You Don't Know Jack Soo tells the fascinating story of a pioneering American entertainer Jack Soo, an Oakland native who became the first Asian American to be cast in the lead role in a regular television series Valentine's Day (1963), and later starred in the popular comedy show Barney Miller (1975-1978).
Featuring rare footage and interviews with Soo’s co-stars and friends, including actors George Takei, Nancy Kwan and Max Gail, the late comedian Steve Landesberg, Groundlings founder Gary Austin, and producer Hal Kanter, the film traces Jack's early beginnings as a nightclub singer and comedian, to his breakthrough role as Sammy Fong in Rogers and Hammerstein's Broadway play and film version of The Flower Drum Song. The film also explores why Soo, a former internee who was actually born Goro Suzuki, was forced to change his name in the post WWII era, in order to perform in clubs in the mid-west. Because of his experiences, throughout his career in films and television, Soo refused to play roles that were demeaning to Asian Americans and often spoke out against negative ethnic portrayals.
The 30-minute film tells Jack Soo's story through a montage of film and television clips, rare footage, interviews with family members, friends, co-workers, and others who knew him best. From his early appearances on programs such as The Jack Benny Show and Valentine's Day, Soo's life is examined both in the historical context of the times, and the grandeur of an earlier Hollywood where stars like Soo succeeded in a multitude of artistic mediums, reminiscent of vaudevillian times. From Soo's early training as an announcer and stand-up comic, to his singing, acting and dancing career on Broadway, culminating with his signature role as Detective Nick Yemana, Soo's unique talent and dedication to his craft are fully explored and captured through a fascinating presentation of images, music, montages, interviews and stories.
Soo also experienced overt racism and discrimination as one of the few Japanese American entertainers of the post-WWII era. In an interview with TV Guide in 1977, Soo said that he refused roles of houseboys and gardeners because he didn't want to portray Asians only in that way. As Soo explained, "I'm not putting down domestics. If it hadn’t been for our first-generation Japanese Americans, who were houseboys and gardeners, there could never have been the second-generation doctors, architects — and actors. I just didn't want to play domestics on a stage."
Film historian and New York Times film critic Lewis Beale shares his opinions on Soo's work and how, as a performer, Soo injected his life experience into what he called "verbal ethnicity." One of his most famous scenes in Barney Miller illustrates this technique. As Soo described it, "a fella says to me, 'You shouldn't squint so.' I say, "I'm not squinting.' And, not moving a muscle, then I say, 'This is a squint!'"
Directed by Jeff Adachi, whose award-winning film The Slanted Screen was featured on PBS national in 2007, You Don't Know Jack Soo reveals how Jack Soo's work laid the groundwork for a new generation of Asian American actors and comedians. Jack Soo won the best documentary award at the Accolade Film Festival and the Grand Festival Award at the Berkeley Film & Video Festival in 2010.