The text of an interview conducted for Canadian television (TV Ontario) in Hollywood, California,
The following interview was produced for Canadian television sometime around
the year 1985. It was taped in Los Angeles, California, and was later aired as part of a with three-film Charlie
Chan movie presentation on TV Ontario. This transcription was made verbatim, as closely as possible, in hopes of
allowing the reader a truer sense of both the tone and subtler nuances of the interview. When a word or phrase
is uncertain, it is enclosed in [brackets].
INTERVIEWER: I can't tell you
what an honor it is to meet you. I was raised on the films - this isn't to date you - but I was raised
on your movies, yours and Warner's -
KEYE LUKE: Well, a lot of people
say that (Laughing).
INTERVIEWER: They were all
back in the '30s, weren't they?
KEYE LUKE: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: Every single one
of those -
KEYE LUKE: In fact, I'd go
and meet a producer, you know, for a part of something, and he'd say, "Hey," you know, "I grew up on your pictures."
INTERVIEWER: How many did you
KEYE LUKE: Well, I actually
made fourteen - of the Chans. There were forty-seven altogether in the series, you know.
INTERVIEWER: That many!
KEYE LUKE: With three Charlie
INTERVIEWER: The other two -
Sidney Toler and -
KEYE LUKE: Roland Winters.
INTERVIEWER: That's right -
KEYE LUKE: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: But Warner Oland
started it, didn't he?
KEYE LUKE: Oh yes - well
there were one or two before he started. That is, they couldn't make it - they tried them out. Then Warner
came in, and Warner was about the third, I think, and he clicked right away.
INTERVIEWER: Well, there were
a couple of - actually - or one or two - There was an oriental actor, wasn't there?
KEYE LUKE: Yes, Sojin.
Yes, he was a Japanese and he played villains. Very menacing. Tall man with whiskers, you know, and all
that sort of thing, and an evil-looking face; and he played Charlie Chan. And they say he was very good - but they
INTERVIEWER: And then Warner
Oland came along -
KEYE LUKE: Then Warner came
INTERVIEWER: Who was not
KEYE LUKE: He was Swedish -
KEYE LUKE: (Laughing)
INTERVIEWER: But, there was
something about his face, though -
KEYE LUKE: Well, you see, he
said, "I'm residue of the Mongol invasions," he said, "I come by these looks naturally." And that's true, because I
knew his whole family, and they all look alike. They all have that
INTERVIEWER: The whole Oland
KEYE LUKE: Yeah...yeah. (Chuckling)
INTERVIEWER: Now how many -
you said you did how many again - 14?
KEYE LUKE: Fourteen, yeah.
of them. What are some of the titles?
KEYE LUKE: Well, let me see -
Charlie Chan in Paris, Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo, Charlie Chan at the Race Track, Charlie
Chan in the Opera, which was a great one, Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Charlie Chan at the Race
INTERVIEWER: Charlie Chan
KEYE LUKE: Broadway,
INTERVIEWER: Charlie Chan
at the Circus.
KEYE LUKE: ...at Monte
Carlo - I said that, didn't I?
INTERVIEWER: Well, we're running, on the occasion that this interview
will be presented, Mr. Luke, three of the Chan films in one night -
KEYE LUKE: It's an honor.
INTERVIEWER: Well, we're the ones that are honored having
your presence -
KEYE LUKE: Honorable father would be most happy! (Laughing)
INTERVIEWER: How did you feel - Some people get worried today
about the fact that a Swede played an oriental, or a Hungarian - Peter Lorre - played Mr. Moto; they call this racism.
KEYE LUKE: Aw!
INTERVIEWER: But, where does Keye Luke stand on that?
KEYE LUKE: Well, I call it artistry. I think that regardless
of race, color, background, so on - if a man can create a character which you can believe, he is an artist and
is entitled to the distinction of artistry, and I don't think race has a thing to do about it. Furthermore,
at that time there were no Orientals around that could have possibly played that part, for one thing. They might have
some today, but I don't know of any - that is, those that fit the Chan image - you know, that portly, genial
sort of character.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, because he did - he was more than just the detective.
He was the whole presence, wasn't he? He required a persona.
KEYE LUKE: He was the type of actor who could obliterate his own personality
and create a believable character right before your eyes. Of course I had the great good fortune to work with
him, and I observed how he worked. He was so thorough. If you watch him, he's as smooth as skating
on ice. Never a break in there - one thing flowed into another. The words matched the looks, the
looks matched the words, and the actions matched everything. He was amazing.
INTERVIEWER: He was into his Chan series before you came into it, though,
KEYE LUKE: Yes, he did about four.
INTERVIEWER: Charlie Chan in London, I think was made without
KEYE LUKE: Charlie Chan's Courage...
INTERVIEWER: Egypt wasn't made with you -
KEYE LUKE: No, no. Stepin Fetchit was in that one.
INTERVIEWER: That's right.
KEYE LUKE: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: And, how did you
get the part, sir?
KEYE LUKE: (Laughing)
That's a story in itself. Before I went to Hollywood, I was in Seattle, and my brother used to say to me, "Hey, you
ought to read these stories about this Chinese Detective in The Saturday Evening Post. Oh, he's so
clever!" You know, all that. I said, "Oh, the Post, I never read it - I'm studying Hamlet."
You know, - so, of course, I was in drama at that time - into Shakespeare.
INTERVIEWER: Where, incidentally,
in this country?
KEYE LUKE: In Seattle.
And, so, then, when I came down here, I became an advertising artist for Fox studios, and I was making illustrations for the
Charlie Chan pictures. The publicity director would come in. He said, "Here are some stills from the Chan picture.
Give me some portraits of Oland and write a few Chinese characters for teasers." You know, in the papers.
So, I was doing that, never dreaming that I would wind up acting in the thing.
INTERVIEWER: Be the number
KEYE LUKE: Yeah. So what
happens? I was at Fox. I knew everybody, they knew me. So, one day, over at RKO, they made an actor
out of me - no, MGM was really the one. My publicity director over at MGM called me and says,
"Hey, come on over here." So I took my portfolio and walked over and he said, "What the hell are you doing with that?"
I said, "Don't you want to see some of my layouts? "No," he says, "Read this!" And then he threw a script
at me. "Turn to page so-and-so." So I turned to page so-and-so, and the script was Greta Garbo's The Painted
Veil, by Somerset Maugham, you see? And he says, "How do you like that part?" And I said, "Oh, fine."
"Would you like to play it?" And I said, "Yeah, I'd like to play it." It's the part of a young Chinese assistant
to Herbert Marshall, a doctor.
So he took me downstairs to the casting department -
and I knew most of the boys in the casting department - so he says, "You wait right here." And so I waited in the
waiting room, and he went inside, and in a great circus barker's voice - because that's what he used to be, a circus
barker - he says, "Gentlemen! Out of China's 300 million" - at that time it was only 300 million, you see -
"I give you China's greatest actor!" And he walks off through another door. Dead silence, you
see. I go, "I'm on."
So I went over to the door and I stuck my head inside
and they say, "Get out of here, you bum!" - you know, see? So, they all started to laugh like mad, see?
So I said, "Okay, boys, the joke's over." So I started to walk out, and they said, "Wait a minute - come back here,
come back here." They said, We'll make a deal with you. Make a test, If the test is good, you get the part."
So I made the test, it was good, (Laughing) I got the part - so I was an actor!
INTERVIEWER: My God -
KEYE LUKE: Yes. And then,
another publicity friend of mine, for whom I worked and for whom I did some of those Charlie Chan advertising drawings, called
me up, and he says, "Now that you're a Cantonese ham," he says, "Come on out here and see what I can do for you." So
I went out to Fox studios in Beverly Hills, and met the casting director, and he said, "I wish you had come yesterday," he
said, "I would have had a great part for you." I said, "What was it?" He said, "A Japanese spy blowing up the
Panama Canal." (Laughing) He says, "I had to give it to someone else, because if
you had only come yesterday." "Well," he said, "why don't you run down to Western Avenue?" See, Fox studios was
divided into two parts then. The original studio was down on Sunset and Western, and the other one, the newer one, was
out in Beverly Hills.
So, I went down to Sunset and Western, and Jim Ryan
was the casting director there, whom I knew, so he said, "You know," he said, it just so happens we're going to put a number
one son in the Charlie Chan pictures," he said, "and there is no reason you shouldn't play it." So he said, "Let me
call the writer." So he called him - Philip MacDonald - who wrote "The Lost Patrol," directed by John Ford
INTERVIEWER: Oh, Philip MacDonald -
wrote a lot of mystery novels - this was -
KEYE LUKE: Exactly, exactly.
This was Charlie Chan in Paris he was writing. And I had done all the artwork - newspaper artwork -
for his picture, "The Lost Patrol," you see? So we knew each other. So he came on and said, "This is Philip MacDonald,
who is this?" I said, "This is Keye Luke." "Whooo!" - you know? He said, "Look, I'll write
a fat part in for you," you know, which he did.
So after the interview, the producer got me in the
foyer and says, "Hey, how would you like to go under contract to do those pictures?" So I said, "Yes, where do I sign?" -
you know, see? But, you see, what I'm telling you, it's just a series of coincidences - of being in the right place
at the right time, with amazing luck. And all these favors being done for me, all these doors being opened for me by
Franklin Beck, Gabe York, Eddie Eckles, Mike Newman - all those publicity men that I worked with, see?
And also, all right, now I'm an actor, so, all the
press took it up because I knew everybody on the papers. I made drawings for them - for Luella Parsons, Hedda Hopper,
Jimmy Starr - all those people - they thought it was great fun. They gave me great publicity, and I started
out right at the top with Greta Garbo -
KEYE LUKE: In The Painted
INTERVIEWER: The Painted
KEYE LUKE: I mean, I could
have had 600 billion dollars and I couldn't have brought this about by myself.
INTERVIEWER: How many pictures
did you do before Chan, though?
KEYE LUKE: Well, I did The
Good - Oh, I did The Good Earth after I did Chan. I did, I think it was, Oil for the Lamps of
China, with Pat O'Brien -
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, Pat O'Brien
KEYE LUKE: And Josephine
Hutchinson. And I think another one that I did was - oh, what was it - Oil for the Lamps of China,
The Painted Veil, well, The Good Earth came a little later - I think it was Anything Goes
with Bing Crosby and Ethyl Merman -
INTERVIEWER: Oh - all
KEYE LUKE: Yeah. Well
Chan was in there, but just one.
INTERVIEWER: Just one.
KEYE LUKE: Just one, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Keye Luke, Charlie
Chan in Paris, then -
KEYE LUKE: Yes -
INTERVIEWER: You were saying -
by Philip MacDonald -
KEYE LUKE: Uh-huh -
INTERVIEWER: - he wrote
a good - for the - This was your entrée of the number one...
KEYE LUKE: Son -
INTERVIEWER: What was your
meeting with Warner Oland like? Can you remember, or is that buried in time?
KEYE LUKE: Well, I think, as
I remember part of it - You know, Warner never knew whether he was Chan or Warner Oland, you know. I mean, the
two were all one in the same person, almost.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me more about
that - fascinating - psychologically that's fascinating.
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, it's fascinating
because when I came on the set the first time I met him, you know, he was "Poppa Chan" already, you know, see. None
of the - complete with gestures, everything, looks, and so on and so forth, you know.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, you mean it
wasn't the actor that greeted you - it was the character.
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, the character.
INTERVIEWER: And not the actor.
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, that's right.
He's marvelous that way. And we never knew when he was giving off with Chan or giving off with Warner, you know, one
in the same. I remember one time (Chuckling) we were up at a sort of tourist attraction -
a Japanese gardens or something - up high in the Hollywood Hills. And we were just walking around, talking, and he saw a Greyhound
bus come in with a whole load of tourists, you know, and they parked down there, and he says, "Come, come," he says, "Number
One, Number One. Let's go to shrine. Must bow to Buddha and be occupied with prayer so bothersome tourists will
not see us."
KEYE LUKE: So, here we are,
see, both bowing away, and so on, and, inside of two minutes we were both surrounded, see, by all these people, and he's signing
autographs and so on.
INTERVIEWER: Well, when he
wasn't Chan, though, I mean there would be times off the set and that when I guess he would talk to you as Warner, wouldn't
there be? He wasn't always in character?
KEYE LUKE: Practically always
INTERVIEWER: He was practically
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah, and
INTERVIEWER: But, Keye, that's
a very strange thing you're telling me - You know, this is very weird.
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, I know, I
know, I know - Yeah, oh yeah -
INTERVIEWER: He was a very
weird man, I suppose -
KEYE LUKE: No, he was a very
lovable man, and fun. Always with a twinkle in his eye. And he just loved to play act, just loved to play act.
When we were out on location, for instance, on Charlie Chan at the Circus, we were in El Monte - he came in
in the morning - that's the winter home at that time for the circus - So, we were over there, and when lunch came -
this was the first day there - he had two - he had two thermos bottles. And so, he handed one to me and said,
"This for number one son." He says, "Very good soup," he says, "Pea soup. You grow up to be big like father.
KEYE LUKE: So he gives
it to me. Then he says, "This is honorable tiger tea for father," see? Actually, martini! Tiger tea!
INTERVIEWER: (Laughing) A martini was the tiger tea!
KEYE LUKE: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I
heard that he liked to drink -
KEYE LUKE: Yeah.
He liked to drink, yeah, yeah. The more he drank, the happier he got. (Laughing)
INTERVIEWER: Now, he'd
drink between takes or -
KEYE LUKE: Well, I wouldn't
say that he did not, but I never saw him.
INTERVIEWER: Never, never -
KEYE LUKE: But, somewhere
along the line, he managed to absorb a little, you see? So that, I remember when we were making Charlie Chan at
the Race Track. He had to lean on the rail and watch these horses go by, see? So, he'd see them coming in,
so he'd follow like this (Turning his head), you see? Well, of course, he was a little unsteady, so
he'd slide along that thing - like that. (Acting unsteady) So finally,
Lucky Humberstone the director says, "Well, I know how to fix it. Come on down here everybody!" you know? So the
crowd that was in the stands, you know, got - came down - and he said, "Now, crowd around him and prop him up."
KEYE LUKE: See?
Crowd around and prop up. So, all right, Poppa was pinched in there, you see? So, now, the thing to do was to
get him to look at the horse when it was coming, and he wouldn't turn, sort of like that (Looking
to his left). So he said, "So, what shall I do now?" So he says, "Oh, I know what!" So got a
starter's pistol, and he went down there a little ways, you see (Chuckling), and at a
[zoom point], with the horses, he'd fire this -
KEYE LUKE: - and Pop
would go (Looking to his left, laughing) and he'd follow the horses by! God, it
was funny! Oh, we just died! Everybody just died! (Laughing)
We met Bruce Humberstone a few years back -
KEYE LUKE: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: - and
he spoke warmly about your screen da... - your screen poppa -
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, well, I think we
had the most fun with Bruce, with Lucky Humberstone. (Laughing)
INTERVIEWER: What was it - Tell
me about a day - how much would you shoot? Could you describe a day, Keye?
KEYE LUKE: Well, a day -
INTERVIEWER: On a Charlie Chan film
KEYE LUKE: (Laughing)
A day on a Chan film was mainly fun, but it was also a little bit strenuous, because Poppa had a way of missing his lines,
you know, see?
INTERVIEWER: I've heard that about
KEYE LUKE: Yes, it was very cute,
you know. All right, he'd miss a line and say, "Oh, so sorry. Honorable feet not in proper place," you know, see.
Then, he'd say, all right, we'll start again. Then he'll blow a line and say, "Oh, rustle of doves in rafters," you
know, because we had doves flying around in those big stages and never could get them out, you know. So all right, so,
then, another time he'd blow, and he'd look up and say, "Alex! Why did you rustle that paper just on my line?"
Alex wasn't even on the set. Alex was his stand-in. So, I mean, after every one he'd [half-take].
The funniest one of all, though, I think, was when
he was making a picture and, uh, this one had Henrietta Crosman. She was a great character actress, you know.
And they were going up a flight of stairs, you see, and Warner was leading the way, and an actor, and Henrietta was following,
and a couple of others, they'd wind up these steps. So, he'd read his lines as they went up. And he'd blow it,
then they'd come down again and start up again. You know, this kept up for about eight or nine times, see? By
that time, everybody was pretty well tuckered out, you know, see. Well, especially poor Henrietta, you know? So,
up they went again, and he was letter perfect. He had every - But on the last instant, Henrietta stubbed
her toe and made a noise, and he turned around and says, "Henrietta, darling, I had my lines that time, too." (Laughing)
KEYE LUKE: Oh, God, he was marvelous,
he was marvelous.
INTERVIEWER: So you go
through a day, it would be what, seven in the morning you would turn up for your make-up?
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah.
And the shoot - sometimes we'd get lucky, you know, and our parts might be shorter for the day, and we'd go home.
But in those days, we worked Saturdays, and we worked Saturday nights all the way through into Sunday to complete
the day's shootings, and all that sort of thing -
INTERVIEWER: I've heard
until two a.m. or something -
KEYE LUKE: Oh yes;
oh, yes -
INTERVIEWER: Of course,
there was no Screen Actors Guild -
KEYE LUKE: No Screen
Actors Guild in those days, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Oh my God -
did you mind it?
KEYE LUKE: Of course,
I was too young to mind anything except for the glamour and the fun and the great good fortune
of the whole thing.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yeah,
you were very famous, I mean, my gosh. Now, you would work those hours - How much script would
you shoot in a day, Keye?
KEYE LUKE: Well, I don't
know - we'd shoot as much as we can, as much as we can -
INTERVIEWER: A few pages?
KEYE LUKE: How many?
INTERVIEWER: Few -
three or four -
KEYE LUKE: Oh, more than
that, [sometimes], if we could possibly do so. And then, the amazing thing about these pictures, was we had four weeks
regular shooting schedule, and then they'd call us back for re-takes, of another week, maybe; it'd run several
days, anyway. And we made those pictures for about 250 to 275 thousand dollars.
INTERVIEWER: The Chan
KEYE LUKE: Yes sir.
Because we had the use of all the sets that were standing, you know, the "A" sets and all that.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, yes
KEYE LUKE: And, so, a
lot of construction costs were cut. And then, of course, back in those days, the '30s, 250,000, 275,000 was a good
Chan at the Opera, which we both agree is one of the greats -
KEYE LUKE: Yeah -
INTERVIEWER: With Karloff,
of course -
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah
INTERVIEWER: You got
to meet him.
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, Karloff
and what's-his-name - Bill Demarest was in it.
INTERVIEWER: Bill Demarest.
KEYE LUKE: And Margaret
Irving, the opera singer; I, yes - Nedda Harrigan, who was the wife of Walter Connolly. I, yes - and let's
see, who else, now - if I can remember -
INTERVIEWER: I forgot
the [villain's?] name - But, uh, Stanley - Oh, it'll come to me - But, where did you shoot that?
KEYE LUKE: We shot it
right on the set, at Fox.
INTERVIEWER: They did
the whole opera - they built the stage - and rehearsed the whole -
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah,
they had the sets and all that sort of thing already built, most of them, and they just completed them with a little extra
dressing or something.
INTERVIEWER: How was
Warner Oland? He had played, of course, in Shanghai Express - He played Fu Manchu, hadn't he? I
think the first picture I ever saw as a kid of four was The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu.
KEYE LUKE: Yes, yes -
INTERVIEWER: He was a
wonderful presence on the screen.
KEYE LUKE: Oh, well,
he had that, as I said, that tremendous ability to obliterate his own character and give you a new, living character.
INTERVIEWER: Even though
he had all these problems. What was he like near the end? I'm told it was pretty tragic. I mean, his health
was failing, and his drinking was increasing, and -
KEYE LUKE: Well, uh,
actually I don't think that there was anything about him towards the last there that a little rest wouldn't have done -
INTERVIEWER: (Unintelligible) -
KEYE LUKE: Yeah, yeah,
that was it. Uh, I knew that he drank heavily and all that, but, uh, uh, he could maintain a level. And, as far
as his health was concerned, why, he wasn't that sick.
INTERVIEWER: He wasn't?
KEYE LUKE: No, no.
finally took him, Keye?
KEYE LUKE: Well,
he went to Europe. He said that - at the time Hitler was making noises and Mussolini was making noises - and
then I said - "Pop, why do you want to go over there into a troubled sector?" And he says, "Ah!
Honorable Poppa have appointment with chestnut trees blooming in Florence," you know?
INTERVIEWER: Oh my God
KEYE LUKE: So he went.
Everywhere he went, they wined and dined him, wined and dined him, and he sent back these headlines and newspaper clippings
to me and all that, you know -
INTERVIEWER: Okay -
KEYE LUKE: And, so, it
was just like a triumphant tour - all through Europe, there - and then he finally got up to Sweden to Stockholm
to the ancestral home -
INTERVIEWER: Great -
KEYE LUKE: - and
he got bronchial pneumonia, and he died in his mother's bed. First time he had been back to his home in what, forty
years or so? Yeah. We were shooting with Charlie Winninger, Alice Faye, and Warner Baxter, I think, the afternoon
that the news came to us on the set, and we all just went home.