The Mysterious Suicide of Sammee Tong

Chinese-American character actor Sammee Tong (1901-1964) was a staple of films (and later television) for three decades, normally in supporting roles as cooks, servants, houseboys, and the like. At the height of his fame, he took his own life for reasons that remain murky,

Tong was raised in San Francisco and Honolulu and graduated from Stanford University. Determined to break into show business, he formed an act called The Three Celestials. With partners and as a solo (singing and telling jokes) he worked vaudeville and nightclubs on the Chop Suey Circuit in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, including the Los Angeles Orpheum.

The Captain Hates the Sea (1934), a kind of all-star Love Boat prototype, was his first film. Other pictures form his early years include Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), The Good Earth (1937), Think Fast Mr. Moto (1937), West of Shanghai (1937), Daughter of Shanghai (1937), and Only Angels Have Wings (1939). In 1939 he became director entertainment at the Chinese Village at the San Francisco World’s Fair. In the ’40s he worked mostly in radio.

In the ’50s Tong’s career went into high gear thanks to lots of work on television. Starting in 1955 he was a regular on the Spin and Marty chapter series on The Mickey Mouse Club. This led to regular roles as sidekicks on two sitcoms: Bachelor Father (1957-62) with John Forsythe, and Mickey (1964) with Mickey Rooney. At the same time, he appeared in several films, including It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), For Those Who Think Young (1964), and the Tony RandallShirley Jones comedy Fluffy (1965).

Remember Rooney’s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)? And Randall’s in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)? I wonder what Tong thought of them, if he wished the roles had been his, and not quite as heinous? And what it was like to later work with these guys, who had given pretty disrespectful characterizations of Asians, to put it mildly. Tong and Rooney were supposed to have been friends, but human interaction is not without levels. We can only speculate, and I consider it more than appropriate to do so.

In 1964, Tong committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates. Notes left at the scene offered no explanation. The only light that has been shed comes from Rooney’s memoirs, which claim that Tong had racked up massive gambling debts with the mob, and was terrified by his inability to repay since the cancellation of Mickey seemed imminent.  That doesn’t sound implausible, but bear in mind it’s hearsay, and only one source. What is certain however is that it was a sad exit, unfortunate in its prematurity, for audiences clearly loved him.

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To learn more about vaudeville, where Sammee Tong got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.