Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Chans

Let's compare Charlie Chan's two movie sons, Lee played by Keye Luke (1904 - 1991) and Jimmy (or sometimes Tommy) played by Victor Sen Yung (1915 - 1980).  Well, let's look at the actors, not the characters.  Both were Chinese/Americans and both had long, wonderful acting careers.  These days, I think they may be less remembered, except by classic movie fans like us.

Warner Oland (1879 - 1938) was the first, major Charlie Chan in the movies.  He made Chan films starting in 1931, up until his death.  Oland was also the first of a long line of Chans who were not Asian.  His real name was Olund and he was Swedish.  Keye Luke played "Number One Son" Lee Chan.

Luke started working in film just a year before his first Chan movie, Charlie Chan in Paris (1935).  Eight of Oland's 16 Chan movies also included Luke.  Luke played Lee Chan in one oddity, Mr. Moto's Gamble (1939) which started out as another Chan movie, until Oland couldn't continue.  The studio brought in Peter Lorre and converted it to a Mr. Moto/Charlie Chan hybrid.

The Charlie Chan series was very popular with the public and served as a great start for Keye.  He found himself in demand wherever an Asian actor was needed.  His first big role outside of Chan was in The Good Earth in 1937, and he played the first screen Kato in The Green Hornet in 1940.  No matter that Kato was supposed to be Korean.

Luke then played a doctor in the Lionel Barrymore, Dr. Gillespie series.  Five entries in all.  The late forties brought him once again to play Lee Chan, this time with Roland Winters (1904 - 1989, note that they were the same age) as his Pop.  BTW, Winters was born Roland Winternitz in Boston, MA...another non-Asian Chan.

The 1950s brought television and more opportunities.  Luke embraced TV, and also did voice work for animation and dubbing foreign films.  He was in everything from "My Little Margie" to "Star Trek."  In 1972 he finally got to play Charlie Chan in "The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan," and was probably the first Asian to do the lead in a major work, even if it was animated. 

Keye Luke will be remembered by younger viewers as Master Po in "Kung Fu."  His newer movies include Gremlins (1984) and his final film, Alice (1990) by Woody Allen.  He has 200 titles listed on IMDb.

Victor Sen Yung also has a long career with 151 titles.  His first film was The Good Earth in an uncredited part. 

Victor started in the Chan films as Jimmy, with Sidney Toler (1879 - 1947, of Scottish ancestry) as Chan.  They made 13 films from 1938 to 1946. 

Victor was Tommy Chan in five Chan movies starring Roland Winters.  One of those also included Keye Luke, The Feathered Serpent in 1948.  The two would work together in eight other films and numerous TV shows, including "Kung Fu."

Sen Yung also worked on many TV shows.  He continued in film and you can see him in The Left Hand of God (1955) starring Humphrey Bogart, the musical Flower Drum Song (1961), and The Hawaiians (1970) with Charlton Heston and Keye Luke.  His final film was Sam Marlow, Private Eye in 1980, starring Robert Sacchi (b. 1941) who is mostly known as a Bogart look alike.

I have always enjoyed watching Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung.  They are both instantly recognizable on screen, whether large or small.  But they will always be best remembered as three of Charlie Chan's sons.  Or is that, the sons of three Charlie Chans?


  1. My favorite of Victor Sen Yung's films is also my favorite of Bette Davis's, "The Letter." In it, he shares the screen with some great actors - Davis as well as Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson and Gale Sondergaard - and manages to not only hold his own, but to create an unforgettable character.

  2. I will have to watch The Letter, I don't believe I have seen it. Both Victor Sen Yung and Keye Luke were talented, well-spoken actors. They got the most out of their parts, and I think were reluctant to be stereotyped, at a time when so many minority actors allowed that to happen.

    BTW, I have fixed the photo above. I had originally used Warner Oland's name, but that is Roland Winters.

  3. For some reason, Google will not allow me to add the picture. I was successful in deleting the incorrect picture, but the new one won't upload. I promise to keep trying!!!

  4. Keye Luke also appeared on Broadway in the Rodgers & Hammerstein hit "The Flower Drum Song". The show ran for 600 performances and then toured nationally and, according to Luke's family, he never missed a performance!

    Sharing some thoughts on Sen Yung, which echo The Lady Eve's praise for his work in "The Letter": http://caftanwoman.blogspot.com/2009/06/for-your-consideration-sen-yung.html

  5. Thanks for the additional info, Caftan. Your post is very informative. I am glad that you appreciate a great Bit Actor as much as I do.

    My posts tend to be light, because the intent of my blog is to get people interested in the lesser known people who make the movies more enjoyable. I leave the more informative posts to others! (Thanks!)

    And I was successful in posted the corrected picture.

  6. That's a great picture! Did you know that Keye Luke and Roland Winters were the same age? "Charlie Chan" is my household god. I'm a bit of a fanatic.

    I think your posts are fantastic. The character actors of classic Hollywood are my favourite aspect of the era.

  7. Thanks again, Caftan. I hope you remember Charlie Chan's Secret (1936) starring Warner Oland. I knew Rosina Lawrence fairly well from The Sons of the Desert. Rosina played Alice in that one. But no Keye Luke!

  8. What an awesome tribute! They were both fine actors and, as you pointed out, enjoyed long careers in show business. I remember the day when I was watching the TV series "Kung Fu" and realized that the Grasshopper's mentor was one of Charlie Chan's son. Key Luke also took over for Boris Karloff in the MR. WONG series of B-detective films. He just did the one film.

  9. Thanks, Rick. It is funny when you first become aware of an older actor being the same person as someone you remember from an earlier experience. Then you starting seeing him (or her) everywhere!

    I spent a lot of time in my youth at the theatre and in front of a TV. Now I see those actors in everything. I just watched a "Gunsmoke" episode with Dan Blocker.


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