To celebrate May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the AHC would like to feature the life and career of Chinese American actor Richard Loo.
Loo was born in Maui, Hawaii, in 1903. As a young man he moved to the mainland to continue his education, studying foreign trade at the University of California at Berkeley. Upon graduation, he pursued a career in an import-export business, but his company met hard times and failed during the Great Depression.
Loo turned his attentions to the stage, with his first acting job at a small theatre in San Francisco. His role was as a Chinese-speaking rickshaw driver, but he knew no Chinese. He overcame this obstacle by memorizing a Chinese menu, shouting out the names of Chinese dishes in his scene.
Loo’s first speaking role on film was as a farmer in The Good Earth. The movie was an adaptation of Pearl Buck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel by the same name. The 1937 drama followed the lives of Chinese farmers struggling to survive.
During and after World War II, Loo made a name for himself playing Japanese villains in film. His next major success came in the movie The Purple Heart, where he was cast as Japanese General Matsubi, a part for which he had to shave his head. It was a significant role for Loo and at the time, considered a breakthrough in casting an Asian for an Asian role. Often, white actors were made up in yellowface to appear Asian, taking on Asian character roles.
The Purple Heart was part of a series of wartime propaganda films that portrayed the Japanese in stereotypical fashion. It was loosely based on the capture, trial and execution of eight U.S. airmen by the Japanese during World War II. The movie was released in 1944 and was controversial for the degree to which the storyline followed the harsh interrogation and torture techniques employed by the Japanese. The U.S. government feared retaliation by the Japanese military over the content of the film.
Following the war, Loo had so many requests to play the role of a Japanese villain that he had to turn down parts. His daughter, Beverly Loo, recounted that her father “was known as the man who died to make a living. He was always stabbing himself or committing hara-kiri or kamikaze”. Despite his typecast roles, Loo took a patriotic pride in his performances in his many war-themed films.
From the 1940s through the 1970s, he appeared in more than 200 movies and added television performances to his repertoire. If an Asian character was called for, Loo was usually the one the producers phoned. In the 1968 comedy western TV series Here Come the Brides he was cast alongside a young Bruce Lee. Loo took the role of the aged patriarch, Chi Pei, of the Chinese Green Lantern Society.
Loo’s last film was The Man with the Golden Gun, a 1974 James Bond movie. He played the role of a Thai capitalist, Hai-Fat, who bankrolled the villain, Francisco Scaramanga. Like many films, it was shot abroad. Loo’s work as an actor took him around the world, from Los Angeles, to London and Bangkok. Loo remarked “I have learned the value of travel… have learned to know and understand people living in other parts of the world. No other profession could provide the same wide experiences.”
Following his death in 1983, Loo’s papers were donated to the American Heritage Center. You can visit the AHC and pour through hundreds of film and television scripts where you can learn more about the many characters played by Richard Loo.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.