In the office of Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's Public Defender, there's a wooden African sculpture bristling with nails. Adachi explains that each nail driven into the sculpture represents an obstacle overcome or a conflict resolved; a guiding sentiment to inform daily work. Adachi and I first met when he premiered his first documentary The Slanted Screen: Asian Men In Film and Television at the 2006 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF). I wrote up the film, recounted personal resonances, and interviewed Adachi for a new online project of mine that I had decided to call The Evening Class. Three years later and here we are—gratefully!—once again. My thanks to Jeff for inviting me to his office to discuss his latest film You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, premiering at SFIAAFF's 27th edition.
Michael Guillén: Jeff, I want to first express how delighted I am that The Slanted Screen was not a one-hit wonder. [Adachi laughs.] You've continued on to make more films for us. Thank you! In your capacity as San Francisco's Public Defender, as an elected official, are there term limits?
Adachi: [Laughs.] Actually, no, not for Department Heads. An elected Department Head is seen as a non-political position and there are no term limits. I'll be here for a while. It's my second term. I've been in the office for 22 years but Public Defender for 7.
Guillén: I ask because I was curious if you were paving the way towards a new career?
Adachi: No, no, not at all. Let me tell you, I do enjoy filmmaking. When you have a subject that you're passionate about, obsessed with, it becomes very easy to become involved in filmmaking. It's actually a lot like trial work in a way because you are discovering your subject, in this case Jack Soo.
I came across Jack's story when I was making The Slanted Screen. I remembered him from Barney Miller where he played the cop with the really dry wit sense of humor. But the thing I remembered about him was how he changed his name. I knew that he was Japanese and had turned his name into a Chinese surname, Jack Soo. I always wondered why he did that? Why would you change your name? A lot of people do change their name in show biz, but he changed his name from a Japanese name to a Chinese name.
I started to find a few articles here and there on him. In fact, at one point I got a bunch of articles on him off EBay, somebody had a file of articles on Jack Soo and these were articles from the '60s and '70s. Even in '64-'65, Jack was making headlines. In TV Guide Magazine they said something like, "Jack Soo is no Uncle Tom." Here was this guy in the mid-sixties, right at the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, talking about negative stereotyping and that he refused to plays roles that he thought were subservient. It struck me as, "Wow. This is a guy who was ahead of his time." Then, as I started learning more about his life story, I just became fascinated with what motivated him? What kept him going? Here was somebody who had every reason not to even try to do what he did, which was to be an entertainer.
He was born in 1917. He started performing at his church. He grew up in Oakland, California, although he was born on a ship halfway back to Japan. His parents lived here and they decided that he was the oldest boy, they wanted to have him born in Japan, so his mother and father were on the steamer back to Japan and that's when he was born. That would have implications later in his life. He was considered an enemy alien during the war. But then he started performing in plays, these were mainstream plays that he got small roles in, when he was 18-19. He was a student at Berkeley, an English major, and would perform in nightclubs in the evening. He was performing at Andy Wong's Sky Room, which was a nightclub that actually existed in Chinatown prior to the Forbidden City. They later became competitors, but Andy Wong's Sky Room was the place to go and Jack performed there before the war. Of course, when the war happened and he was interned, he began performing and entertaining in the camps, which—again, when you think about it—here they are, taken from their homes, locked in these desolate places with nothing to do, boring, and Jack Soo—then Goro Suzuki—put together these extravagant shows. By extravagant I don't mean like Broadway; though, actually people do describe them as being almost like Broadway productions. Of course they didn't have the props and everything because they were in jail. What people said about Goro Suzuki was that he just didn't want their spirit to be broken.
Guillén: One thing that impressed me while watching your documentary about Jack Soo is that there is no trace of bitterness in him. He understood and commanded the tasks at hand. Not only did he rally and inspire the internees so they wouldn't lose spirit, but he went outside of the camps to help the U.S. Government with intelligence! Jack Soo had clear focus of what he could contribute wherever he was.
Adachi: No, he wasn't bitter about it. At least from talking to people who knew him, he would never even talk about the camp experience unless he was talking to somebody who he knew would understand. In fact, he never even told his daughter about the camps. She found out about it after he passed away. He was the kind of person who rolled with the punches and at the same time he never forgot. In almost every interview that he's done with the mainstream press that I've read, he would mention the fact that he would not play ethnic stereotypes. But he would never talk about it with friends or other people, which is also interesting because most people—if they're one with the press—they probably wear it on their sleeve. But he wasn't one of those people. He never would complain. He never would be bitter about the roles. But when he had the chance to speak out about it, he did.
In the documentary we only went through Barney Miller and Valentine's Day, some of the highlights of his career, but he was in The Green Beret with John Wayne, and was in a lot of the television series at that time: Ironside, Odd Couple, The Jimmy Stewart Show. So he was one of the few guys that was around at that time, basically him and Pat Morita and they were both comics. Jack was different because his brand of comedy was unique. If you think about deadpan humor, you might think about Joey Bishop—who, ironically, was Jack Soo's comedy partner for many years—but, Jack's gift was to be able to play the gag or the joke out or the lines out without ever letting on to anyone that he was in on it. That was the beauty of it. He was able to execute a line and it seemed effortless.
Guillén: Returning back to Jack's San Francisco Club days if we may for a moment, I'm curious: wasn't Forbidden City a venue for Chinese performers? And yet, wasn't Jack an emcee there? So clearly Forbidden City was more a pan-Asian venue?
Adachi: Yeah. Y'know, at the time, there wasn't an equivalent club in Japantown and so—not only Jack but other Japanese American performers like Dorothy Toy (whose real name was Dorothy Takahashi)—performed at the Forbidden City and in other clubs around the United States. Jack learned to hone his comedy and his singing—he was a singer—and I have some old records of him when he was younger and he had an incredible voice. By the time he cut "For Once In My Life", which was in 1965, he was already 45-46 years old.
Guillén: That is a tremendous bit of cultural archaeology, by the way, Jeff. It gave me goosebumps when your documentary detailed that Motown originally recorded "For Once In My Life" with Jack Soo, only later choosing to release Stevie Wonder's upbeat version.
Adachi: I had heard this rumor, someone said he had cut an album for Motown. I found one entry on the Internet and then I tracked down Al Abrams and he remembered Jack and remembered the song but didn't know what happened to it. He put me in contact with this guy in New York who handled all the archives from that time and he was able to find an original single Jack had cut with "For Once In My Life" and another song "Duo." We'll be adding "Duo" to the final cut. It had Jack singing with simple piano accompaniment. Later, I found the orchestra version that a friend of his had on an old 33 & a third; that's why it's all scratchy.
Guillén: But it was great to listen to! I loved that. It was a wonderful touch to the documentary. Going back yet again to the fact that Jack Soo was a Japanese performer in a Chinese nightclub, speaks to second generation ethnic disguise as a means to get ahead in American entertainment. Can you speak to that?
Adachi: Sure. Everybody knew he was Japanese when he was performing in the Chinese night club. At the time the Chinese and the Japanese, at least the first generation, didn't get along; but, Jack got along with everybody. Particularly when he went to Broadway and was chosen to perform in Flower Drum Song, it was a real boost to the other performers at the Forbidden City because here was one of their own who had come up through the Chinese night club circuit. By that time Jack had gone on and he had been performing in Cleveland and Akron and Youngstown, Chicago, all over the MidWest and then the East. He did the whole night club circuit as we talked about in the film. But think about that. Here was a guy who had just been released from camp in 1942 and he goes out there and he starts performing right away under the name of Jack Soo but in a place like Cleveland or Akron. I mean, it's mindboggling to think about that.
Guillén: Just to be clear, he was already using the name of Jack Soo when he was performing at the Forbidden City?
Adachi: No. What happened was he was performing at the Sky Room and then he was interned and then he began to perform in the night club circuit and all that. Then—as alluded to in the film—when he found out that they were casting for Flower Drum Song, he didn't think that he would audition well so—instead of going to New York and auditioning for the show—he booked himself at the Forbidden City on the idea that talent scouts would eventually go there. And they did. That's how he was discovered by Gene Kelly, the dancer-director of Flower Drum Song.
Guillén: Was it Gene who changed his name to Jack Soo?
Adachi: No. He changed his name when he got out of the camps. We actually found an original letter that basically said the story behind this is that the owner of a night club called Chin's—where Jack was working at the time as a manager—let Jack go on one night when the emcee got sick; but, the owner of the night club was worried that if Jack went by his Japanese name, it would turn the customers off and there might be trouble. The story goes that's why he changed his name. As one of the women says in the film, he went out of the camps as Jack Soo. But there are all sorts of stories about this. C.Y. Lee says that they changed his name at the Forbidden City night club in the fifties. Other people say he did it for other reasons. But finally I got to the truth that he changed it after he got out of the camps and was living and working in Cleveland.
Guillén: Can you speak a bit about your research methodology? How did you go about securing your talking heads? How did you know who to approach?
Adachi: Well, y'know, I'll tell ya, I really had doubts that I could make this movie at various points because, first, he had died 30 years ago on January 11, 1979, which would make him 91 today, and so I didn't even know if I could find people who knew him or knew of him. I wrote a letter to his daughter. I didn't hear back from her for a long time. She contacted me through a third party and eventually we spoke. I told her I wanted to do this film. I think she was probably suspicious at first—she didn't know why someone was approaching her after all this time—but, then she agreed. She said okay. She said, "I want to see it when it's done, but you can do it." I obviously interviewed her for the film. Slowly I came into contact with various people, through her in some cases, and it was interesting because it was almost as if the story began to unveil itself. I didn't know the story. A lot of times you know the story before you make the film and you have a certain angle you want to explore or prove; but, for Jack's film, I really didn't know where it was going to lead. I didn't know about his childhood other than what I had been able to piece together. I'm sure that there's even more to his life than we were able to capture in this film. At various points in his life he had experiences that would or could destroy somebody; but, he always kept his spirit, kept going forward, and refused to give up. He loved to perform and put up with a lot of rough times. He once said, "I've performed in every toilet", meaning every down-and-out night club in the United States. He had a full career as a night club comic and performer in the forties and the late fifties. He had 20 years behind him before he got "discovered" for Flower Drum Song.
Guillén: In your research did you find any filmed footage of Jack?
Adachi: I did. He was on The Dinah Show and a couple of other shows; but, he didn't reveal a lot about himself. By that time we had already started this film as a discovery but I'm thinking maybe I'll include clips from those in a DVD edition. We're actually adding a small piece to the film, taking the second song from the back side of "For Once In My Life" and creating a montage of other films that he did.
Guillén: Has there been a biography written on Jack Soo?
Guillén: So your film is the first biography? Why did you choose the medium of film rather than writing about him?
Adachi: While it was more challenging to do it as a film—because, obviously, we didn't have footage of him performing in the camps or as a young man in the clubs—we did have some powerful photographs. The version you saw was a rough cut but the version that's going to be shown at the film festival has edited movement of the photographs, additional music and sound, and—because we didn't have a lot of footage of him when he was young—one thing that we're going to be doing, which is somewhat unusual, is that we're going to be creating sounds that represent the night club so that people can experience it while watching the film. When the guy's talking about a baseball game, you'll hear a baseball game. When he talks about meeting his wife in a club, we'll use little pieces of music that we have of Jack's music at that time from old 78 records we located.
Guillén: This might seem evident, but what are your hopes in bringing Jack Soo's story forward?
Adachi: I hope his story has relevance for today's generation because he was not only a pioneer but somebody who had the confidence at that time to do the work that he was doing. That's something—I won't say it was unusual—but it was certainly unique for that time. He co-starred in a film with Dean Martin. He used to get called on the stage in Vegas to perform with Sammy Davis, Jr.
Guillén: I was amused to consider he was an honorary member of the Rat Pack.
Adachi: They definitely knew him. Jack was somebody who carried himself with that level of ability and confidence. That's why when you see his work in Barney Miller, it's very subtle. Even in Valentine's Day. The first time I watched these I thought, "These are dumb '60s shows" but the more I watched them—the more I watched his facial reactions—after two or three times I thought, "Whoa. Wait a minute." This guy really worked for the effect he achieved in even small scenes of Barney Miller. Not everyone could pull that off. It took a tremendous amount of—not only acting ability—but confidence to be able to pull those scenes off without looking silly or being a buffoon.
Guillén: I admire his balance. Cognizant of and not meaning to demean his Japanese descent, one of the things that impresses me most about Jack Soo is what I would qualify as his truly American sense of comic hipness. As an Asian American performer he did that before anyone else and precisely with the flair of confidence you're describing.
Adachi: He refused to do roles that required an accent. I think there's only one that I've seen where he sort of has an accent. What I was told was that—because he was an English major—he was particular about English. He would correct people when they would say something grammatically incorrect, just as a way of joking with people. As Hal Kanter says from Valentine's Day, Jack refused to play subservient roles. He said, "No. I'm not going to do that. That's not who I am." At one point he said, "Yeah, sure, the Japanese gardener, sure there's this there's that, but we don't need to only portray ourselves in that way." He was adamant about being a person who was seen as an American. Even now you see so many actors—and we talked about this in The Slanted Screen—who are Asian Americans portraying foreign-born. You still see very few of them playing American-born characters. And here's Jack in 1964—or even 1961 in Flower Drum Song—playing an all Asian American character.
Guillén: Now that You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story is edging towards completion and its festival premiere, has Jack's daughter seen the film and does she approve?
Adachi: She saw the rough cut and loved it. Certainly I would have loved to have made this film 30 years ago to interview Jack directly. Even 20 years ago there were plenty of people like Tony Franciosa and Danny Arnold who were still alive who would have been great to interview. But somehow it feels right that we're making the film at this time.
Guillén: That's what I would say. I can understand why you're saying that because any documentarian would prefer access to primary sources; but, the fact that you have endeavored such cultural recovery is in and of itself inspiring, let alone that the story you have brought forth is inspiring.
Adachi: There were plenty of times when I thought, "Man, I don't have a film here. I'm wasting everyone's time." And then at certain points someone would say something or they'd lead me to someone else, and I'd think, "Hey, this story can be told."
Guillén: You should take pride in knowing you will reacquaint many people with Jack Soo.
Adachi: I'm especially interested to see how the film affects young people who have no point of reference of knowing Jack Soo and whether they'll be any interest. I do believe that Jack's story holds contemporary value. But we'll see. That's why we named the film, You Don't Know Jack. I hope people see the film and I hope that people can take different things from his experience. I certainly did.
Of related interest is Harley Spiller's article "Late Night in the Lion's Den: Chinese Restaurant-Nightclubs in 1940s San Francisco" written for Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and available in PDF format.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.