“If you can’t spot quality, who needs you?”
That’s one of the earliest lines the great Golden Age actor Keye Luke utters in the first of three guest appearances on M*A*S*H. It sums up Luke’s career, though, as one of the most memorable and influential Asian-American character actors of all time. If you don’t know his name, you probably know his work.
In the sixth season M*A*S*H episode “Patent 4077,” Luke plays Mr. Shin, a merchant who turns out to be a master craftsman capable of creating a surgical clamp that Hawkeye and B.J. desperately need.
In his first scene, he taunts the boys into first buying rings and then commissioning the clamp. For those watching who recognized the famous actor, the cajoling tone the actor takes likely added an extra layer of comedy, coming from the actor who played the blind, soothing Master Po to “Grasshopper” David Carradine on Kung Fu from 1972 to 1975.
For Luke, who in his real life was deeply spiritual, taking on characters where he could mold unique personalities that resonated with viewers was the only kind of work he wanted to do.
“A Hindu sage once said we’re all fragments of the eternal, playing for a while as individual personalities,” Luke told The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1973. “And while you play, you might as well realize your potential because, as one philosopher said, the rest is silence.”
As Master Po, Luke wore makeup to appear older and padded robes to appear larger. On M*A*S*H, you can see his smaller frame, his younger face, and more pep. Luke said transporting himself through time, through his art, made him feel more alive.
“In my opinion, I have just begun to scratch the surface of art, music, literature, and theater,” Luke said. “It’s wonderful to keep the mind interested and active. An author once described the epitaph for a Chinese character named Ah-Loy as, ‘He was not old, he was not young. His years were merely a clarity of the spirit.'”
Luke was born in China, but his family moved to the United States when he was three years old, settling in Seattle. He wasn’t pursuing acting at all when he was cast in his first role. Instead, he was making advertising art for Grauman’s Chinese Theater. His boss saw a star in him, though, and introduced him to the studio casting director, hyping up Luke out of sincere belief in his talent, “from out of China’s 400 million souls, I give you that country’s greatest actor.”
On the big screen, he nabbed two iconic roles, as “Number One Son” Lee Chan in the Charlie Chan films and as Kato in the original 1940 superhero film serial The Green Hornet.
At least one person on M*A*S*H was geeked to have Luke onset. On his blog, M*A*S*H writer Ken Levine name-dropped Keye Luke as one of the coolest people he met working on the show, citing hundreds of roles the actor performed. Levine was involved in writing two of Luke’s three guest spots.
“What was fun was meeting veteran actors like Keye Luke who had been in tons of movies and shows,” Levine wrote, adding, “He had amazing stories.”
In addition to the master craftsman of “Patient 4077,” Luke treated M*A*S*H fans to two more characters, each the polar opposite of the other. In “A Night at Rosie’s,” he’s a gambler hustling the room, and in “Death Takes a Holiday,” he’s a priest running an orphanage at Christmas.
Luke lived through the Golden Age of Hollywood and stunning everyone became one of its brightest stars. In an interview published in the 2016 book Conversations with Classic Film Stars, the veteran character actor said through all his timeless work onscreen, he remained in awe of both the past and present.
“I don’t live in the past, but I glory in the past. I think it’s beautiful and the memories are golden and fragrant,” Luke said. “But I’m more interested in life today. I find it’s still miraculous and full of wonders.”