The first time we saw Jack Soo appear on MAS*H, he’s fanning himself with a large cream paper fan while donning an alpaca sweater with a kerchief tied around his neck, the picture of pawn shop luxury.
The episode is called “To Market, To Market,” and it’s the second episode of the entire series. That means there was a lot of pressure from critics and fans alike wondering if this next episode would live up to the comedy of the pilot.
In “To Market, To Market,” Hawkeye and Trapper John try to reclaim medical supplies stolen from the camp and sold on the black market.
Jack Soo plays the underground merchant Charlie Lee.
In his first encounter with the MAS*H surgeons, Charlie Lee doesn’t seem at all sorry for the heist the boys describe. In his world, he didn’t take their supplies, and a deal’s a deal. His deal for them is that they can either match the $10,000 for the supplies they need, or they can forget it.
There’s a lot of physical comedy in this scene that buffs out any expectation of tension, and the prime source of laughs is Soo. He’s perfect in the role and that’s probably because it was, in fact, written for him.
“To Market, To Market” was written by Burt Styler, a TV writer who won an Emmy for an episode of All in the Family that aired the same year. But this was the only episode he ever wrote for MAS*H.
“I was a freelance writer, sort of a hired gun,” Styler said in an interview recorded in TV’s MAS*H: The Ultimate Guide Book. “In the early days of the show, my agent set me up with a meeting with a one-script commitment.”
Before the meeting, Styler got to view the pilot before anybody else in America. Then, he got called in to meet with the co-creators and pitch his best ideas for what episodes should come next.
“I told them a couple of thoughts for shows, among them was the concept of dealing in the black market for medicine,” Styler said.
MAS*H TV creators Larry Gelbert and Gene Reynolds were sold on the black market idea, so Styler worked out the script, and he said that when he was writing the character of Charlie Lee, he knew he had to at least try to get producers to get Soo to do the part.
“I not only had Jack Soo in mind when I wrote the character of the black marketeer, I suggested him to Gene and Larry,” Styler said. “As I recall it, they weren’t too familiar with his work. I was happy they hired him.”
By the time Soo appeared on MAS*H, the year was 1972. He’d consistently appeared in TV and movies since his memorable debut in the 1961 movie Flower Drum Song.
Because Flower Drum Song played often on TV, and because Soo started doing his comedy act on variety shows, over time, he just became a more and more familiar face to TV audiences.
“I milked Flower Drum Song for the next 16 years,” Soo told The San Francisco Examiner in 1978. He said the royalties from that movie alone put his three kids through college.
His acting coach John Kirby didn’t think Soo was sitting around milking anything. He recalled in the 2009 Jack Soo documentary You Don’t Know Jack that unlike many character actors who either quit after a while or sullenly accept boring work forever, Soo was always pushing himself to do more with each role to edge closer to the spotlight.
“Jack Soo never gave up,” Kirby said. “Throughout his life, as a young man and on and on till the end of his life, he always kept going forward, improving his work and doing what he loved to do.”
But Soo said it wasn’t his determination that got him cast in his biggest TV role on Barney Miller. It was being a Good Samaritan.
In 1976, Soo told The Honolulu Star-Bulletin that he remembered there was one cold morning in Illinois when he came upon this comic named Danny Arnold, who at that time had the “lousiest nightclub act in the world.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, Arnold also had a flat tire and not a wit to fix it.
Soo helped him fix the flat, and when he was done, Arnold offered him $10 as payment.
“I wouldn’t let him pay me back because I wanted him to be obligated to me for the rest of his life,” Soo joked.
Before driving off, Arnold swore to Soo, “Someday, I’m gonna be a writer-producer, and you’re gonna work for me.”
Soo said, oh sure, but years later, when Arnold co-created the series Barney Miller, he did end up fulfilling his end of the bargain.
“He hired me because it was a part that fit my bag,” Soo told The Cincinnati Enquirer Sun in 1975.
He said he liked that his Barney Miller character, detective Nick Yemana, was so “inscrutable.”
The next time that Soo appeared on MAS*H came two months after his introduction on Barney Miller, so viewers who watched both shows likely delighted extra watching “Payday” in 1975.
In “Payday,” Soo plays Kim Chung Quoc, a peddler of jewelry of dubious origins.
Perhaps we can consider “Payday” as pay-off for the potential Soo showed in “To Market, To Market”?
As one reviewer in The Star Press wrote about that first episode that Soo appeared in: “Soo’s character, Charlie Lee, thinks like the surgeons, and he deserves another show.”