Known for his debut feature documentary The Slanted Screen, in which he broadly examines the often-stereotypical roles played by Asian American male actors in Hollywood, documentary filmmaker Jeff Adachi decided for his next project to focus on one specific Asian American actor.
You Don't Know Jack tells the story of Jack Soo, a Japanese American singer, comedian and actor who is largely remembered for his work in television series such as Valentine's Day and Barney Miller -- as well as his memorable role in the Rogers and Hammerstein's Broadway movie musical, The Flower Drum Song. A pioneer for Asian Americans in film and television, Soo firmly rejected all stereotypical and deprecating roles of Asians. Soo was also the first non-African American signed to Motown records and the first Asian American actor to be cast in a regular television series (Valentine's Day). You Don't Know Jack captures the Asian American hipster's early beginnings working in a Chinatown nightclub, his time spent in the internment camps of World War II, his big break in Broadway, and his later achievements in television. Adachi relies on testimonies from personal friends and family -- along with photographs, clips and even Jack's own musical recordings that act as the film's soundtrack -- to create a vivid image of the man known as Jack.
Adachi has worked as San Francisco's Public Defender since 2002, and he has always been involved in projects that highlight the Asian American community.
APA: How did you find the story of Jack Soo?
Jeff Adachi: In the mid-90s, I started producing a show called the Golden Ring Awards. It was a way in which to illustrate the talent in the Asian American community. I began producing the show to try and better familiarize the Asian American community, as well as the general public, on the struggle of the Asian artist to express themselves artistically, politically and culturally.
From that came The Slanted Screen, which was my first film -- about the way in which Asian males are portrayed in film and television. I thought that filmmaking was a way to reach a broader audience. The Slanted Screen premiered at the Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco and went on to have it premiere at about 25 film festivals all around the world. Then it was selected on national PBS and over a million people across the country and Canada saw it. When I was making The Slanted Screen, I came across the story of Jack Soo, and that's sort of how this second film got started.
APA: Through your Slanted Screen research, you must have come across many stories about Asian American men in Hollywood. What was it about Jack Soo in particular that made you want to pursue his story?
JA: First of all, it was the fact that he had changed his name [from Goro Suzuki to Jack Soo]. I remembered him from the Barney Miller TV series as I grew up in the 70s. I remembered reading he was actually Japanese American, and I thought, "Now why would he change his name from a Japanese American name to a Chinese American name?" There wasn't a lot written about him, but from what I was able to learn, it was because he was in the camps. He was living in the Midwest performing as a stand-up comic, and he had to change his name just for his personal safety, That's what got me interested in researching Jack's life.
The other thing I found fascinating about Jack was he was a comic, a singer, and an actor -- a multi-talented individual who was able to rise to prominence despite all the prejudice and discrimination that he faced. When he was interviewed by mainstream media like TV Guide -- and this was in the 1960s -- he would always make it a point to state that he would not play roles he believed were stereotypical. He would not play houseboys and laundrymen, he would not speak with an accent, and that was very rare at that time. Not only for actors to speak out on these issues but to also to refuse roles.
APA: What kind of characters did he get to play?
JA: He was one of the few actors of his genre to play these sort of cool, hip Asian American characters. And although he wasn't a well-known star, he had a career in Hollywood that spanned around 20 years. You wouldn't think there would have been an Asian American around in the 1930's, 40's, and 50's -- one who could sing as good as, if not better than, say Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, but there he was. Unfortunately, a lot of Jack's life was not captured on film. I heard he had performed with the Rat Pack in Vegas, that Sammy Davis Jr. would call him on the stage to perform with him, and it would have been great to have that kind of footage. But he was definitely somebody who was accepted as a peer among Hollywood's elite. Not to say that that's a sign of his success, but in a way it was Jack's way of saying: "Hey, we're here, we're part of Americana, and we're not foreigners. If I'm going to be portrayed on television or film, I have a responsibility to my community to make sure that I'm not portrayed in a way that's going to take away from who I am, or the community that I came from."
APA: You mentioned watching Jack Soo on the Barney Miller Show when you were growing up. At that time, did he stand out to you in any way?
JA: What I remember about him is that he was kind of like a funny uncle. He had that really off-the-cuff kind of humor, but at the same time, he was kind of serious. When you're growing up, you remember Asian characters on TV shows, no matter whether they were positive or negative, because you just didn't see that many Asians on TV. I don't think that I really sat there and tried to analyze Jack Soo's character in Barney Miller, but I definitely remember it distinctly, and it had an impression on me. I think that was his special talent: to be able to play these funny, quirky characters with little idiosyncrasies, but to play them in a very realistic and respectful way.
Through my research, I found that Jack had known the creator of Barney Miller. They had been friends from their days on the stand-up comedy circuit. Jack was asked to be a regular in that series, as lieutenant Nick Yamada. The show was unique for its time and very progressive because it had a multi-racial cast: you had Puerto Ricans, Jewish officers, African American characters. And it was a comedy. It was tailored-made for Jack in a sense, because he had this really dry sense of humor. We included a lot of the key scenes from that series, and I think people who didn't even know of Jack were really surprised by his acting on the series. The humor was very sharp. It was witty, and it was real. He had this ability to make it seem as if he wasn't acting.
APA: Would you say that most people remember him from his performance in Flower Drum Song?
JA: That was his real first big break. He was in the Broadway production playing one of the lighter roles, and later he became the star. Not only did it play in Broadway, to raving reviews, but it played throughout the country.
APA: Did that big break lead to more roles?
JA: After that, he was cast in Valentine's Day. It's a very hard series to find because it came out in 1963, but Jack was actually the first Asian American male character in a sitcom. This was even before the Courtship of Eddy's Father or any of those type of shows.
In the show Valentine's Day, Tony Fransiosa played a publishing executive, and he and Jack were basically these two playboys who lived together in New York. It was a comedy show, but it was unique in the sense that Jack didn't play the houseboy type. He was a co-equal to the main character in the series, and it was very unusual to see an Asian American in that type of role at that time. The show aired for a year and a half, and then he went on to do films and television.
APA: In the film, you uncovered Jack's original recording of "For Once in My Life" from Motown Records.
JA: Yea, one of the things that is talked about in the film is the fact that Jack was one of the first non-African Americans to be signed to Motown Records, and he was the first male artist to record "For Once in My Life," the song that Stevie Wonder later made famous. Motown never released the record; they ended up releasing the Stevie Wonder version, but I was able to find a copy of Jack's version in the Motown archives.
APA: Do you have any plans to highlight more of his music in the future?
JA: We were actually able to find a number of original recordings that Jack did in the 1940s, and you hear them throughout the film; that's actually Jack singing. Some people said he sounded like Frank Sinatra, but he had a distinctive voice and a very good voice. It's too bad, because there were probably more recordings, but back then you just didn't have the ability to record events and music in the same way you do now. There's not a lot, but I do have this collection of Jack's songs, and it might be interesting to release it as part of the DVD when that comes out.
APA: What are your plans for You Don't Know Jack?
JA: Well, it's been shown around the country: in Los Angeles, New York, Berkeley, San Francisco, San Diego, Washington D.C., so my plan is to show it at various film festivals until the end of this year. We've already won some awards; we won the Accolade Best Film Award, which is one of the top film festivals. As we show the film to more people, I am getting tremendous amount of interest and queries about Jack Soo.
In the next four to five months, I'll begin working on the DVD, so we'll have the DVD available, and my hope is, as with The Slanted Screen, we'll be able to get Jack's story on national PBS. That's a goal.
Again, the great thing about the medium of film is that you can just reach out to such a larger audience. The Slanted Screen right now is being shown in Israel and Malaysia. Particularly in this digital age where media is passed globally, the opportunity to get this kind of story out there are much greater. I think these kinds of stories are really universal; they're about somebody who struggles against enormous odds and succeeds, but more than that, it's about how people of different ethnicities have to struggle in order to transcend the limitations that, in many cases, the mainstream society places upon them. That's Jack's story. It's a story that a lot of people can connect with.
For more information, go to the official website here.