Thursday, February 11, 2010
The Soo Line
On the DVD extras for the film Flower Drum Song, one of the crew members tells the story of a young comic named Jack Suzuki who was spotted by the producers of that Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as it was headed to Broadway. They wanted Jack to be in the show, but - as you undoubtedly know - it is concerned with Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and Suzuki was not a Chinese name. So he was offered a part as long as he agreed to change his name to something more Chinese-sounding. "Call me Jack Soo," he said, and henceforth he was.
This is a wonderful little anecdote, whose only drawback is that it doesn't appear to be true. In the film You Don't Know Jack, a documentary on the life of Jack Soo that I have not seen but have read about, the story is told that a young comic named Goro Suzuki, plying his trade in the Midwest just after getting out of an internment camp during World War II, decided that his very Japanese-sounding name wouldn't go over well with those patriotic heartlanders. So he shortened it to a more generic Asian (they would have said Oriental at the time) name, Jack Soo. (One of his fellow comics out there on the nightclub circuit, but the way, was a future television producer named Danny Arnold.) I suspect that over time, Jack got to telling the first version of the story, which doesn't involve as much icky racism, and is a lot funnier.
Jack Soo went to Broadway and played a nightclub comic in the stage version of Flower Drum Song. By the time the movie was made, in 1961, he had graduated to the much bigger role of the nightclub owner, a Dean Martin-style hipster with the swinging name of Sammy Fong. He had his own sitcom for a brief while, and recorded the original version of "For Once in My Life," later made famous by Stevie Wonder, for Motown Records in 1965. I know, it's hard to believe, but it's really true. I don't think Jack ever cut "Living for the City," though.
He played a Chinese wrestler by the name of Chuck Chin in a memorable episode of The Odd Couple before his old friend Danny Arnold cast him as the hard-gambling, laconic Nick Yemana in Barney Miller. At last, Jack Soo was Japanese again.