Keye Luke was born in Guangzhou, China on June 18th 1904, to a father who owned an art shop. Luke grew up with four siblings (his younger brother Edwin Luke also became an actor in the Charlie Chan series) and the family later emigrated from China to California during the Great Depression. Eventually settling in Seattle, Luke attended Franklin High School, where he contributed cartoons and illustrations to school publications. Luke was a relative of Washington assistant attorney-general Wing Luke, for whom Seattle’s Wing Luke Asian Museum was named.
Luke initially became an artist and worked on several of the murals inside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. He also did some of the original artwork for the 1933 King Kong pressbook. Luke also painted the casino’s mural in The Shanghai Gesture. Luke published a limited edition set of pen and ink drawings of The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam in the 1950s. He also created illustrations for the books The Unfinished Song of Achmed Mohammed by Earle Liederman, Blessed Mother Goose by Frank Scully and an edition of Messer Marco Polo by Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne. Other art done by Luke included the dust jackets for books published in the 1950s and 1960s. It was through his studio art work that he was recruited for his first movie roles.
Luke debuted on the big screen in 1934 with roles in The Painted Veil and Happiness Ahead. In 1935 Luke was cast as “Number One Son” Lee Chan in Charlie Chan in Paris, he would reprise this role over the years in Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936), Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937), Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937), Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937), and Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938); in 1972 Luke would later get to voice Charlie Chan in the cartoon series The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan.
Outside of his Charlie Chan movies Luke also appeared in Oil for the Lamps of China, Mad Love, Shanghai, and Barricade. In 1940 Luke played Kato in the original version of The Green Hornet. He would return to The Green Hornet twenty-six years later in the 1966 episode The Preying Mantis as Mr. Chang.
Further roles followed in Coronet Blue, Family Affair, Dragnet 1967, The Big Valley, Space Ghost, Project X, The Outsider, Star Trek, The Most dangerous Man in the World, Hawaii FIVE-0, Scooby Doo Where Are You!, Adam-12, Anna and the King, and Enter the Dragon.
In 1972 (and up until 1975) Luke was cast as Master Po in the television series Kung Fu. In the pilot episode Kwai Chang Caine’s (David Carradine) beloved mentor and elder, Master Po (Luke), is murdered by the Emperor’s nephew; outraged, Caine retaliates by killing the nephew. With a price on his head, Caine flees China to the western United States, where he seeks to find his family roots and, ultimately, his half-brother, Danny Caine. Master Po then features throughout the series in flashbacks teaching Caine, his “grasshopper,” specific lessons in his childhood training in the Shaolin monastery from his teachers.
In the late 1970’s Luke was considered for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope before Alec Guinness was cast. Luke continued working across a number of hit television shows including Cannon, Quincey M.E., Hunter, Vega$, How the West Was Won, Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo, The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show, Battle of the Planets, Thundarr the Barbarian, Charlie’s Angels, M*A*S*H, Unit 4, Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, Goldie Gold and Action Jack, Bret Maverick, Remington Steele, Magnum, P.I., Falcon Crest, Mister T., Alvin & the Chipmunks, The A-Team, and The New Mike Hammer.
“I have played so many doctors and characters in the mainstream. Because of my appearance, or because of my personality, or whatever it may be, I was always put into good Boy Scout roles — lawyers, doctors, business executives and tycoons, the nice Chinese guy down the block.”
In 1984 Luke was cast as Mr. Wing, the old Chinese grandfather in the movie Gremlins. He spun Mr. Wing off into an anti-drink driving advert and would later reprise this role in the 1990 sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
As the 1980’s continued, Luke’s forty plus year career (at that point) was showing no signs of slowing down with roles in Trapper John, M.D., Miami Vice, Street Hawk, Blade in Hong Kong, Crazy Like a Fox, Jem, Kung Fu: The Movie, T.J. Hooker, A Fine Mess, Johnny Quest, The Golden Girls, Sidekicks, Night Court, Friday 13th: The Series, Beauty and the Beast, Dead Heat, MacGyver, The Mighty Quinn, The Smurfs, Superboy, and Alice.
In 1990, Luke was considered for the role of Dr. Noonian Soong in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Brothers but unfortunately was too ill to film the role. Brent Spiner ended up taking on the role. On December 5th 1990 Luke was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7000 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California. Sadly, Luke died of a stroke on January 12th 1991, at the age of 86. He is buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.
“To me, theater is an art. It’s the art of make-believe. If an actor can cast aside his own personality and create a character that you, the audience, can believe in and buy, my hat’s off to him.”