When you think of Kato from The Green Hornet the first person who comes to mind is Bruce Lee, right? Well, Keye Luke was kicking bad guy butt in the role over 25 years before that. He was the original Kato, originating the role in movie serials that began way back in 1940.
An uplifting short by up-and-coming filmmaker Timothy Tau, Keye Luke shows us the early years of one of Hollywood’s first Asian American success stories. The story is set amidst a fantasy backdrop of the long dead actor coming back to face his moment of judgment and told in a series of vignettes highlighting his career. The film gives us a look into the heart of a man who devoted himself fully to his craft with unwavering resolve in spite of the obstacles he faced.
Keye Luke briefly addresses the struggles of Asian Americans in the entertainment industry, but doesn’t bemoan them. Instead, Timothy Tau paints a portrait of a man who never allowed those roadblocks to deter him. The actor just charged ahead with a never-say-die outlook and became a staple of the entertainment industry.
While almost always the sidekick and rarely the star, Mr. Luke worked tirelessly from the mid-1930s until 1990 appearing in over 200 projects. There was a time when if a film or television show called for an Asian character, you could bet your last nickel Keye Luke was playing the role.
If you watch movies or television, chances are you’ve seen him. Many of you will remember him as the shopkeeper, Mr. Wing, in the Gremlins films. If you’re old like me or just a fan of classic TV you’ll remember him as blind Master Po from the TV series Kung Fu. He even appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek and was set to play Dr. Noonian Singh in Star Trek: The Next Generation, though health problems prohibited him from taking the role. Heck, he was even considered for the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars!
Keye Luke was everywhere, man.
The film serves as both a tribute to this groundbreaking Asian American actor and as a message of encouragement to all aspiring artists, no matter who they are. Keye Luke is a perfect example of how passion and perseverance can overcome almost any obstacle. I came away from this film imbued with the same sense of optimism that Keye Luke himself seemed to carry in his heart and that was, along with immeasurable talent, an undeniable reason for his long-lived success.
Currently making the festival circuit and winning awards as it goes, Keye Luke is not yet available for public viewing. Keep your eyes focused on Three If By Space and the links below for the latest on this gem that shines a long overdue light on the tireless work of one of entertainment’s greatest artists.
I’d like to leave you with a little behind-the-scenes video about how the score for the Green Hornet segment of the film was made. The segment devoted to those serials features a jazzy twist on Flight of the Bumblebee entitled Flight of the Hornet which sounds perfectly authentic for the 1940s, but was actually composed and performed by the very talented George Shaw. Watch him work the heck out of a clarinet and check out his web page GeorgeShawMusic.com for more great compositions.