonel in John Wayne's controversial pro-Vietnam War "The Green Berets" (1968) and threw Mary Tyler Moore into a clothes hamper as Bea Lillie's cartoonish henchman in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1967).
Already tending to play ambling ne'er-do-wells, Soo first ventured into TV series work as the poker-playing ex-Army buddy turned con-artist valet to debonair publishing executive Valentine Farrow (Anthony Franciosa) on the sitcom "Valentine's Day" (ABC, 1964-65). Soo's career had its dry spells, during which he made several TV-movies and played a recurring role on "The Jimmy Stewart Show" (NBC, 1971-72), but "Barney Miller" (ABC), beginning in 1975, insured his niche in popular memory four years before his death from cancer. Forever making bad coffee, griping to his bookie on the phone and moseying about offering sardonic Greek chorus-style commentary on the suspects hauled into the precinct, Sgt. Yemana finally offered full scope to Soo's quietly engaging but nonetheless formidable comic prowess.
An Affectionate Look Back at Jack
"You Don't Know Jack," a documentary by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, will have its world premiere at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
Screenings are scheduled for Sunday, March 13, at 2:30 p.m. and Wednesday, March 18, at 7 p.m. at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema, Post and Fillmore in Japantown. For ticket information, call (415) 865-1588 or visit www.asianamericanmedia.org.
The film tells the life story of comedian, actor and singer Jack Soo, one of the most prolific entertainers of his time.
His portrayal of Sgt. Nick Yemana in the popular 1970s sitcom "Barney Miller" set a new standard of hip, witty, deadpan humor, giving worldwide prominence to the Japanese American wise-cracking detective.
Bay Area Native
Soo was born as Goro Suzuki on Oct. 28, 1917, in Oakland. The son of George Suzuki, a tailor, and Haruko Shiozawa Suzuki, a dressmaker, he attended Oakland Technical High School and worked as a farm laborer and eventually as a contractor, buying melons in Turlock.
He decided that he wanted to be an entertainer a highly unusual choice for a Nisei. He attended UC Berkeley, where he studied English, but by this time was already performing in nightclubs in San Francisco, introducing other acts and performing stand-up comedy.
In 1942, Soo and his family were interned at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno and then the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. Then in his mid-20s, he quickly earned a reputation as a popular entertainer among his fellow internees.
He later received authorization from the government to leave camp to work in military intelligence in Cleveland. After the war, he began working as a butcher in Ohio but continued to moonlight as an emcee and performer in nightclubs and venues throughout the Midwest and the East Coast.
Soo got his first big break in 1949 when he teamed up with Joey Bishop, playing the straight man for a year and a half.
Discovered by Gene Kelly
Soo began performing on the West Coast and was a popular act at Andy Wong's Skyroom and Charlie Low's Forbidden City in San Francisco, which featured Chinese American performers. It was at Forbidden City that he was discovered by Gene Kelly, who offered him the role of nightclub announcer Frankie Wing in the Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway production of "Flower Drum Song" in 1958.
Goro Suzuki adopted the stage name Jack Soo and moved to New York. After earning rave reviews for his portrayal of Frankie Wing, Soo was elevated to the leading role of nightclub owner Sammy Fong, and was chosen to play the same role in the film version of the musical, which was released in 1961.
The play and film made history as the first mainstream musical with an all Asian American cast. Soo sang his own songs and won accolades for his performances. He decided to settle in Hollywood, and despite a lack of roles for Asian Americans, managed to find work in films such as "Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?" (1963), "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1967), "The Oscar" (1968) and "The Green Berets."
Soo was a regular in the 1964 series "Valentine's Day" as chauffeur-gambler Rocky Sin, co-starring with Tony Franciosa, and also appeared in such shows as "Hawaii Five-O" (1970), "The Odd Couple" (1972), "Ironside" (1974), "MASH" (1972, 1975) and "Police Woman" (1975).
Career as a Singer, Comic
But his talent stretched far beyond the characters he created for film and TV. He began his career as a singer and was often referred to as the "Asian Bing Crosby." He was one of the first non-African American artists signed to Motown records in 1965, and was the first male artist to record the classic "For Once in My Life."
He was also one of the first Asian American stand-up comics to tour widely throughout the U.S., including the Midwest, New York and Las Vegas.
Soo was married to former model Jan Zdelar, whom he met in New York. They had three children, Jayne (who is interviewed in the film), James and Richard, and two grandchildren. His brother, Mike Suzuki, was an administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.
At the height of his popularity, Soo died of cancer on Jan. 11, 1979. His death shocked the cast of "Barney Miller," which was in its fifth season, and his co-stars stepped out of character in a tribute to Soo that aired in May 1979. At the end of the episode, Soo's friends raised their coffee cups in a final toast to his memory.
Putting the Film Together
Adachi's previous film, "The Slanted Screen," examined Asian male stereotypes in Hollywood films and TV shows. It screened at various film festivals, including SFIAAFF, and was broadcast nationally on PBS. While many actors were interviewed for "The Slanted Screen," making a film about an actor who is long gone was a challenge, Adachi told the Hokubei Mainichi.
He found clips of interviews that Soo did for various TV shows. "We have excerpts from his appearance on `The Jack Benny Show.' He also was interviewed for `The Dinah Shore Show,' which I have, but we didn't end up including it in the film."
Adachi added, "Many of the people who knew and/or worked with Jack are no longer living. Jack was born in 1917, and would have been 91 years old had he lived. But I interviewed over a dozen people who knew Jack or had worked with Jack, and even though Jack passed away 30 years ago, they all had very strong memories of him. He had that kind of impact on people."
The documentary also features scenes from "Valentine's Day" and "Barney Miller" as well as clips of Soo's other film and TV appearances.
Although his day job keeps him busy he was himself featured in a documentary, "Presumed Guilty: Tales of the Public Defenders" Adachi said, "I worked on the film during my spare time. I started shooting in August 2008, and completed shooting in December."
He stressed that it wasn't a one-man show. "I have a great team, who I also worked with on `The Slanted Screen': Alex Yeung, co-producer, Sean Dana, titles and design, and Michael Becker, music."
"You Don't Know Jack" is one of the films in the documentary competition at SFIAAFF.
'You Don't Know Jack:' The Story of a Renaissance Pioneer
by Ben Fong-Torres
After the premiere screen- ing of You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, at the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival at the Sundance Kabuki theater, Dianne, my wife, turned to me as the applause wafted up to the stage, where the director and producer, Jeff Adachi, stood smiling. Until we saw this documentary of Jack Soo, we really didn't know Jack. But Dianne knows me, and she said, "Wow. You two had a LOT in common!"
And, of course, she was right. Soo, best known for his work in The Flower Drum Song, both in the film and on Broadway, and in the '70s sitcom, Barney Miller (he was the deadpan smart-alecky detective sergeant, Nick Yemane), was born in 1917, almost 30 years before I was, and was a Japanese American. Those are some big diffs. Two others: he was interned, along with thousands of fellow Japanese Americans, during World War II. And he became a star as an actor and all-around entertainer.
Still, watching this fascinating, well-researched, well-told biography -- a must-see for anyone interested in Asian American history and pop culture -- I was struck by more than a few harmonic notes:
For starters, we both were raised in Oakland, both went to Westlake Jr. High, and both wound up with unique names. Soo was originally Goro Suzuki; became Carl Suzuki, and then, after the war, when he began working nightclubs in the Midwest, changed his name to Jack Soo. In that climate, a Chinese-sounding surname ruffled fewer feathers.
We both loved baseball; Jack actually played on Oakland Tech's varsity team; I got only as far as a summer league at Lincoln Elementary before being drafted by my parents for restaurant work.
Both of us enjoyed writing -- Soo was an English major; I studied journalism and broadcasting (Jack, too, did a little radio, after the war) -- and never got acquainted with stage fright. In high school, I ran the weekly assemblies, told jokes and wrote songs and skits. In his internment camp, the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah, Jack, who'd already worked at nightclubs by then (including Andy Wong's Sky Room in SF's Chinatown), appointed himself "entertainment director" and lifted spirits by putting on shows with fellow internees, telling jokes and writing skits.
After the war, and when he returned to the Bay Area from the Midwest, he performed at Charlie Low's Forbidden City nightclub, where he was discovered by dancing legend Gene Kelly, who was scouting talent for The Flower Drum Song on Broadway. Many, many years later, I would have the pleasure of producing a CD with Larry Ching, another star at Forbidden City, after meeting him and his fellow performers while co-emceeing the premiere of Arthur Dong's documentary, Forbidden City, USA.
Even in our mutual affection for music and for singing, Soo and I have only one degree of separation, at the most. In the film, a friend of his tells how he enjoyed mimicking Bing Crosby and other singers of the day -- shades of me doing Elvis and Dino. Soo was an accomplished singer, and signed a contract with, of all labels, Motown, in the mid-'60s. He recorded, among other songs, "For Once in My Life," but it was shelved. Tony Bennett and others would also perform it, and, in 1968, Motown star Stevie Wonder cut an uptempo version of the song and took it to Number 2. Soo's beautiful, contemplative rendition is featured in You Don't Know Jack, and is one of many highlights of this film, studded as it is with TV and film clips, photos, and interviews. So, Motown. My own links are many. While at Rolling Stone, I interviewed Wonder and other Motown artists (Temptations, Miracles, Gladys & the Pips, Diana, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5) and wrote the main text of The Motown Album, a history of the fabled company.
One more thing Soo and I had in common: We were both kind of goofy-looking guys (OK, one of us was) with an eye for beauty. Soo, in 1945, married Jan Zdelar, a beautiful former model. 1945 was the year I was born, and, some 30 years later, I married Dianne Sweet, who coulda been a model, easy. Jan stood by Jack through thick and thin. Dianne? Ditto, even as I thickened.
It's likely that many Asian Americans will resonate with Jack Soo's story, but, in the end, he was singular, with his versatility, his history, and his resolution, from the get-go, that he was not going to kowtow to any Hollywood stereotyping of Asian characters. "He would not play ethnic stereotypes," says Adachi. He rejected subservient roles and wound up playing hip characters on various TV shows, including Valentine's Day with Tony Franciosa, and, of course, Barney Miller. Fellow cast members from both series illuminate the film, as do Soo's family and friends, including Nancy Kwan and George Takei.
Steve Landesberg, from the Barney Miller gang, speaks for many when he says, near the end of You Don't Know Jack: "I hope a lot of people get to see this, and know something about Jack."
The 70-minute documentary is making its way through film festivals; no word yet on a theatrical release or television airings. If and when I hear, you will, too. This one is well worth waiting for.
I SCREEN, YOU SCREEN: Congrats to the Center for Asian American Media (www.asianamericanmedia.org) for another boffo film fest, which drew some 20,000 movie-lovers to 97 screenings and events over ten days at various Bay Area venues.
Winners of juried competitions were Half-Life, directed by Jennifer Phang, for Best Narrative Feature (with a special jury prize to Tze Chun's Children of Invention). The award for best documentary feature went to The Mosque in Morgantown, directed by Brittany Huckabee; a special jury prize went to Harry Kim, director, for Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe.
The audience award for best narrative feature was won by Fruit Fly, the latest from H.P. Mendoza, who gave us Colma: The Musical in 2006. Fruit Fly (which includes a cameo by Chi-hui Yang, the indefatigable director of the film festival) had its world premiere at the fest. And the biggest crowd pleaser among documentary features was Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority, directed by Kimberlee Bassford.