The Minimalist Genius of Jack Soo

Good Lord — I just had the horrifying realization that if Jack Soo were alive today he would be 102 years old! Memory has preserved the actor at his last age, his early 60s, and he will never be anything else. Soo had that happy, enviable experience of reaching his greatest heights in his final years, leaving on a high note, as it were. But the Japanese American actor had been on screens big and small for decades when he shuffled off this mortal coil.

Born Goro Suzuki in 1917, he was the child of immigrant parents, and born in the middle of the Pacific during a trip home so that Jack would be born in Japan. Raised and educated in Oakland, California, as a young man he was interned at an American detention camp during World War II. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s Soo performed as a singer and comedian in nightclubs, finally achieving his breakthrough when he was cast in the original 1958 production of Flower Drum Song, and then the film version in 1961. He had a role in the all-star 1963 comedy Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?, and then co-starred with Tony Franciosa in the 1964 sitcom Valentine’s Day, which ran one season on ABC. Then came the films The Oscar (1966), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and The Green Berets (1969), and guest shots on TV shows like Julia, Hawaii Five-0, The Odd Couple, The Jimmy Stewart Show, M*A*S*H, Ironside, Police Story, and Police Woman

There were a lot of cop shows in that mix, though he was usually cast as a bad guy. Finally, in 1975 he was cast in the role he’ll be best remembered for, that of Detective Sergeant Nick Yemana on the sitcom Barney Miller. The main running gag associated with his character was that he made epically terrible coffee (yet he was always the one who made it). His other major trait was that he gambled on sports and horse races. But what Soo was especially prized for by fans was his deadpan way of delivering a line. He seemed at once so natural (as in naturalistic, almost like a non-actor), and yet was so expert at timing, and so oddball, that his little moments were often devastatingly hilarious. Something would be going on, and Soo would interject something from out of left field, uttered in the quiet, placid way, and it would bring down the house. His part in the ensemble was a key ingredient on the show. Barney Miller’s creator Danny Arnold had known Soo from his nightclub days and had crafted the part especially for him.

Sadly, Soo died of cancer in early 1979, removing (along with the departures of Gregory Sierra and Abe Vigoda) one of the qualities that made the show so special. According to show biz legend, Soo’s last words, spoken to Barney Miller star Hal Linden and uttered just before going into surgery, were “Must have been the coffee.”