Tomorrow night HBO premieres You Don’t Know Jack, a TV-movie featuring Al Pacino as Dr. Jack Kervorkian. According to Steve Weiss, director of the “No Festival Required” film series, it was strictly a coincidence that he scheduled his showing of You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story, for the following afternoon. It screens at 1 p.m. at Phoenix Art Museum, & is free. Director Jeff Adachi is scheduled to attend.
Running just over an hour, the film is a documentary account of the life of actor & comedian Jack Soo, best known as Detective Nick Yemana on TV’s Barney Miller. Soo was a master of the deadpan one-liner, & I’ve been a fan since I was a kid, still the movie’s title got it right: I didn’t know Jack.
As it turns out, he was born Goro Suzuki, the son of an Oakland, California tailor. Improbably tall for a Japanese (six feet), he was an athlete—baseball was his true love—& a talent-show-champion crooner as a teenager. In his early 20s when Pearl Harbor struck, he was imprisoned in the internment camps, & staged & performed in plays there for the entertainment of his fellow detainees. He was later released when he found work as nightclub comic & radio singer in Ohio, taking the name “Jack Soo” to pass as Chinese.
He starred in Flower Drum Song on Broadway, in the national road companies, & in the 1961 movie version. He costarred with Tony Franciosa on the sitcom Valentine’s Day in 1964, was a member of The Groundlings, & appeared in movies & episodic TV, eschewing &/or redefining stereotypical “funny Oriental” roles. He eventually landed the regular gig on Barney Miller, where he remained until his death, at 61, from esophageal cancer in 1979.
The message that emerges from Adachi’s film is that while being the lovably laconic member of the Barney Miller ensemble would be plenty all by itself, Jack Soo was much more than that. Jack Soo Was Cool. Jack Soo Kicked Ass. Jack Soo Rocked. Jack Soo was a hipster who exuded charisma—including, in his personal life, sexual & romantic charisma.
Adachi’s approach is straightforward, & some of his interview material—the talking heads range from costars to childhood friends—gets a bit repetitive & rambling; the speakers are understandably adoring but not always illuminating. Soo’s daughter, for instance, remarks that Soo wasn’t made bitter by his internment experiences, or at any rate didn’t show it if he was, which led me to wonder how well anyone knew Jack.
But the man’s life is fascinating, & the archival photos are wonderful. The clips of his work demonstrate how skillful he was—in a scene from Valentine’s Day we see him deadpanning his lines next to some other actor whose mugging & hamming looks embarrassing by contrast. Then Adachi shows us interview footage of actress Janet Waldo, noting that you had to be careful working with Soo, because he was so restrained & natural that if you hammed it up at all you’d look ridiculous.
Finally, here’s a showbiz tidbit that had never crossed my radar before—Soo was once under contract to Motown as a vocalist, & was the first male singer to record “For Once in My Life.” Berry Gordy eventually decided to release Stevie Wonder’s version instead, but Adachi presents two complete Soo recordings of the number, one with a schmaltzy ’50s-style orchestral arrangement, & then, under the end titles, a much better version accompanied by solo piano. It’s a strange effect: Soo’s baritone is lovely, yet it’s unmistakably Detective Yemana’s voice.
Adachi ends the film with a striking, exhilarating image—a photo of Soo with another, very different American icon, traditional racial roles reversed.