Todd Gault's Movie Serial Experience

Todd Gault's Film Serial Experience: Movie serials, cliffhangers and reviews. A gallery of movie serial stars.
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"Charlie Chan at the Opera"; 1936

Keye Luke, one of the greatest character actors, had a career that spanned over fifty years. Ironically he never intended to be an actor. He was originally an artist for 20th Century Fox doing portraits and publicity drawings for advertisements. He got his start when the producer of “Flying Down to Rio” (1933) planned to do a remake set in Shanghai with Anna May Wong and Luke. Though the film never got beyond the planning stages Luke appeared in “Mad Love” (1935) with Peter Lorre before he was cast in the role he is most known for today. Starting with “Charlie Chan in Paris” (1935) Luke played Number One son Lee Chan, earnest and comedy relief helper to Warner Oland’s Oriental detective. Luke would portray the character in the next seven more Chan films. When Oland died in 1937 Luke dropped out of the series for a myriad of reasons, most notable being that he felt no one else could really be Charlie Chan.

After playing Lee Chan one final time in the non Chan film “Mr. Moto’s Gamble” (1938), Luke became a free lance actor. A great deal of his work in the forties was for low budget poverty row studios appearing in such films as the Frankie Darro/ Mantan Moreland mysteries “The Gang’s All Here” (1940) and “Let’s Go Collegiate” (1941), The East Side Kids’ comedy “Bowery Blitzkrieg” (1941), and taking over for Boris Karloff in the final Mr. Wong film “Phantom of Chinatown” (1940). Among his other forties work are appearances in “No, No Nannette” (1940), “The Falcon’s Brother” (1942), “Across the Pacific” (1942), and ‘Invisible Agent” (1942).

It was during this time that he became a regular fixture in Universal’s serials. Starting with “The Green Hornet” (1939), where he played side kick Kato helping the masked hero fight a group of ruthless gangsters. Luke appeared in four more serials through the mid-forties. After fighting more gangsters as Kato in the sequel “The Green Hornet Strikes Again” (1940), he also played side kicks in “The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack” (1942) helping to search for a secret path from China to India; “Secret Agent X-9” (1945) helping to keep a secret synthetic fuel out of Nazi hands; and “Lost City of the Jungle” (1946) where he tried to keep Lionel Atwill from getting Meteorium 245, the only known defense against the Atom Bomb . Then something amazing happened. He returned to the role of Lee Chan. The series was now being done at Monogram and featured Roland Winters as Charlie Chan, who took over the role after the death of Sidney Toler. Luke appeared in “The Feathered Serpent” (1948) and “The Sky Dragon” (1948), after which the series ended.

Luke continued working steadily, appearing in films like “Battle Hell” (1956), “Noon Sunday” (1971), and “The Amsterdam Kill” (1978). It was also during this time he began working as a voice actor in cartoons, supplying the voice of Brak for “Space Ghost” among others. He also played Charlie Chan in the Scooby-Doo style cartoon “Charlie Chan and the Chan Clan”. His other major TV work included a semi regular part on “Harry-O” and a major role on “Kung Fu”. The eighties saw him appear in films like “Gremlins” (1984), “Dead Heat” (1988), and “The Mighty Quinn” (1989). His final film appearance was in the Woody Allen drama “Alice” (1990), he died soon after filming ended.

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