Jack Soo
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

“I’m not Chinese”: So Japanese-American actor, comedian, and singer JACK SOO (Goro Suzuki, 1917–79), in his greatest role, Detective Nick Yemana on Barney Miller. The Oakland-raised Soo was working the San Francisco nightclub scene in 1942 when President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 landed Soo and many other Japanese-Americans in Utah’s Topaz War Relocation Center. By June ’44, Soo was out — working both a military intelligence job and Chin’s nightclub in Cleveland. Subsequent Billboard notices limn the vagaries of post-war ethnic show biz. February 1946: “Jack Soo, clean cut Chinese emsee… has a pleasant, easy style that sells his patter as well as his vocals.” August 1947: “Jack Soo, Chinese crooner, clicked immediately, registering with a big voice and a contagious smile. Good looking Oriental was bucking a case of laryngitis but his rhythm and ballad numbers produced satisfactory mitt.” March 1950: “Showed a good bary and commercial routine that hypoed his Oriental appearance. After opening with ‘When Your Smiling,’ he went into ‘Sorrento,’ explaining that he learned it in Brooklyn, his hometown.” Playing Frankie Wing in the stage (1958) and film (1961) versions of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song raised Soo’s profile considerably; myriad supporting parts followed, including ARVN Colonel Kai in John Wayne’s 1968 Vietnam apologia Green Berets. Though Detective Sgt. was a relative demotion in rank, Soo’s 12th Precinct years remain irreducibly brilliant: bad coffee, indifferent filing, obsessive gambling, shabu-shabu — the works.

I’M NOT CHINESE

YOU DON’T KNOW JACK: THE JACK SOO STORY

JACK SOO BARNEY MILLER MEMORIAL

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Francis Bacon and John Romero.

READ MORE about members of the New God Generation (1914-23).

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.