Keye Luke, the first Chinese actor signed by Hollywood

Keye Luke (1904-1991), one of the most prominent Asian actors of American cinema in the mid-20th century

American actor, artist and founding member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Keye Luke died of a stroke on January 12th, 1991 in Los Angeles County.

A naturalized citizen of the United States since 1944, Luke was born Kee Luk Shek on June 18th, 1904 in the Chinese province of Canton, but raised in Seattle, where he attended Franklin High School and started drawing cartoons and illustrations.

Part of his extended family had long settled in the State of Washington, where relative Wing Luke (1925-1965) became the first assistant Attorney-General of Asian descent.

During the Great Depression, which started in 1929 and lasted almost for a decade, his four siblings all immigrated to California. The most famous was his younger brother Edwin (1911-1986), also an actor.

Luke made his film debut in The Painted Veil with Swedish actress Greta Garbo (1905-1990) in 1934 and the following year gained his first big role in Charlie Chan in Paris, part of the series about a fictional Honolulu police detective performed by the Swede Warner Oland (1879-1938).

In 1937’s Charlie Chan at the Olympics Luke was depicted as an enthusiastic US Olympic Gold Medalist in 100 meter swimming. He left in 1938, though returned for the last two features, 1948’s The Feathered Serpent, along with fellow Chinese Victor Sen Yung (1915-1980) in their only appearance together, and 1949’s Sky Dragon.

He was Brak in the 1960s Space Ghost cartoons, Master Po in the 1970s television martial arts drama Kung Fu with David Carradine (1936-2009) and the mysterious Chinatown shop-owner Mr. Wing in the two Gremlins horror comedies in the 1980s.

RKO Pictures signed him for The Falcon, the nickname for two fictional detectives portrayed by George Sanders (1906-1972) and his brother Tom Conway (1904-1967) as well as for Mexican Spitfire with Lupe Vélez (1908-1944) and Leon Errol (1881-1951).

Universal Pictures hired Luke as the original Kato in the 1939–41 The Green Hornet superhero serials and to match old footage of Indian player Sabu Dastagir (1924-1963) in the serial Lost City of the Jungle (1946). For Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer he starred in the Dr. Kildare series of the 1940s.

Monogram Pictures Corporation, later named Allied Artists Pictures Corporation, featured him in the Frankie Darro (1917-1976) comedies and in the 1940 mystery Phantom of Chinatown, as the last Mr. Wong, an American with no trace of a foreign accent or Oriental philosophy.

Before becoming an actor, Luke worked on several of the murals inside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and did some of the artwork for the pressbook of the original 1933 King Kong.

In 1941 Luke painted the casino’s mural for Josef von Sternberg’s (1894-1969) film noir The Shanghai Gesture, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction.

In the 1950s Luke contributed pen and ink drawings to the reprint of the English translation of a selection of poems attributed to Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), dubbed «the Astronomer-Poet of Persia», as well as dust jackets for other publications.

In the 1958 Broadway musical Flower Drum Song, directed by Gene Kelly (1912-1996), Luke sang the part of Mr. Wang, the family patriarch. In a 1969 episode of the original Star Trek entitled Whom Gods Destroy Luke was Governor Donald Cory.

He featured in The Chairman starring Gregory Peck (1916-2003), provided the voice of the evil Mr. Han in 1973’s Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee (1940-1973) and had a significant role in the romantic fantasy Alice made by Woody Allen (born 1935) in 1990.

Luke finally managed to play Charlie Chan himself in 1972, when he led his voice for the animated The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, and was Zoltar/The Great Spirit/Colonel Cronus in Battle of the Planets, an American adaptation of the Japanese series anime.

In 1985, Luke played ‘The Ancient One’ on the soap opera General Hospital and in 1986, appeared in the American television sitcom The Golden Girls as the love interest of Sophia Petrillo, immortalized by Estelle Getty (1923-2008).

For his contribution to show business, Luke was honored with a star the Walk of Fame and received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association of Asian/Pacific American Artists (AAPAA) in 1986.

Californian Writer and filmmaker Timothy Tau’s short film about Keye Luke’s earlier life and work premiered at the 2012 the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF), established in 1983.


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