Jack Soo: Remembering the Actor, Singer

The deadpan humor of Jack Soo.

Jack Soo has been gone since 1979, but he lives on through re-runs (as we used to call them). His face is recognizable, as is his deadpan delivery. I’m writing about him for a couple of reasons, less about his career, more about the man.

The Japanese-American actor was a familiar face, the way most character actors are. He adopted a Chinese name to get work as a singer and comic after World War II. Soo had been in an internment camp in Utah at the beginning of the war. He agreed to enlist in the army to get out of the camp and fought in Italy in an all Japanese-American unit.

Living in an internment camp was the fate of many Japanese-Americans, losing their property, livelihoods and freedom through no fault of their own. Soo, as a young man, used the experience to entertain others, beginning what would become his career.

Instead of Goro Suzuki, he became Jack Soo to escape anti-Japanese resentment, especially seeking work in the entertainment field. Better to be Chinese than Japanese. After the war, he played clubs and saloons across the country. He met a young comic named Danny Arnold, who much later would be the executive producer of Barney Miller.

Soo was seen performing in a cabaret in San Francisco and offered a part on Broadway in Flower Drum Song by director Gene Kelly. This was 1958, and he would also appear in the 1961 film. I had no idea that Soo was a professional singer, and a good one. Trying to break in as an Asian singer was even tougher than being an African-American singer.

The “Chinese Bing Crosby,” as he billed himself.

Soo would go on to guest star in a few television shows and films. Soo, along with Pat Morita, we’re usually called when the part required someone with an Asian face. In one role he played “Oriental #1.” Both actors would appear on the television show M*A*S*H. Soo refused to take acting roles that were demeaning to Asians or perpetuated cultural stereotypes, which likely limited his opportunities. Soo was used to working the club circuit, performing years in out of the way places, so despite the grind of that life, he respected himself and his culture to reject any offensive roles. That speaks volumes of the man, who would turn down playing jobs to do what he felt was right.

In 1964, Soo co-starred in the television show Valentine’s Day, as a conman living in the basement of his friend, played by Tony Franciosa. The show ran one season.

Soo then was cast as a South Vietnamese Colonel in John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968). The film was quite popular but did not lead to breaking out of the cycle of generic Asian characters. Until Danny Arnold was looking to fill the role of a police detective. Soo was replacing another actor who was rejected by the network. Nick Yemana was born.

In my opinion, the early years of Barney Miller were the best, and that included the episodes with Soo. His character never claimed to be the best or bravest cop, he portrayed a cop as we might. He had vices and idiosyncrasies like the rest of us, and a practical, wry way of viewing the world. He was also the mortar that held together the squad, he made the coffee (usually bad), maintained the files (sort of), occasionally offered wisdom (you struggled to understand it), and helped to relieve tension in stressful situations.

A warm tribute about Jack Soo from fellow Barney Miller alum Hal Linden.

Things I learned about Jack Soo:

He recorded a version of “For Once in My Life” for Motown Records, but it wasn’t released, Stevie Wonder’s version was.

Soo often performed with fellow comedian Joey Bishop in clubs. Soo would be asked to sing with Sammy Davis, Jr. in Vegas.

Soo was an English major at Berkeley and performed in plays and at clubs in the evenings.

Soo helped Danny Arnold change a tire, when both were struggling comics. Soo refused played for helping, and Arnold pledged to pay him back someday.

There was even a documentary made about Jack Soo, You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story (2009), written and directed by Jeff Adachi.

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