Jack Soo: Japanese American actor

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Also by Jeff Adachi:

The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television USA | 2006 | 60 Minutes

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You Don’t Know Jack tells the fascinating story of 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).

Director’s Statement

I came across Jack Soo’s story when I was making my first film, The Slanted Screen, a film about the history of Asian men in film and television. I remembered Jack Soo from the popular Barney Miller television series, which I had enjoyed while growing up in the 70’s. I read that Jack Soo was actually a Japanese-American and wondered why he had changed his name to a Chinese surname. My first thought was, “Why would he have tried to hide the fact that he was Japanese American?”

I had very little information about him and was able to find out some basic facts about him from the internet. As the adage goes, “you can’t always believe what you read on-line” I found that many of the published facts about Jack were not true. For example, Wikipedia claimed he was born in Oakland; I later learned that while his parents lived in Oakland, they decided that he should be born in Japan, and he was born on a ship going back to Japan—a fact which had great consequences for him when the Japanese were interned during WWII. I also found that there were as many as four to five different stories as to why he changed his name. One version I heard was that Jack changed his name when asked to do so by Gene Kelly, who cast Jack in the Broadway hit the Flower Drum Song. This later turned out not to be true. Only after several interviews with friends did I learn why he had changed his name.

The other challenge in making this film was that Jack Soo had died 30 years ago—on January 11, 1979. This would make it difficult to tell his story, since I could not interview the subject of the film, and many of his friends and colleagues were no longer with us. Many of those who had known him best, including Barney Miller creator Danny Arnold and Valentine’s Day co-star Tony Franciosa, had passed away. I knew it would be difficult to locate those who knew him.

Thanks to Jack Soo’s daughter, Jayne Carelly, who I eventually located after several months of searching, I was able to begin piecing together Jack Soo’s life. Through the amazing photographs of Jack’s early years as a comic and singer, rare footage that I located through good fortune and luck, and the strength of the memories that had held strong in the minds and hearts of Jack’s friends, who gave of themselves generously to the making of the film, You Don’t Jack became a mission—to find and present the story of a man who had struggled mightily to become the actor and entertainer we came to know and love as Jack Soo.

Making the film was also a fascinating journey for me. You Don’t Know Jack took me to Cleveland, Ohio, where Jack had lived after the war, to Los Angeles, where Jack lived in his later years, and then to Oakland, where Jack had grown up and played baseball against Joe DiMaggio as a kid. I met and interviewed the great writer Hal Kanter, who has written and produced great television series for over 50 years, including All in the Family, Chico and the Man and Julia. Mr. Kanter is the only writer who has written for over 30 Oscar award shows over the years. He introduced me to Soo’s Valentine’s Day co-star Janet Waldo Lee, who later became the voice of Judy Jetson of the 60’s comic series The Jetsons, another show I had grown up with. We also interviewed the great George Takei, who played Sulu in the popular 60’s Star Trek series. George and Jack starred together in The Green Berets, directed by John Wayne. I also was fascinated by the stories of Etta Benjamin, who, with her husband, performed as the Leroy Brothers Marionettes, and became fast friends with Jack Soo, who they met on the road in the 40’s. These are just a few of the fascinating people you will meet in You Don’t Know Jack.

While Jack Soo never reached the heights of many of the contemporary stars of his time, such as Dean Martin, who he starred with in Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?, after making this film, I had no doubt that he certainly had the talent and the ability to be remembered amongst the very best of his generation. I hope this film helps people know Jack in this way.