One of the most thankless recurring roles in movies must have been as one of Charlie Chan’s would-be detective offspring. After all, how many ways can an actor say “Gee whiz, pop!”? For the venerable Keye Luke, however, playing “number-one son” Lee Chan was an early stepping stone in a film and TV career that last nearly 60 years.
Born in Guangzhou, China in July, 1904. Luke came to the U.S. at age three when his family settled in Seattle. He moved to Hollywood as a young man and worked, not as an actor, but as a commerical artist and technical advisor on Asian-themed films. Luke’s artwork was featured in RKO’s pressbook for the original King Kong, and he painted murals and the auditorium ceiling for Graumann’s Chinese Theatre.
Making his feature film debut in Greta Garbo’s 1934 drama The Painted Veil, Keye landed the part of Lee Chan, with Swedish-born Warner Oland playing his crime-solving pa, in Chartlie Chan in Paris the following year. The on-screen chemistry between the pair helped drive the 20th Century-Fox series, with Luke and Oland teaming up for seven more Chan whodunits over the next three years. Meanwhile, Luke also appeared as demented doctor Peter Lorre’s assistant in Mad Love and as a Chinese villager in The Good Earth.
Fate reunited Luke and Lorre when Oland’s ill health forced Fox to change a planned Charlie Chan movie into an entry for Lorre’s Mr. Moto series, Mr. Moto’s Gamble, with Luke ‘s Lee Chan guest starring. Keye got the chance to play a lead detective when he replaced Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong in Monogram’s Phantom of Chinatown, and he co-starred as the Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato (whose nationality was changed from Japanese to Korean due to World War II) in the Universal serials The Green Hornet and The Green Hornet Strikes Again.
The 1940s gave Luke another series role, playing intern Dr. Lee Wong How in MGM’s “Dr. Gillespie” films, but his screen time was usually limited to playing servants, freedom-fighting Chinese, and the occasional Japanese villain. He reprised his “number-one son” character opposite Roland Winters in two Monogram Chan programmers, The Feathered Serpent and The Sky Dragon. The next two decades saw Keye making a memorable Broadway appearance in the musical “Flower Drum Song” and guest starring in dozens of TV shows, including My Little Margie, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, I Spy, Star Trek, and Dragnet.
1972 was a long-delayed breakthrough year for Luke, with him co-starring as David Carradine’s sightless Shaolin Master Po in the TV movie and subsequent series Kung Fu. He also finally got the chance to play Charlie Chan, albiet in voice form, in the Saturday morning cartoon series The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. Small-screen guest shots in M*A*S*H, Magnum, P.I., The A-Team, and more followed, and Luke cemented his cult status by playing the enigmatic shopkeeper Mr. Wing in Joe Dante’s Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch. His final acting role was as herbalist Dr. Yang in Woody Allen’s Alice. After suffering a stroke, Luke died in January, 1991.